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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!

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.

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.