Energy AL among groups calling for stop to electricity shutoffs during pandemic

Energy Alabama is among a dozen organizations that have called on the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association (TVPPA) to urge its member utilities to immediately halt service disconnection and late fees for families during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

 

TVPPA’s members include the electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities who serve 9 million people across seven states in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s service area. In the letter, the groups identified five of TVPPA’s large utilities that had taken these kinds of actions to protect their customers, adding that many TVPPA members may still be charging customers late fees and cutting off service for non-payment.

 

 

TVA has authorized deferred wholesale power payments in its service area, according to the groups’ letter, and increased federal funding to help low-income households with energy bills was included in the recent federal stimulus package. TVPPA members should not cut off service or add late fees onto the bills of families who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in dire economic straits for the foreseeable future.

This tool from Appalachian Voices allows you to find out if your local utility has implemented a Covid-19 policy, and provides information for who to call if they have not done so.

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.

Energy Alabama, Center for Biological Diversity, and Appalachian Voices Call for Inspector General Investigation into TVA’s Membership in Utility Air Regulatory Group

Energy Alabama, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Appalachian Voices are calling on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) to open an investigation into TVA’s membership in and use of ratepayer dollars for the Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG) and other unincorporated trade groups including the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group (USWAG), and Utility Water Act Group (UWAG).

To view the full document calling for the investigation, click here.

In a letter to the TVA OIG, advocates are voicing serious concerns about the use of ratepayer dollars for use in litigation and/or lobbying by UARG and its sister organizations. Any such activities would be in direct violation of TVA’s board-approved policy, which stated, “These organizations will not lobby on behalf of TVA or represent TVA in litigation without specific authorization to do so”.

TVA has repeatedly claimed the dues paid to UARG and related groups have not been used for litigation or lobbying. TVA’s own records demonstrate that its 2017 UARG dues were substantially higher than what UARG claimed went to technical expenses. TVA paid $462,967 to UARG in 2017, almost double the $265,721 UARG claimed was spent on technical expenses.

A reasonable observer can only conclude the difference of TVA’s dues were in fact spent on lobbying and/or litigation, which UARG described as “legal” expenses. TVA either gave permission to use ratepayer money for legal expenses or UARG broke its agreement with TVA.

In light of the facts outlined above, TVA appears to be in direct violation of the policy adopted by the TVA Board of Directors on November 10, 2016.

Therefore, TVA either provided specific authorization to UARG to lobby or litigate on its behalf, while refusing to disclose such authorization to the public, or TVA has violated its Board of Directors’ directive.

“What troubles us the most is that TVA forced its customers to make political speech by taking money from their utility bills and using it for DC-based lawyers,” said Daniel Tait, Chief Operating Officer of Energy Alabama. “Most Alabamians don’t like an arm of the federal government taking their money meant to keep the lights on in order to sue another arm of the federal government.”

“UARG and its secretive affiliates sue the federal government on behalf of polluters with the sole goal of weakening bedrock environmental protections,” said Howard Crystal, Senior Attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.  “It’s appalling that TVA customers are being forced to subsidize these dirty efforts through their rate payments, which put utility profits above the public interest.”

TVA’s stated mission is to improve the quality of life throughout the Tennessee Valley through the integrated management of the region’s resources. This mission makes no provision for using ratepayer money to fund lobbying and/or litigation activities in the pursuit of regulatory rollbacks.

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!