Michael Cummings

APSC

What Does a Public Service Commission Do, Anyway?

Lately, the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) has received a ton of attention around these parts. So you might be wondering, what does a public service commission do, anyway?

If you only read this blog, you might think the Alabama PSC was our nemesis or something – a regulatory Joker to our energy-industry-disrupting Batman. (No? Well, just humor us for a moment, k?) First, we told you about some comments we made for the PSC’s recent proceeding about EV charging stations. Then we told you about how we’re joining forces with some other advocates in calling for a public PSC hearing over some big Alabama Power tax savings. And most recently, we shared how some others have filed a complaint over a PSC-related solar tax. Whew.

The reality is that the PSC isn’t our nemesis at all. We just happen to disagree with a few policy positions they’ve taken. Honest! Our hope is that, through our advocacy for renewable energy, the PSC will adopt more progressive policies in regards to energy. That’s all.

But here’s the thing. Since we’ve been talking about the PSC so much lately, we’ve heard one question more than any other. What, exactly, is the purpose of a public service commission?

 

‘To Ensure Regulatory Balance’

Here’s the elevator pitch, straight from the Alabama the Alabama PSC website: “To ensure a regulatory balance between regulated companies and consumers in order to provide consumers with safe, adequate and reliable services at rates that are equitable and economical.”

What does that mean? It means the PSC is supposed to regulate monopolies like electric utilities (read: companies like Alabama Power). The idea is that it’s fine for a utility to operate without competition – you know, as a monopoly – because of the huge amount of infrastructure needed to deliver electricity or water. Think about how enormous the power grid is. It wouldn’t make sense to have multiple power grids in one town, would it? Many public service commissions regulate other monopolies like telecoms and natural gas companies.

But while it makes sense for utilities to function as government-backed monopolies, oversight is still needed. After all, they are still monopolies. And unchecked monopolies do not have a great reputation for doing the public good. (Think airlines, cable companies, Microsoft in the 1990s, your brother when he owns Park Place and Boardwalk, etc.)

 

Serving YOU

That’s where the PSC comes in. In theory, the PSC ensures that consumers enjoy reliable service while paying a fair rate for it. There’s more to it than that, but you get the idea. In Alabama, the PSC has three members: Two Associate Commissioners and one President. All three won their seats in statewide elections, and two of them are up for re-election in 2018. That means they serve YOU.

So it only makes sense (it does to us at least) to call out the Alabama PSC and Alabama Power for something like that solar tax mentioned above. And it makes complete sense to call for complete transparency in PSC decision-making, like the Alabama Power tax savings. After all, the PSC exists to serve consumers, not just utilities. We elected them. Now we should put them to work.

What do you think? What would you like to see the Alabama PSC – or any PSC – accomplish the next time it meets? You should tell them. 

Contact the Commission President Today!

Energy Alabama Provides Comments for Public Service Commission on EV Charging Stations

Energy Alabama, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center and Gasp, provided comments to the Alabama Public Service Commission regarding its Proceeding to Determine the Commission’s Jurisdiction Over Electric Vehicle Charging Stations.

Our comments included two important points for the Commission to consider:

  1. An entity owning and/or operating an Electric vehicle charging station (EVCS) should not be subject to Title 37. In other words, these entities should not be under the jurisdiction of state utility regulators. This position represents the consensus among all commenting parties in the proceeding.
  2. Investments by Alabama Power in EVCS should maximize public benefits.

Concerning Alabama Power’s investments in the electric vehicle charging space, we included two further points:

  1. The Commission should require that utility investments in EV infrastructure provide net benefits to customers and promote EV adoption while still allowing a competitive market to develop. Ideally, the Commission should give utilities clear guideposts for these investments.
  2. We recommend that the Commission propose a technical conference or other forum where rate design questions can be explored further with respect to EV charging stations.

Our full comments can be found here: https://alcse.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/2018-01-26-SELC-Reply-Commments-Re-EVCS.pdf

Why Your Utility Bill Is So High (And What to Do About It)

It’s wintertime, and let’s face it: Your utility bill is going to be high this time of year. Even so, you might still be frustrated with your utility company when you get a bill that’s three or four times higher than normal. But before you call up your provider and give them a piece of your mind, see if this scenario sounds familiar.

OK, so you just checked the thermostat. It’s 12 degrees outside. Twelve! Meanwhile, you’re freezing inside your house because you’ve lowered your thermostat all the way to 66. You’re covered with blankets. You’re doing your best to save energy and… your bill is still crazy high.

