Daniel Tait

The Alabama Public Service Commission Should Suspend Disconnections and Late Fees During COVID-19 Pandemic

Amid the devastation and heartbreak caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) has a golden opportunity to do something truly positive. Without delay, the PSC should suspend disconnections and late fees across the entire state. And the reason is simple: It’s the right thing to do.

Many utilities have taken action voluntarily and we applaud those utilities for acting to protect consumers. Even if some of them like Alabama Power had to be dragged kicking and screaming…

Disappointingly, there are still many utilities in Alabama disconnecting customers during a global pandemic. Voluntary commitments are better than nothing, however, they are not a substitute for a legally binding order that gives customers recourse if a utility does not comply. 

Mississippi has already acted. Alabama should do the same. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But right now.

And if the PSC won’t do it, Governor Ivey must step in for the good of every Alabamian.

 

What Are Disconnections, Anyway?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a disconnection is pretty much what it sounds like. If you don’t pay your utility bill, your service typically gets disconnected. It’s as simple as that. 

But we’re not living in normal times. And in Mississippi, the PSC has taken laudable steps to protect their citizens.

Not so in Alabama.

 

Staying Home

On April 3rd, Governor Kay Ivey issued a statewide stay-at-home order that effectively shut Alabama down. Businesses were shuttered, non-essential services stopped, and millions of people immediately saw drastic changes to their everyday lives.

Issuing the order was the right thing to do, but the order came with some negative side effects. In order to beat this coronavirus, we all have to do our part – including social distancing. But for many Alabamians, staying home means missing out on a paycheck (or two or three). Not to mention the economic fallout may be with us for quite some time.

 

Paying the Bills

For many in Alabama, missing a paycheck or two can have profound consequences. After all, how long would you be able to pay for groceries and your utility bill without a steady paycheck?

Here’s the thing. If you can’t go to work, you might not have money to pay your bills. Across Alabama, we’re hearing the same story. It’s not that people want to stay home and miss work. They have to stay home – because it’s the law, because they cannot work, and because they’re trying to do their part. And because they’re obeying the law, they may not be able to work or pay their utility bills.

So why are some utility companies still shutting off people’s services right now? It’s wrong. You know it. We know it. Everyone knows it.

And the Alabama PSC needs to do something about it. If the PSC believes it cannot act because of limitations in Alabama law, it is morally obligated to air those concerns publicly. We cannot stand by and watch Alabamians suffer because of a technicality or a loophole.

 

Mississippi is Protecting Consumers

On March 15, the Mississippi PSC temporarily suspended disconnections for 60 days. The restriction applied to all water, sewer, electricity and gas services it regulated. Eleven days later, they suspended online convenience fees as well.

Not satisfied, the Mississippi’s PSC went even further by asking the Mississippi Attorney General for guidance on whether it had the authority to stop disconnections for all utilities in the state, even the municipal utilities and electric cooperatives it didn’t normally regulate. 

Bravo, Mississippi! That’s leadership. 

Now it’s time for the Alabama PSC to follow suit.

 

An Unacceptable Delay

On March 18th, Energy Alabama joined with 12 organizations calling on the PSC to issue an order suspending disconnections across the state. In Alabama, only two electric and gas utilities are normally regulated by the PSC, Alabama Power and Spire. But we called on the PSC to suspend disconnections and late fees for all utilities statewide and if it couldn’t act, we asked it to clarify what legal obstacles were present. Alabamians deserve answers and actions.

Since then, the PSC has failed to act. Since then, the PSC has failed to respond. Enough. Now is the time to do what’s right. We’ve contacted every utility in Alabama, and there are still many utilities cutting people off during this time of fear and uncertainty.

That is unacceptable.

Act now, Commissioners. You have the ability to offer much-needed relief to the people of Alabama. We trust you want to do the right thing.

Energy Alabama and Gasp Appreciate Alabama Power’s Belabored Decision Not to Disconnect Service or Charge Late Fees During COVID-19 Crisis

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (March 19, 2020) — On Friday, March 13, Governor Kay Ivey declared a State of Emergency as the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Alabama. That evening, in response to this crisis, Gasp and Energy Alabama called for Alabama Power, the largest utility in the state, to put a moratorium on service disconnections and late fees until at least May 1. By last weekend, most investor-owned utilities across the country had made meaningful moves to suspend shutoffs.

Unfortunately, Alabama Power was unwilling to issue a full-throated public statement or even a clear announcement on its website about its intentions. Language matters. Instead of decisive language, Alabama Power made ambiguous statements claiming they had “no plans” to disconnect service “for those impacted by COVID-19” and, later, “customers financially affected.” 

