Education

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!

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.

 

 

Greener State Only Leaves You With Less Green. Here's Why.

Greener State Only Leaves You With Less Green. Here’s Why.

Greener State is a new program from Alabama Power that claims to give utility customers the chance to cover up to 100 percent of their energy usage with renewable sources. Which sounds great in theory because, after all, who doesn’t like renewable energy? In practice, though, Greener State isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

TL;DR – Alabama Power, and really all utilities, should stop charging their customers a premium for the privilege to buy renewable energy. Renewable energy is already the cheapest power to procure. Instead, they should focus on expanding access to renewable energy sources – for everybody. Alabama Power should make it easier for people to use renewable sources, not charge them extra.

The Skinny on RECs

Renewable Energy is great! Let’s expand access to it, instead of charging a premium.

Now, let’s back up. According to Greenerstate.com, the Greener State program allows Alabama Power customers to “greenify” their energy consumption with something called Renewable Energy Certificates. They’re called RECs for short, and the idea is that you can buy enough of them to cover all of your energy usage.

If you do that, you will have (in effect) used 100 percent renewable energy without buying and installing an expensive solar setup at your home. Meanwhile, you’ll be helping Alabama Power invest in wind, solar and biomass sources. The program doesn’t cost a whole lot, and you’re even taking care of the environment at the same time.

What’s not to like? More from Greenerstate.com:

RECs are the strongest driver of renewable energy development, and give you the ability to support renewables without the heavy cost of owning personal systems. You can certify that your electric usage is covered by renewable energy, but not spend tens of thousands on a solar panel system.

Since 2014 Alabamians have covered 3,267,000 kWh of their homes’ usage with renewable energy through our REC program. Now you can be a part of the movement with Greener State. This market force leads to more demand and accelerates the growth of renewable energy. RECs are a win-win-win.

A Win-Win?

First of all, a solar panel system for your home doesn’t cost tens of thousands of dollars. But let’s leave that for another time. Instead, let’s focus on that last part. For Alabama Power, Greener State definitely is a win-win. For customers, it’s really not.

To understand why, let’s take another look at the Greener State website. An article titled “The Future of Renewables in Alabama is Bright… Literally” notes that in December 2017, Alabama Power will begin receiving energy from a 72-megawatt solar plant in Lafayette, Alabama. And that’s not all. Not nearly. The same article mentions 14 hydroelectric facilities, a couple of wind projects and even some biomass energy – all of which Alabama Power supports.

Here’s the thing. If I’m a paying customer of Alabama Power, shouldn’t my money already support renewable energy? I mean, since Alabama Power is so invested in renewables, it just makes sense.

Well, Alabama Power never explains that part. Not at all.

Greener State: Really Just Leaving You with Less Green

Who doesn’t love solar? What we need is MOAR renewables! (Not a premium for the privilege.)

So, what’s the alternative? Here at Energy Alabama, we believe that renewable energy is the best and most cost-effective energy available. So, yes, utility companies should be investing in it. Heavily.

But while Alabama Power’s marketing is slick, Greener State just doesn’t add up. To be clear, investing in renewables is unquestionably a good thing. But in its current form, Greener State merely serves as an example of how Alabama Power values one form of green over another.

Instead of charging a premium to “support” renewable energy that is already in place, why not just continue investing in renewables while expanding access for all? In the long run, that’s the best and most cost-effective solution for Alabama Power and its customers.

And in the long run, that would be the real win-win for everybody.

Probing Residential Demand Charges

What are Demand Charge Rates?

We have become very accustomed to the electric bill we receive every month. This bill has different charges like sanitation, tax, etc. But the largest charge is very likely to be the electric service charge. Put simply, this charge is what the utility company charges to meet your demand, or the amount of power your home consumes, during that monthly billing period. This is what is known as a standard consumption rate, which could be either fixed or variable. But you probably paid a fixed rate, which means that you pay the same rate for your energy regardless of how much or when you need it.

Related: Understanding Your Utility Bill

Fixed rates have been used for a very long time for residential consumers, and are probably the most common rate structure around. However, a different billing policy exists for commercial consumers, one called demand charge rates (DC’s). DC’s are a completely different charge that commercial and industrial sectors have to pay for, along with their consumption rates. A DC can be defined as an extra cost that a consumer has to pay for their maximum demand over a billing period, and can make up around 30% of a utility bill. So, imagine not only paying for the energy you use, but paying more the maximum used at any one time. Kinda lame, right?

