Daniel Tait

Legal Petition Demands Tennessee Valley Authority Halt Electricity Shutoffs, Fund Debt Relief

For Immediate Release, August 25, 2020

Contact:

Howard Crystal, Center for Biological Diversity, (202) 809-6926, hcrystal@biologicaldiversity.org
Brianna Knisley, Appalachian Voices, (937) 725-0645, brianna@appvoices.org
Daniel Tait, Energy Alabama, (256) 812-1431, dtait@alcse.org
Isabella Killius, Sunrise Tennessee, (615) 762-6665, sunrisetennessee@gmail.com

WASHINGTON— Dozens of climate-justice organizations petitioned the Tennessee Valley Authority today to immediately impose a moratorium on electricity shutoffs in the region and fund debt relief for its customers.

The petition also calls on the massive utility company to accelerate the Valley’s clean energy transition to address compounding COVID-19 unemployment, climate and racial injustice crises.

“TVA has the responsibility and the money to prevent people from needless suffering and crushing debt,” said Howard Crystal, legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program. “The company can seize this opportunity to genuinely serve the public interest and become a model for other utility companies. TVA must acknowledge the environmental damage from its dirty energy choices and chart a new course toward a clean, democratic energy future.”

Congress has yet to impose a federal moratorium on utility shutoffs, leaving thousands of families in TVA’s service territory at risk of losing electricity during a summer of climate-induced, record heatwaves.

“In the face of a public health, environmental and economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression, we are calling on TVA to return to its original mission to improve quality of life here in the Tennessee Valley,” said Brianna Knisley, Tennessee campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices. “TVA can and should protect vulnerable communities from power shut offs, eliminate unnecessary and harmful coal ash production, and bring new, public jobs to the Valley. At the very least, our public utility should be reaching out to communities to better understand their issues and needs during these critical times.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and related unemployment crisis have brought severe economic strain to the Southeast, a region where low-income communities, Black communities and other communities of color are already disproportionately burdened by pollution, high energy bills and utility shutoffs.

“If TVA wants to get serious about reducing the burden of COVID-19 on residents in the Valley, it is time for TVA to get serious about strong energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, specifically for low-income customers,” said Daniel Tait, chief operating officer of Energy Alabama.

The petition urges TVA to reallocate its vast resources to help customers pay their bills and fund equitable economic recovery through clean energy and efficiency programs. This would require a series of public hearings, which the petition says should begin as soon as possible.

“In the midst of the pandemic, when people are unemployed and without basic needs like power, food, water, and broadband services, TVA has a responsibility to support its customers by instituting a moratorium on utility shut-offs, thus upholding its original mission to serve the people of the Tennessee Valley,” said Isabella Killius with Sunrise Tennessee. “This petition encapsulates the need for institutional change within the TVA such that customers are provided adequate relief and, in addition, necessary actions are taken to mitigate the ongoing climate crisis.”

TVA has the funding and the mandate to provide debt relief to residential customers, rapidly retire its fossil fuel infrastructure, and invest in clean, distributed energy and energy efficiency efforts. These efforts will create local jobs vital to the region’s economic recovery.

The petition is named in honor of S. David Freeman, a former TVA board chair and a tireless advocate for renewable energy. The self-proclaimed “green cowboy,” who died in May, had sought for a long time to free people from polluting, centralized TVA power.

TVA is a federally owned corporation and the nation’s largest public power provider. It generates electricity for more than 9 million customers in Tennessee, northern Alabama, northeastern Mississippi, southwestern Kentucky, and portions of northern Georgia, western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia.

 

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Appalachian Voices works at the nexus of the ongoing shift from fossil fuels to clean, 21st-century energy sources — we fight mountaintop removal coal mining, fracked-gas pipelines and other harms to the people and places of Appalachia, and we advance energy efficiency, solar and wind power, and other economic solutions that create community wealth and sustain Appalachia’s mountains, forests and waters.

Energy Alabama is a membership-based non-profit organization accelerating Alabama’s transition to sustainable energy. We accomplish our mission by educating at all levels, informing smart energy policy, building the next generation workforce, and providing technical assistance to deploy more sustainable energy. We believe in sustainable energy for all.

Sunrise Tennessee is a statewide coalition of Sunrise hubs that represents young organizers from Nashville, Knoxville, and Franklin, Tennessee. We are fighting for a Green New Deal on both state and federal levels, ensuring a just transition away from the fossil fuel economy and the creation of millions of good-paying jobs.