We continued to take the company to task this week. We wrote a letter to the Public Service Commission, along with 12 other organizations, asking it to issue an emergency order suspending shutoffs and the accrual of late fees for all regulated electric, gas, water, and telecommunication utilities for all customers. 

Yesterday, it appears Alabama Power agreed to the terms we set for the people of Alabama: no disconnections, no late fees. They published an article on their company-owned website, Alabama News Center, stating that “Alabama Power has pledged not to disconnect customers or charge late fees for those affected* by the COVID-19 crisis.”

This afternoon at 4:35 p.m. Central Daylight Time, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson posted to Twitter confirming that pledge and, perhaps, going even further. He said Alabama Power, Mobile Area Water & Sewer System, and Spire “will suspend all cutoffs of service for people who cannot pay their bills during #COVID19.”

It does appear that customers in jeopardy of missing a payment must still contact Alabama Power’s customer service line. On their company-owned news website, they say “customers that need our help to let us know by contacting Customer Service at alabamapower.com or 1-800-245-2244.” We still believe this is an unnecessary step and it should be removed.

We further believe Alabama Power should update its corporate website homepage to reflect the straightforward text of today’s announcement: that the company will not shut off any customers and will not charge any late fees until after the COVID-19 crisis.

This was never a political issue. Asking the largest utility company in the State of Alabama to be super clear about its intentions was and is justified to protect basic human needs during this pandemic. Calling for the Alabama Public Service Commission to issue an emergency order suspending shutoffs and late fees for ALL utilities (electric, water, sewer, telecommunication) under its jurisdiction  was and is essential to protect all Alabamians. 

Gasp and Energy Alabama are appreciative of the thousands of dedicated Alabama Power employees still going into work, day in and day out, to keep the lights on. The company would be better off if its C-suite were as reliable and clear-eyed as their workers.

*This is not just a public health crisis. It’s also an economic and social crisis. Everyone is affected.

Polling Shows Alabama Conservatives Want Energy Freedom, Not Status Quo

The results are in: Alabama’s conservatives want energy freedom!

Energy freedom means having more choices. It means a competitive marketplace in which renewables are much more widely available.

What it doesn’t mean is the same old, same old.

So while “freedom isn’t free”, according to Seth Hammett and the Energy Institute of Alabama, the status quo is sure to be more expensive and unacceptable to Alabama.

 

And Now, Some Facts

Let’s back up.

Mr. Hammett recently wrote an editorial that appeared in the Alabama Political Reporter. Mr. Hammett is the ex-Speaker of the House and Chairman of the Board for the Energy Institute of Alabama, the lobbying group representing Alabama’s monopoly utilities. According to Mr. Hammett, Alabama really ought to just side with his monopoly buddies because freedom, or something. He seems to think that because renewables do actually cost money to install and maintain (you know, like any other energy source), his special-interest group of utilities ought to reign supreme.

Yeah, no.

Here are some facts.

  1. The Energy Institute of Alabama (EIA) represents monopoly utility companies that are currently immune to market forces and competition.
  2. EIA claims in the article linked above that Alabama’s utilities are “increasing solar capacity.” Yeah, sure. At the slowest rate of any state in the country. Including Mississippi!
  3. The people of Alabama want choices! Including us! Polling backs us up, and we’ll get to that shortly. It’s simple: Because of utility failures and slow action, consumers aren’t willing to wait any longer.
  4. Alabama conservatives believe in free markets. They believe choices require utility companies to step up their game and compete for their business.

Conservatives Want Choices

Which leads us to the polling.

Recently, WPA Intelligence released a poll that shows Alabama’s conservative voters support utility deregulation, energy freedom, and more renewable options in their energy mix.

Click here for a summary of the poll. Don’t take our word for it! See for yourself!

Now, for a few key findings:

  • More than half of Alabama Republican primary voters (54%) would support passing legislation that would give consumers more freedom to control their energy usage. This is directly in opposition to Mr. Hammett’s argument.
  • Nearly two-thirds (!) support passing legislation that would give consumers more choice in determining how their electricity is produced. Again, this flies in the face of Mr. Hammett’s argument.
  • Seven-in-ten support energy deregulation in Alabama. This would lead directly to several producers competing on price, service, and production methods. Wow!
  • A majority think it is important to have the choice to buy power from a company that uses more renewable energy sources. We agree!
  • Two-out-of-three support the development of clean energy like solar and wind in Alabama. Awesome!

