alabama public service commission

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.

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!

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.