COVID-19

Groups Ask PSC to Reconsider Alabama Power’s Unprecedented Gas Expansion

Gasp and Energy Alabama have formally asked the Alabama Public Service Commission to reconsider its June decision to approve the single largest capacity increase ever proposed by Alabama Power, including including almost 1,900 MW of gas generation. We requested a rehearing to consider updated testimony in light of economic forecasts showing lessened electric demand due to the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).

Last year, Alabama Power filed a “Petition for a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity” with the Alabama Public Service Commission. That proposal initially sought to add nearly 2.4 gigawatts of new generating capacity — which would cost customers over $1.1 billion. Energy Alabama and Gasp, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, intervened in the docket to question Alabama Power’s lack of evidentiary support to build and buy such a significant amount of new gas resources.

In March, just before COVID-19 brought the world as we know it to a halt, the Alabama Public Service Commission held a series of hearings on the petition. Witnesses for Gasp and Energy Alabama exposed exposed significant flaws in Alabama Power’s planning and justification processes. After those hearings concluded, we made several key points in our proposed order filed with the Commission:

  • Alabama Power failed to produce the evidence necessary to support its request to increase electric generation capacity by almost 20%. The utility had previously asserted it wouldn’t need new generation sources until 2035.
  • Without a showing of need, Alabama Power’s request amounts to an effort to build rate base and enrich shareholders at the expense of its customers, who will pay for expensive, unnecessary generation for decades.
  • Alabama Power’s own analysis showed that the proposed solar plus battery storage projects were the cheapest options for customers.

The pandemic and subsequent economic downtown have cast even more doubt on Alabama Power’s supposed need for new capacity. In early June, we filed additional information regarding anticipated economic effects of COVID-19, arguing that the economic downturn precipitated by the pandemic called into question the magnitude and timing of Alabama Power’s claims about needing additional power sources. Alabama Power relied on outdated projections from more than two years ago, well before the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19. We argue those projections can no longer serve as the basis for a making a $1.1+ billion investment with customer dollars.

Despite all of that, the PSC in June unanimously voted to approve everything in Alabama Power’s proposal, including almost 1,900 MW of gas generation, except Alabama Power’s proposed solar plus battery storage projects. The PSC said they were not well-suited to meet Alabama Power’s reliability needs, despite the overwhelming evidence that supported their approval. However, the Commission refused to ask for supplemental information from Alabama Power as to whether its petition was still warranted.

Alabama customers already pay some of the highest electric bills nationwide. (A recent report found that people in Birmingham have the highest energy burden in the nation.) COVID-19 has only worsened the plight of customers struggling to pay monthly bills. If they want to move forward with these monumental investments, Alabama Power should not be allowed to put the entire financial burden on customers. Utility shareholders should bear the risk that the projects may become stranded assets before the end of their useful lives.

We also hope the Commission will reconsider its denial of the solar-plus-storage projects, which were the most economic options according to Alabama Power’s own analysis. That was just the latest in a long line of anti-solar decisions from the Commission. In September, the Alabama Public Service Commission dismissed our challenge against Alabama Power’s discriminatory solar charge, instead approving an increase in the charge.

By denying Alabama Power’s proposed solar-plus-battery storage projects in this docket and then approving an increase to Alabama Power’s unjust solar fee on rooftop solar customers in another, the PSC continues to deny Alabamians the benefits of clean, renewable energy like solar. Alabama has less solar capacity than other states in the sunny South, and far fewer jobs as a result of the PSC’s decisions.

Alabama Public Service Commission Backs Alabama Power’s Tax on the Sun

2020 has been a bad year, especially if you’re an Alabama Power customer.

The Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC), never content with how many favors it can give Alabama Power, added insult to injury today when it upheld Alabama Power’s sun tax. As many of you know, Alabama Power taxes small scale solar at one of the highest rates in the country; $5/kilowatt/month, or about 50% of the money you could expect to earn from your system. It is currently unclear if the Commission’s vote today actually INCREASED the sun tax.

In other words, the supposed supporters of small government at the PSC chose to institute an approximate 50% tax on solar for homes and small businesses in order to protect the monopoly of one the largest and most profitable companies in the state.

How the PSC Fails Alabamians

This is not the first questionable decision the PSC has made this year. Here are a few lowlights:

  1. The Commission failed to take any action to protect customers from disconnections or late fees amid COVID-19. Advocates like Energy Alabama had to force Alabama Power to protect consumers, but the PSC claimed its closed doors talks with utility executives were good enough and no action was needed.
    • By the way, Alabama Power is restarting disconnections soon, despite its parent company earning almost $5 billion in net income last year alone.
  2. The Commission ruled in favor of Alabama Power, allowing it build expensive and unneeded gas, and punted on solar and energy storage projects despite them being the most cost effective.
  3. The Commission allowed Alabama Power to overcharge customers for fuel by more than $100 million until a group of advocates, including Energy Alabama, called them out on it. Under fire, the Commission finally did the right thing and refunded customers most of the money.
  4. The Commission, in an attempt to legislate from the bench, is actively blocking the recording of hearings and the use of electronic devices.
  5. And then today, the Commission backed Alabama Power’s tax on the sun. Alabamians of all political stripes want more low-cost renewable energy but the PSC has decided it knows better than the people.

Again, this is just 2020.

The Cost of Being a Puppet

The Alabama PSC has proven itself to be not much more than a puppet for Alabama Power. For instance, the solar tax complaint was first filed back in April 2018, yet it took the PSC more than two years to decide the case. However, Alabama Power was able to file for one of its largest expansions in history and get it approved, all before the solar tax case was decided. If Alabama Power wants it done, it gets done. If the people want it done, nothing happens.