Another way to think of this is like turning everything in your house on at the same time. That’s a lot of juice! And the utility will charge for this because they still have to supply you even when everyone is turning on everything at once.

(If you want to learn more about rate design, then check out our article on the ins and outs of rate design! )

Are Demand Charge Necessary?

Demand charges are designed to lower the cost of grid operation during peak hours of demand. DC’s supposedly help utility companies offset the cost of meeting high peaks of demand, which they have to do at all times, and that can be expensive. Utilities have to meet demand 24/7, and to do so they have to operate a lot of expensive equipment and generation plants.

Utilities argue that DC’s help cover the cost of maintenance and construction of wires, transformers, power plants, substation, etc. DC’s also encourage consumers to have a more consistent demand, with smaller demand peaks offset by spreading demand over a larger period of time.

However, charging the consumer more just because they have a peak demand during any given time is not always the best solution. For example, a business could reach its peak demand in system off-peak hours where the total demand on the grid is considerably less significant than system peak demand hours. This means that a business has to pay more for their energy although they are not costing the utility any more to meet their demand.

You can read our article on the Duck Curve if you want to learn more about demand, peak hour efficiency, and the costs of meeting demand during peak hours!

Residential Integration

DC’s have been around for decades in the industrial and commercial worlds respectively, until recently.  The Arizona Public Service (APS) attempted to integrate their residential customers into their Demand Charge policies back in 2016, but was met with frustration and from residential costumers. APS and and regulators were swarmed with public backlash in the form of upset calls and even protest.

The problem with integrating DC’s into residential districts lies in that individual residential homes, even in their peak demand, do not often put adequate stress on the grid to justify charging more. This stress point usually occurs only a few times per year. Furthermore, residential consumers are not used to being charged this way and frankly many do not understand what the charge is much less how to manage it. Simply put, it requires action by the consumer to manage.

Residential demands and peaks are also very similar. For the most part, we all wake up, shower, and use appliances before we leave for work/school, and we turn on the air conditioner when we return. Commercial and industrial facilities, however, tend to have much more sporadic and instantaneous peaks and demands throughout their billing cycles, especially those facilities operate on a 24 hour basis. Not to mention that these facilities require much larger amounts of power than any given residential home.

APS also made errors in giving proper effort to outreach to consumers of what DC’s really are. It takes a long time, sometime years, to adequately inform every consumer of policy changes. Some people don’t watch TV or have a smartphone, and some do not even have an adequate mailing address. So conducting proper outreach is difficult, but absolutely required.

It is doubtful that APS will be the only utility to attempt to push DC’s on their residential consumers.

A Better Alternative

A third rate design currently exists in the world of energy, one that we believe to be a healthier, more efficient one. This rate is called Time of Use (TOU). This system is more complicated than the standard consumption rate, so let’s break it down.

Related: 6 Reasons Time of Use Rates Are the Best Option

TOU rate policies work by monitoring energy use during peak demand hours. Peak hours vary slightly from grid to grid, but utilities generally see a big ramp in demand in the morning hours (approximately 6AM-9AM) followed by another ramp that evening (approximately 6PM-10PM).  Consumers under TOU rates would be charged more for using energy during these hours. But, unlike demand charges, time of use rates only apply if you use energy during hours where the grid is at its most stressed, and not just whenever your home meets its own peak demand. Consumers under TOU’s are generally charged less per kWh in the off-peak hours than consumers who are billed through the standard fixed rates. TOU’s give business and homeowners alike the capability to save money by reducing stress on the system by lowering their demand peaks, which in turn saves money for the utilities, as well. 

But we like TOU’s for a number of reasons. One being that it gives you the ability and encouragement to work around times of peak demand, and you can even save money by doing so. And who doesn’t like saving money? But it does take some amount of work on the consumer’s part to do. If you usually wash clothes in a dryer and washer or keep the A/C or heat on during peak hours, then try and move those times of usage to non-peak hours.