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Alabama Power Puts Wall St. Over Alabamians, Restarts Disconnections and Late Fees

Yesterday, Alabama Power announced it would resume disconnecting customers and charging late fees in late September, despite the company’s massive profits and the ongoing pandemic wreaking economic havoc on our state. Southern Company, the parent company of Alabama Power, made $4.7 billion in profit last year alone. Right now bad debt in Alabama and Georgia is estimated at less than $160 million, or just 4% of Southern Company’s profits from last year.

Let’s put this all in perspective. How much bad debt is there right now?

First, we don’t exactly know. Why? Because the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) has refused to collect or ask for data regarding how many Alabama Power customers are behind on their bills.

What we do know is that our next door neighbor, Georgia, can tell us a lot.

Georgia Power, also owned by Southern Company, restarted disconnections on July 15. More than 15,000 Georgia Power customers were disconnected in about two weeks (July 15 through the end of the month), despite all the company’s proclamations about how great it was and all the options it said were open to consumers.

Georgia Power, which is almost double the size of Alabama Power by number of customers, told its Public Service Commission that customers were about $83.4 million behind on bills. Even if Alabama Power held just as much bad debt as Georgia Power, the bad debt among the two companies would total about $160 million.

Southern Company profits handsomely from Alabamians

Last year, Southern Company, the parent company of Alabama Power, earned a net profit of $4.7 billion. You read that right. With a B. The bad debt carried by Georgia Power from COVID-19, and likely Alabama Power, would total just under 4% of Southern Company’s net income from 2019.

Southern Company owns and operates government-backed electric monopolies in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. These are not like other companies, say your local auto mechanic. It has an exclusive license to sell electricity and profit from those sales. Alabama Power has one of the highest profit rates in the country, so much so that over the last few years, it collected $1+ billion more than if its profit rate had been the national average.

To be clear, Energy Alabama is not advocating that people shouldn’t be responsible for the energy they consume. We simply believe that Southern Company and Alabama Power can and should share in the burden during these unprecedented times. Churches, nonprofits, and community groups should not be scrambling to help vulnerable Alabamians pay bills when Southern Company and Alabama Power have enjoyed years of blockbuster profits.

No one asked for COVID-19 and economic crisis we are in. We are all affected. We should all pitch in. That includes Alabama Power and Southern Company shareholders.

But there is something you can do now to help your neighbors!

We’ve joined with our friends at Gasp and hope you’ll contact Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) and Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and ask them to support Senate Bill 4362, which would put a federal stop to utility disconnections during COVID-19.

 

RELEASE: Groups challenge TVA’s plan to lock local power companies into perpetual contracts

Contacts:
Scott Smallwood | SELC | ssmallwood@selcga.org | 770-598-0111
Ward Archer| Protect Our Aquifer | ward@protectouraquifer.org | 901-355-0515
Brianna Knisley | Appalachian Voices | brianna@appvoices.org | 937-725-0645
Daniel Tait | Energy Alabama | dtait@alcse.org | 256-812-1431

 

MEMPHIS, TN – The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), on behalf of Protect Our Aquifer, Energy Alabama and Appalachian Voices, is challenging in federal court the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) monumental decision to implement never-ending contracts designed to keep local power distributors captive customers of the federal utility forever.

The contracts further entrench TVA’s control over a vast network of power systems across portions of seven Southeastern states. The never-ending contracts lock the federal utility’s local power customers into exclusive energy contracts likely to last forever which will forever deprive distributors and ratepayers the opportunity to renegotiate with TVA to obtain cheaper, cleaner electricity. The anticompetitive contracts also place harsh caps on the ability of local power companies to use renewable power from non-TVA sources, and they seek to guarantee that TVA’s customer base, made up of municipal and member-owned local utilities, never leaves the utility.

“TVA is using these eternal contracts to stamp out any competition for the next century,” said Amanda Garcia, SELC’s Tennessee office director. “These never-ending contracts threaten to prevent local distributors from ever renegotiating their contract with TVA, let alone consider leaving the utility if it continues to lag behind in transitioning towards cheaper, cleaner renewable energy. These contracts will take the public’s interest completely out of public power.”

Previously, the average length of the termination provision in the distributors’ contracts was under seven years, offering periodic opportunities for publicly- and member-owned utilities to revisit contract terms with TVA or seek cheaper, cleaner power elsewhere. The newly signed contracts, which require a 20 year notice to terminate, renew automatically each year so that the length of the contract term never ends. The complaint alleges that the contracts will have potentially significant effects on the environment, including, among other things, influencing TVA’s decisions to invest in energy resources, increasing greenhouse gases and other pollution, and increasing water usage across the Tennessee Valley.

