University of Georgia
“It has been almost 10 years since natural gas has been deregulated,” said Cynthia Johnson, director of public affairs with the Georgia Public Service Commission. “But when asking consumers who their natural gas provider is, the answer is almost always the same: Atlanta Gas Light Company.”
That’s a problem, because AGL isn’t a provider. When problems arise, consumers need their natural gas marketers. This is where University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agents come in handy.
The UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences was granted a $1.9-million grant to educate Georgians on using natural gas in their homes.
“The grant was funded by Atlanta Gas Light Company, which is also working with the Georgia Public Service Commission,” said FACS associate dean Jorge Atiles. “It’s really designed to help consumers in choosing a gas marketer, understanding their bills and knowing exactly what they’re buying.”
Ten UGA Extension county FACS agents will be teaching consumers about safety practices, gas maintenance and preventing unnecessary disconnections in service. “The agents are spread all over the state,” Atiles said.
The information is aimed at everyone who uses natural gas. High-income, low-income and everyone in-between will have access to the educators.
For Johnson, this is great news, since she deals with consumers daily.
The relationship among UGA, AGL and the Georgia PSC is a “perfect partnership,” Johnson said. The grant money will enable more consumers to gain information in more effective ways.
“Typically, information about natural gas is printed in newspaper ads and on billboards and buses,” she said. “But people can walk by those without really noticing them. But the commission gave explicit instructions on what educators’ initiatives should look like.”
The grant will allow more face-to-face contact with consumers, she said, “from large gatherings with agents to one-on-one communication with households.”
“We’re taking a multilayer approach now,” Atiles said.
The information on how to help consumers with natural gas problems will still go out through the media and through UGA Extension offices. Atiles said they’re trying to get gas marketers to reach out more to their customers.
None of this is lost on Johnson, who said many people don’t know other options are available.
“We have elderly consumers on fixed $8,000 annual incomes with gas bills that can be more than $300 a month,” she said. “They don’t realize they’re eligible for discounts or that they can choose a provider with a lower rate.”
She points to other consumers who get disconnected after a late payment. “Once they finally pay the bill,” she said, “they find out they have a $200 bill for reactivation and reconnection.”
Many people don’t realize they have a right by law to set up a reasonable payment schedule so they can afford their bills, Johnson said.
“This grant with UGA will help us get these consumers educated (on their options),” Johnson said.
(Kristen Plank is a student writer for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)