Right, we get it. Us too. First things first: No, your utility company hasn’t raised their rates very suddenly. But yes, you should still call them and raise some hell.

We’ll get to why later. In the meantime, let’s go over a few of the many reasons your bill is so insane right now.

Related: How to Read Your Utility Bill.

 

Baby It’s Cold Outside!

Duh. It’s cold. Very cold, even here in Alabama. But what does that mean for you?

All houses have leakage points. Some houses are worse than others. Some, especially older homes, leak LOTS of that precious warm air during the wintertime. That’s a bad thing.

If possible, try to add some insulation to your house. Here’s a handy guide from Energy.gov. While you’re at it, seal off any leaky ductwork. (Yeah, that will involve venturing into the crawl space. Yeah, it’s a bit creepy down there. The good news is, you can hire someone to do it!)

Anywhere you’re losing heated air to the outside, it’s costing you a lot of money. And the colder it is outside, the problem gets exponentially worse. So get it fixed. Fortunately, these are pretty cheap and easy jobs. You’ll make your money back quickly. (When we say quickly, we mean within 2 years.)

 

Auxiliary Heat Mode and Your Utility Bill

Pop quiz time. Do you know how your heating system works? Do you know what a heat pump is? Is it running on auxiliary mode?

If you said ‘no’ to any of those questions, we have good news and bad news. The good news is that you don’t have to know exactly how your system works. If you’re curious, there are loads of YouTube videos that can give you a crash course. The bad news is that, if your heat pump is running on auxiliary mode (or aux heat), that’s gonna cost you some serious dough.

When the temperature outside reaches a certain point (around the freezing point), your thermostat will automatically turn on auxiliary mode. This turns on electric heat strips for additional heat. It’s kinda like blasting your oven on high. All through your house.

That’s understandable when it’s really, really cold outside. You gotta stay warm. Just make sure the auxiliary heat (or emergency heat) setting isn’t always on. You also want your heat pump to keep working even while the auxiliary heat is on. To do this, have a professional come out twice a year to check that your HVAC is in working order.

If you’re not having regular maintenance completed by a certified technician, chances are your equipment may not be working as designed. And here’s the problem: You may not even know! Just because it’s warm inside your house doesn’t mean the system is really working the right way. Remember that high bill?

Unfortunately, this might be a somewhat pricey fix if something is wrong. But in the long run, fixing the problem is better than overpaying every single month.

So Can I Still Give Someone a Piece of My Mind?

Yes! It’s true that your utility company didn’t suddenly change your rates. However, their rate structure is set up in a way that penalizes you when things get rough.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your utility company offered a slightly lower rate at times when it’s especially hot or cold outside? That would obviously help lots of customers who feel the pinch this time of year. Then, when the temperature is milder, they could charge a higher rate to make up for it. We think everybody would benefit in this scenario. Your utility MAY offer budget billing and if so, you should check out that option.

Another option would be for utility companies to invest in energy efficiency programs that help real people. Wouldn’t it be nice if your provider offered a program to make your home more energy efficient so you could fix all the problems we listed above? We think so, too. Then you wouldn’t need special rates and billing processes.

They know these problems are out there. But these types of programs are few and far between in Alabama. So call your utility company, city council, the board of directors, and/or the Alabama Public Service Commission. Let them know how you feel. You might just make a difference for yourself and your community. 

So Who Exactly Do I Call?

That depends on where you live in Alabama.

North Alabama (serviced by TVA)

  • Call your local utility, who buys from TVA. This is usually a municipal utility, like Huntsville Utilities, or an electric cooperative, like Joe Wheeler EMC
  • If you have a municipal utility, call your city council and mayor. They ultimately control the utility.
  • If you have an electric cooperative, call your board of directors. This information can be found on their website.

Central Alabama (serviced by Alabama Power)

  • Call Alabama Power
    • 1-800-245-2244
  • Call the Alabama Public Service Commission
    • 1-800-392-8050

South Alabama (serviced by PowerSouth)

  • Call PowerSouth
    • 334-427-3000
  • If you have a municipal utility, call your city council and mayor. They ultimately control the utility.
  • If you have an electric cooperative, call your board of directors. This information can be found on their website.

 

 

Energy Use Intensity

Here’s What Energy Use Intensity Means, And Why Should You Care

To calculate an Energy Use Intensity (EUI) score, all you really need is a few key pieces of information and some basic math skills. Sure, you’ll have to learn what a kBtu is, but it’s really not as complicated as you might think.

To understand what you EUI means—well, that’s what we’re here to discuss today. But first, let’s practice those basic math skills as we walk through a quick scenario.