“TVA’s continued reliance on fossil fuel resources has a lasting impact on Memphis’ primary drinking water source, the Memphis Sand Aquifer,” said Ward Archer, President of Protect Our Aquifer. “TVA has stored coal ash in a way that puts our drinking water aquifer at risk, and its use of billions of gallons of our clean drinking water to operate its gas plant for decades to come threatens the sustainability of our community. The public has a right for federal agencies to look at alternatives when making major decisions, and TVA deprived communities of that right before asking local distributors like Memphis Light, Gas & Water to sign these never-ending contracts.”

An important federal law requires TVA to analyze and disclose the consequences of major federal programs that may significantly affect the environment. That law also requires TVA to consider alternatives and seek public input about major proposals before TVA moves forward with the project. Conservation groups allege that TVA failed to meet the basic requirements of that law, called the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, before its monumental move to lock 138 of its 153 power distributors into these never ending contracts.

“While TVA keeps the lights on across the Valley, our utility kept the public in the dark around its game-changing decision to essentially trap power distributors’ customers and members in these regressive contracts for the foreseeable future,” said Brianna Knisley, Tennessee Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices. “Ultimately, TVA blocked an opportunity for the public to participate in a major policy decision that will likely stall our region’s critically needed transition to renewable resources.”

Last year, several of TVA’s distributors, including its largest customer, Memphis Light, Gas & Water, announced that they were evaluating whether to leave TVA in favor of cheaper, cleaner options. In response, TVA’s Board of Directors authorized the utility to restructure its relationship with its distributors by amending its power supply contracts to these never-ending contracts that automatically renew every year and include punitive 20-year notice of termination provisions.

“Over the past two years, TVA has taken a series of actions to further cement its monopoly status and shut down customers’ access to distributed energy resources, including solar power and energy efficiency programs,” said Daniel Tait, Chief Executive Officer at Energy Alabama. “As a result, TVA lags behind other utilities in our region, both in terms of renewable energy capacity and its overall commitment to decarbonize the grid. By locking in its customer base, TVA can dictate the pace of its energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy at whatever pace suits its own interests, rather than the interests of the communities it serves.”

The challenge also alleges that TVA violated the federal law that created the federal utility back in 1933 by entering into never-ending agreements with power distributors. That law, called the TVA Act, says that federal utility’s power supply contracts cannot exceed 20 years. By drafting the agreements so that they never expire, the conservation groups allege that TVA ran afoul of that limit on its monopoly power.

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Public Service Commission Sides with Alabama Power – Time to Move Forward on Renewables, Efficiency

UPDATE: This post was updated on Friday, June 12, 2020 at 12:40 Central Time to provide more context about the Public Service Commission’s vote on Tuesday and to correct an error so that the article states the proposed solar plus storage put downward pressure on customer bills.

 

Yesterday, the Alabama Public Service Commission, led by Twinkle Cavanaugh, capitulated to demands from Alabama Power to raise your utility bill in the midst of a pandemic and unprecedented economic stress.

 

The Commission voted unanimously allowing Alabama Power to:

  • Build Barry Unit 8 (a new 726-megawatt gas plant)
  • Buy Central Alabama (an existing 915-megawatt gas plant)
  • Enter into a power purchase agreement with Hog Bayou (to buy electricity from an existing 238-megawatt gas plant)
  • Acquire 200 megawatts of undetermined Demand Side Management and Distributed Energy Resources

 

The Commission did not approve the proposed solar + storage projects (400 megawatts).

 

We will be blunt. These Commissioners do not serve Alabamians. They serve Alabama Power. They serve their campaign donors. You deserve better.

 

It is has never been enough for the greedy executives like Mark Crosswhite at Alabama Power to be one of the most profitable utilities in the country on the backs of the one the poorest states in country.

 

No. They petitioned for unneeded and expensive new generation simply because they could. Their parent company (Southern Company) is reeling from years of bad decisions in Mississippi and Georgia. Alabama Power and the Alabama Commission keep on delivering shareholder value at your expense.

 

We intervened, along with Gasp, to protect Alabamians and we were represented in this case by the Southern Environmental Law Center. Alabama Power’s own data showed that solar-plus-storage was the least cost resource and would actually put DOWNWARD pressure customer bills. Not to mention the serious and significant flaws in its planning and forecasting methods. The Commission didn’t approve the cost-effective renewables.

 

Even the Alabama Attorney General’s Office had serious concerns about the request’s impact to Alabamians and wanted Alabama Power to bear some of the risk if this request didn’t deliver for consumers. Alabama Power, of course, does not take risks. It makes you take risks. It reaps the profits from your risks. The Commission didn’t blink an eye.

 

Don’t forget that advocates filed a petition to overturn Alabama Power’s solar taxes back in April of 2018! Has the Commission acted? No. But when Alabama Power demanded something, the Commission jumped.