Furthermore, you can install automatic timers on your water heater and other equipment to only make it run during off peak hours. (Trust us, you’ll still have plenty of hot water). Also, and we love this one, you could install solar panels into your home to lower your demand even more! This would be especially helpful if the the highest charges are during the day with the sun is plentiful. TOUs and committing to these changes could save you hundreds of dollars per year on your electric bills. It’s also worth mentioning that a true TOU system would leave out any unwarranted and extraneous fees. You pay for the energy you consume, when you consume it, period.

TOU’s can not only help you save money, but they also provide real help to the grid. If implemented properly, TOU’s will reflect times when the grid is at it’s highest demand. These times are much more costly for utilities to meet as they have to operate a plethora of expensive equipment to do so. Operation of less expensive equipment = money saved for utilities and you.

Our own Tennessee Valley Authority is proposing TOU’s for utility companies such as Huntsville Utilities, but it’s unknown if they have plans to move TOU’s to their other consumers.

What is a Value-of-Solar Tariff?

A value-of-solar tariff, or VOST, is a rate design policy that gives customers with solar panels credit for the electricity they generate at a specific price. The credit is then applied to the customer’s utility bill. A VOST usually clarifies how much energy is sold from the customer to utility company and from the utility company to customer; it also determines at what rate the energy is valued. Value-of-solar tariffs are generally viewed as unfair and for two main reasons: the value of the tariff is lower than market rate in most areas and the benefits of VOSTs aren’t broadly advertised. But VOSTs don’t HAVE to be unfair.

As of right now, there aren’t many markets that have fair compensation for solar in the form of VOSTs. The two main places that are under the current implementation of value-of-solar tariffs, Minnesota and Austin, Texas, purchase all of their energy at the utility’s retail rate and pay out a separate VOS rate in dollars per kilowatt hour. In Minnesota, the VOST rate is about $0.145 per kilowatt-hour which is above the residential retail electricity rate of $0.115 per kilowatt-hour. This rate means that for every kilowatt-hour a solar user produces, the user doesn’t have to pay for a kilowatt-hour and they save a little on the electricity they don’t produce but still use. Why would a state or utility pay higher than retail? Because through a VOST process, IF the total value of solar energy is taken into account, there may be cases where it is in fact worth more than retail.  This type of VOST is very customer friendly to encourage the residents of Minnesota to begin producing solar energy themselves; unfortunately, outside of Austin, Texas, the same cannot be said for other states. One of the reasons for less than market rate compensation is the cost of providing the VOST in the first place or other services that utilities must provide for you to sell to them.

What is the unseen value of a VOST?

An end financial value of a VOST is made up of many subparts. For example, some value components include: avoided cost (money saved by the utility from not having to buy additional fuel for the power plant), environmental (the value of reducing harm to the environment and its subsequent cleanup), and transmission system impact (less strain on power lines due to generation being located closer to where it is being used), among others.

For a user to successfully produce and sell back solar energy to a utility company, they have to use the grid. Even if a customer produces the same amount of energy as they use, there are still costs to selling the energy back and for energy used from the grid when solar is not producing. When paying out for solar, utilities have to consider the cost of business (grid maintenance, labor, parts, etc.), which takes a portion out of the amount the customer receives. The need utilities to receive compensation for their services in a VOST to maintain the grid cannot be overlooked.

The second reason value-of-solar tariffs can get a bad reputation is customer lack of knowledge about its benefits. Utilities can better understand customer load, timing, and volume because a VOST separates electricity generated by the consumer from electricity consumed. This is valuable information that utilities can use to better predict when peak times might occur and how much electricity they’re actually using. However, customers may not understand all the variables that make up a VOST or why they are there.

Another reason is how customers receive compensation based on utility-specific benefits and costs of their electricity generation, instead of fixed retail rates that may span many regions. Customers are able to select what VOST is most beneficial to them depending on their energy production and use, as opposed to going with the rate of their region no matter the circumstances.

Value-of-solar tariffs are one of several viable options for solar users to sell back their solar energy, and there are both good (Minnesota and Austin, Texas) and bad (almost everywhere else) ways of providing it to customers. One important aspect that cannot be overlooked is how a VOST is beneficial to the energy system (e.g. the grid) as a whole. With a true integrated value, a VOST can provide the grid with much needed support and gives utilities valuable information; but as it becomes more widespread, concrete worth needs to be given to the value provided from things like environmental and avoided energy costs. VOST has a bright future if implemented correctly, and as more states follow Minnesota’s example, solar will continue to grow more valuable.