So, you have a building and you may or may not want to know its EUI. You’re not really sure what an EUI is, but you’ve heard it can be a valuable metric. (This is true, by the way. More on that later.) Great. First order of business: Find out how much energy your building uses per year.

Got it? Now divide that number by your building’s total area. The resulting number is your EUI. That’s it.

 

So What Does My Energy Use Intensity Mean?

Unlike an ENERGY STAR score, which runs from 1-100, a lower EUI number generally represents better performance. Just like an ENERGY STAR score, however, you’ll be able to compare your building to others that are similar in age and size. It just won’t be in the form of a percentile ranking.

Energy Use Intensity Chart

Some types of buildings will always have a lower EUI than others, as this chart from Energy.gov illustrates.

Some good news: At Energy.gov, Portfolio Manager will do all the math for you. So no matter which units you use to input your energy consumption and building area, you’ll be fine. At the end, Portfolio Manager will spit out a number expressed in kBtu/square feet.

(In plain English, a “kBtu” is one thousand British thermal units. So now you know, and it’s up to you to decide whether you’ll ever use that information again.)

But here’s the kicker: It’s possible to calculate an EUI for virtually any building. (That’s not the case with an ENERGY STAR score.) So if you’re taking the North Alabama Buildings Performance Challenge, calculating your building’s EUI could generate some seriously valuable energy-efficiency information for yourself and your company.

Even if your building doesn’t produce enough data for an ENERGY STAR score.

So basically, when you calculate your EUI, you’ll know how exactly how well you’re doing with your efficiency efforts. What’s more, you’ll be able to identify areas for improvement.

And most importantly, you’ll continue to make progress toward your overall goal of improving your building’s energy efficiency.

Understanding Energy Performance Contracting

Understanding Energy Performance Contracting

An investment in sustainability can take many shapes, but one unavoidable fact about today’s high-performance technologies is that they usually cost money to implementand most of the time, it’s all up front. But if you’ve been ruling out a sustainable solution for purely financial reasons, we’d like to introduce you to a concept you really ought to know about: Energy Performance Contracting.

It might just change your mind about sustainability. And it might just save you a whole lot of money, too.

Energy Performance Contracting, to borrow the Energy.gov’s phrasing, is a “budget-neutral” method for reducing energy and water consumption while increasing efficiency in your building. In other words, Energy Performance Contracting helps your building use less energy while creating zero negative effects on your bottom line.Understanding Energy Performance Contracting

“Normally offered by Energy Service Companies (ESCOs), this innovative financing technique allows building users to achieve energy savings without up front capital expenses,” notes HUD.gov. “The costs of the energy improvements are borne by the performance contractor and paid back out of the energy savings.”

You get the benefits, while somebody else shoulders the financial burden. Not bad, huh?

“Energy performance contracting isn’t the best choice for everyone. But it can be a major tool for many budget constricted companies or governments,” says Daniel Tait, CEO of Energy Alabama. “At the end of the day, don’t let upfront cost stop a project when you have a tool like energy performance contracting.”

 

So, Where To Start?

The process is surprisingly simple, as outlined here at EnergyStar.gov. First, you competitively select an Energy Service Company (ESCO). This part is completely up to you. Of course, we’re happy to help!

Once you’ve selected your contractor, the ESCO will develop and then execute an all-inclusive energy-saving plan for your facility. The project should include an introductory energy audit as well as some kind of Monitoring and Verification (M&V) process that ensures continued savings. Besides energy efficiency, the ESCO might also focus on water conservation and distributed generation, among other components.

With the plan in place, you’ll work with the ESCO to set up long-term financing through a third party. This could be an operating lease, municipal lease or something else entirely. The idea is that the improvements cost you nothing in capital expenditures up front.

(Lease-purchase agreements are probably the most common method for financing an Energy Performance Contracting project. If you want to know more, that link has plenty more information.)

 

Reaping the Rewards

Finally, the ESCO should offer you a guarantee that your project will pay for itself through the savings generated by that all-inclusive energy-saving plan we mentioned above.

It’s as easy as that. Boost efficiency. Save money. Reap the rewards.

So, what kinds of buildings are ideal for Energy Performance Contracting? Government facilities ara a good choice, since governments generally own their buildings long-term. This makes a 10- to 20-year financing term attractive. But really, any large building could be a good candidate. Hospitals, schools, corporate headquartersthese are just a few of the facilities that could benefit from Energy Performance Contracting.

For more information, or to learn how to get started, contact Energy Alabama CEO Daniel Tait by email at dtait@alcse.org.