Again, read the poll for yourself. Please don’t just accept our word for it. Read the study. Learn the facts. Don’t let catchy slogans distract you from the truth. Alabama’s conservatives want energy freedom. Period.

Mr. Hammett and the EIA have a vested interest in maintaining the entrenched monopoly. Look, we get it. Lobbyists gonna lobby; he’s doing his job.

However, the conservatives of Alabama have spoken loudly and clearly. The monopoly says freedom isn’t free? We never did either. Freedom sure isn’t the status quo. And energy freedom is almost sure to cost less.

Formal Complaint Over AL Power Solar Tax Filed by GASP, Southern Environmental Law Center

Below is a reproduction of an email we sent out in support of GASP and SELC’s challenge to Alabama Power’s unjust solar tax.

 

Friends and members,

It’s just not right.

Regular, hardworking Alabamians who generate their own solar electricity are being singled out by Alabama Power and the Alabama Public Service Commission. That’s why like-minded people from across the state are joining forces and fighting back.

OK, so if you haven’t heard the news, you might be a bit confused right about now. Here’s the skinny.

Back in 2012, the Alabama Public Service Commission (APSC) approved a fixed fee for Alabama Power customers who generate their own electricity. That fee, or really tax, went into effect the following year. Basically, any residential customers who generate solar power have to pay Alabama Power $5 per kilowatt PER MONTH just for the privilege.

Like we said, it’s not right. But it is unreasonable, unjust, discriminatory, and contrary to the public interest.

If those words have a nice ring to them, that’s great! On Thursday, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and GASP filed a formal complaint with the APSC over that ridiculously unfair fee. Some of those words we just used to describe the fee are in there. Pretty cool, right?

(If you missed it, AL.com’s Dennis Pillion has the story right here.)

Now that you know, we’re asking everyone to please take a look today. Brush up on the policy. Be prepared to talk about this with your friends and family. Spread the word! And while you’re at it, visit the APSC website and contact your commissioners (or even the Commission’s President).

Don’t know who to contact? Start here!

We all know that solar power is great. It’s clean. It’s renewable. And, hey, it’ll even save you money on your utility bill.

Well, that’s all true unless you’re an Alabama Power customer. So now it’s time we changed that.

Shine on,
-Daniel

Energy Alabama Calls For Public Hearing On Alabama Power Federal Tax Savings

Note: This post is available here as a downloadable press release

HUNTSVILLE, AL — Energy Alabama is calling for a public hearing to help Alabama Power customers understand how the company plans to spend more than a quarter of a billion dollars in savings from the recent federal tax overhaul.

As a result of recent changes to the federal tax code, Alabama Power has a tax adjustment tariff that will return approximately $257 million to the company in reduced taxes. Some of Alabama Power’s plans to distribute this money to customers have been outlined in a recent Form 8-K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The Alabama Public Service Commission is scheduled to vote tomorrow, May 1, 2018, less than two weeks from its initial filing with the SEC.

However, Energy Alabama has serious concerns about this closed-door process:

  1. An 8-K is required for matters about which Alabama Power must inform its investors. It has done so. However, Alabama Power has not informed the public, or its customers, of its plans. Is Alabama Power fulfilling its obligations to Wall Street but not to regular Alabamians?
  2. The 8-K states that Alabama Power plans to return $50 million to customers and use the rest for other purposes, perhaps to improve their borrowing capacity and recoup under-recovered fuel costs. From these filings, we cannot tell exactly what Alabama Power is attempting to do with all of this money. Their plans may be reasonable, but this lack of transparency underscores the need for a public hearing to show how customers are helped and not harmed.
  3. To this end, Energy Alabama is calling for a public hearing so the public can understand exactly what is going to happen with their money AND have a say in the matter. As it stands now, decisions are being made behind closed doors with less than two weeks of notice.
  4. Energy Alabama is also calling for the Alabama Attorney General’s office to act as a true customer advocate and ensure the best outcome on the behalf of Alabama Power customers. What role, if any, did the AG’s office play in the decision-making?
  5. Georgia Power and the Georgia Public Service Commission have already worked out exactly how much money an average customer will save. Both have been forthcoming with this information. We call on Alabama Power, Georgia Power’s sister company, to do the same.
  6. Energy Alabama is not the only one calling for a public hearing. We echo the complaint filed by Ms. Joyce Lanning.

A previous closed-door process led to the unjust and arbitrary solar tax reported by AL.com on Friday. Thankfully, that decision is now being challenged.

For more information about this topic, please contact Daniel Tait by phone at (256) 812-1431, or by email at dtait@alcse.org.