 

Let us be as clear as we can. We strongly disagree with this Commission’s decision to saddle Alabamians with decades of costs and practically eliminate the benefits we should be enjoying from energy efficiency and renewable energy.

 

But, Energy Alabama does not participate in these issues to waste our breath. We do not exist simply to fight utility companies.

 

We want to move this state forward. We want the jobs. We want the savings. We want the cleaner air. We want the choices for consumers. All these things are possible with energy efficiency and renewable energy.

 

This is not and has never been a partisan issue. Alabamians of all stripes want more renewable energy, not less. Polling shows strong support for renewables in Alabama among conservatives AND liberals from the Saturn V in Huntsville to the Port of Mobile.

 

If the Public Service Commission is unable or incapable of handling this issue, it is incumbent upon the legislature to act. We have seen too many neighboring southern states grow massive amounts of renewable energy jobs. In light of the economic devastation from COVID-19, we will need every last one of those jobs created in Alabama and as fast as possible.

 

If you too are ready for growth rather inaction, it is time for YOU to take action.

  1. Become an Energy Alabama member – https://alcse.org/support-energy-alabama/energy-alabama-friend/
  2. Support Energy Freedom Alabama – http://energyfreedomalabama.com/

Alabama Public Service Commission Attempts to Block Media, Public from Broadcasting Formal Meetings

From its earliest days to its most recent, the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) has held open formal meetings as required by law. Now, however, the PSC wants to change all that.

The Public Service Commission has been hiding behind closed doors for years. But blocking all electronic devices from a formal hearing? It just doesn’t pass the smell test.

It wasn’t just us that noticed. Radio and television broadcasters and print journalists from around the state are pushing back on ridiculous rules meant to block public access to the, ahem, Public Service Commission. 

Now, we need your help. Stand with us for transparency.

Take Action Now

Wait, what’s going on?

By law (the 2005 Open Meetings Act), all PSC meetings must be open to the public. And the commissioners must physically be on location. Simple, right?

Unfortunately, the PSC is trying to pull a fast one on us.

In a filing from March 5 of this year, the PSC adopted a so-called “Media Coverage Plan” for its formal meetings. The PSC decided to make the “interim” plan effective immediately. Who has time for the consideration of the pesky public right?

Well, it was perfect timing for the PSC. Just four days later the PSC would start a formal hearing to consider one of the largest ever requests by Alabama Power.

Long story short: the PSC is trying to make it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to record and broadcast their formal meetings. You can’t even use an electronic device inside the hearing room. Nevermind that Commissioners used electronic devices inside the hearing room. My dad used to say “Do as I say, not as I do.” Sounds about right. 

Don’t take our word for it. Read the PSC’s so-called Media Plan here.

So what’s the problem? As the Alabama Press Association, Alabama Broadcasters Association, and AL.com noted in their comments against the plan:

(A)ny party, witness, attorney, commissioner or presiding administrative law judge can order the cessation of coverage of a proceeding. This veto power places unprecedented authority in the hands of a select few persons and is clearly meant to suppress public scrutiny based on a single vote. In other words, broadcasting will be prohibited only when everyone involved in the hearing agrees there will be broadcasting. Such a condition flies in the face of the Open Meetings Act.

It’s as simple as that, really. Almost anyone at any public hearing wants the cameras and microphones shut off, then the cameras and microphones will get shut off. Let’s be blunt. There is absolutely nothing open about this new rule. It’s painfully obvious what’s going on here. The PSC is trying to shut out public knowledge of their meetings. The only question is: Why? Maybe they’d rather you not see all the favors they do for Alabama Power.

We Cry Foul

Anyone with a shred of intellectual integrity has to admit it that the PSC is trying to limit transparency. As you’ll remember, that transparency is formally codified in state law. The PSC can not legislate from the bench.

Nobody else does this. Around the country, the Alabama PSC stands alone here. Both the Mississippi and the Georgia Public Service Commissions broadcast all its meetings and hearings online. Both allow electronic devices in the hearing room and both allow anyone to come in, to record or to stream. 

We cry foul. And it’s not just us. Check out this list of Alabama broadcasters and news outlets who agree that the PSC has overstepped its bounds:

  • AL.com (Birmingham News, Huntsville Times, Mobile Press-Register, etc.)
  • 24 daily newspapers including the Montgomery Advertiser, Tuscaloosa News, Florence TimesDaily and more)
  • 99 non-daily newspapers
  • The major TV broadcasters in Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery, and Mobile

The PSC does not have the authority to stop the recording of meetings and hearings. The PSC does not have the authority to block electronic devices. The PSC does not have the authority to flout state law. 

It’s time for the people of Alabama to tell the PSC, “We Dare Defend Our Rights!”