There are real world consequences to all of this deference to Alabama Power. First off, real economic harm is being done to the people of Alabama and many of our small businesses. Our utility bills are some of the highest in the nation, the proportion of income Alabamians spend on electricity is one of the highest in the nation, and we have the worst energy efficiency in the country. But rather than make any of these problems better, the Commission continues to green light expensive and unneeded construction, allow high taxes on alternatives, and ignore any efficiency. Alabama Power does not want any of these things because it would rather you remain forcibly and 100% dependent on them.

Bluntly, the decisions of the PSC are contributing to poverty in Alabama, rather than alleviating it. Alabama has a history mired in poverty and we need our energy policy to help us break that cycle. Favoring monopolies and Wall St. over low-cost distributed energy perpetuates the struggle of hundreds of thousands of hard-working Alabamians.

Photo credit: Pat Byington

And secondly, Alabama is losing out on tens of thousands of good paying jobs in advanced energy stemming directly from PSC decisions. There are tons of folks who could be employed in the energy efficiency sector, making much needed upgrades to our built environment and infrastructure. Renewable energy, such as solar and wind, are some of the fastest growing sectors of the economy in most states, but not Alabama.

Twinkle Cavanaugh, the PSC President, has often touted jobs in statements to Alabama Power-supported outlets like Yellowhammer News, in campaign materials, and even from the dias during PSC meetings. We’d encourage her to actually take her own words seriously and put Alabamians to work.

Legal Petition Demands Tennessee Valley Authority Halt Electricity Shutoffs, Fund Debt Relief

For Immediate Release, August 25, 2020

Contact:

Howard Crystal, Center for Biological Diversity, (202) 809-6926, hcrystal@biologicaldiversity.org
Brianna Knisley, Appalachian Voices, (937) 725-0645, brianna@appvoices.org
Daniel Tait, Energy Alabama, (256) 812-1431, dtait@alcse.org
Isabella Killius, Sunrise Tennessee, (615) 762-6665, sunrisetennessee@gmail.com

WASHINGTON— Dozens of climate-justice organizations petitioned the Tennessee Valley Authority today to immediately impose a moratorium on electricity shutoffs in the region and fund debt relief for its customers.

The petition also calls on the massive utility company to accelerate the Valley’s clean energy transition to address compounding COVID-19 unemployment, climate and racial injustice crises.

“TVA has the responsibility and the money to prevent people from needless suffering and crushing debt,” said Howard Crystal, legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program. “The company can seize this opportunity to genuinely serve the public interest and become a model for other utility companies. TVA must acknowledge the environmental damage from its dirty energy choices and chart a new course toward a clean, democratic energy future.”

Congress has yet to impose a federal moratorium on utility shutoffs, leaving thousands of families in TVA’s service territory at risk of losing electricity during a summer of climate-induced, record heatwaves.

“In the face of a public health, environmental and economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression, we are calling on TVA to return to its original mission to improve quality of life here in the Tennessee Valley,” said Brianna Knisley, Tennessee campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices. “TVA can and should protect vulnerable communities from power shut offs, eliminate unnecessary and harmful coal ash production, and bring new, public jobs to the Valley. At the very least, our public utility should be reaching out to communities to better understand their issues and needs during these critical times.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and related unemployment crisis have brought severe economic strain to the Southeast, a region where low-income communities, Black communities and other communities of color are already disproportionately burdened by pollution, high energy bills and utility shutoffs.

“If TVA wants to get serious about reducing the burden of COVID-19 on residents in the Valley, it is time for TVA to get serious about strong energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, specifically for low-income customers,” said Daniel Tait, chief operating officer of Energy Alabama.

The petition urges TVA to reallocate its vast resources to help customers pay their bills and fund equitable economic recovery through clean energy and efficiency programs. This would require a series of public hearings, which the petition says should begin as soon as possible.

“In the midst of the pandemic, when people are unemployed and without basic needs like power, food, water, and broadband services, TVA has a responsibility to support its customers by instituting a moratorium on utility shut-offs, thus upholding its original mission to serve the people of the Tennessee Valley,” said Isabella Killius with Sunrise Tennessee. “This petition encapsulates the need for institutional change within the TVA such that customers are provided adequate relief and, in addition, necessary actions are taken to mitigate the ongoing climate crisis.”

TVA has the funding and the mandate to provide debt relief to residential customers, rapidly retire its fossil fuel infrastructure, and invest in clean, distributed energy and energy efficiency efforts. These efforts will create local jobs vital to the region’s economic recovery.

The petition is named in honor of S. David Freeman, a former TVA board chair and a tireless advocate for renewable energy. The self-proclaimed “green cowboy,” who died in May, had sought for a long time to free people from polluting, centralized TVA power.

TVA is a federally owned corporation and the nation’s largest public power provider. It generates electricity for more than 9 million customers in Tennessee, northern Alabama, northeastern Mississippi, southwestern Kentucky, and portions of northern Georgia, western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia.

 

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Appalachian Voices works at the nexus of the ongoing shift from fossil fuels to clean, 21st-century energy sources — we fight mountaintop removal coal mining, fracked-gas pipelines and other harms to the people and places of Appalachia, and we advance energy efficiency, solar and wind power, and other economic solutions that create community wealth and sustain Appalachia’s mountains, forests and waters.

Energy Alabama is a membership-based non-profit organization accelerating Alabama’s transition to sustainable energy. We accomplish our mission by educating at all levels, informing smart energy policy, building the next generation workforce, and providing technical assistance to deploy more sustainable energy. We believe in sustainable energy for all.

Sunrise Tennessee is a statewide coalition of Sunrise hubs that represents young organizers from Nashville, Knoxville, and Franklin, Tennessee. We are fighting for a Green New Deal on both state and federal levels, ensuring a just transition away from the fossil fuel economy and the creation of millions of good-paying jobs.

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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.