Today’s guest columnist is Laura Casey.
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Alabama was the scene of an epic smackdown a hundred years ago. Would our state electrify with public power, or would we electrify with private power and the monopoly it entailed?
In one corner was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). In the other corner was Alabama Power.
FDR campaigned hard against the greed of private power companies. Alabama voters heard his message and sent him to Washington with a whopping 85% of the vote. Within months, President Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) into law: a public power project born in our own Muscle Shoals.
Alabama Power saw the threat to their profits and monopoly. They immediately sued. They lost in court, but turned around and won a backroom deal afterwards that contained TVA. But so incensed and worried were they, that the corporate executive leading the fight went on to challenge FDR for the presidency. He lost, but we didn’t win.
Today, Alabama residents are paying the price.
TVA still serves north Alabama, but Alabama Power reigns over the lower two-thirds of our state, from Birmingham to Mobile. Alabama residents pay the highest power bills in America. That burden falls directly on Alabama Power customers.
Alabama Power charges the hard-working people of Alabama a shocking 30% more than residents served by TVA.
Alabama Power charges an outrageous solar fee that has essentially blocked solar panels and solar jobs from one of the sunniest states in America.
Alabama Power charges us to build their power plants while reaping a guaranteed profit on their mere existence. Right now, as the company blocks residential solar from Alabama, they are building a billion-dollar fossil-fuel expansion, on our dime.
Angry? You should be.
But how does this happen? Who makes all of this possible?
The Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC).
The Alabama Public Service Commission is three people we elect statewide to approve every penny Alabama Power collects from us. The public trust involved is profound. But you’ll never see their decisions being made publicly. Everything happens behind closed doors at the Commission.
Our high power rates? The Commission uses a formula that automatically sets our rates to give Alabama Power a return on equity of around 13%. That is 30% higher than industry average and costs us billions. There is nothing Alabama Power can do to lose money, and we have no opportunity to ever examine the expenses we shell out billions of dollars every year to cover.
Those nonexistent solar panels? The Commission allows a solar tax so sky-high that only 132 homes out of the one-and-a-quarter million served by Alabama Power have solar panels. In the words of NPR, the fee is in “a class of its own.” Our state is being locked out of choice, clean energy, and the jobs that come with both of them, just to protect Alabama Power’s profits.*
The billion dollars in new power plants? The Commission approved this in June. Alabama Power’s grounds were that hot, southern Alabama would soon become a “winter peaking” utility. Without question, the commissioners said, “Of course!” Now we are on the hook for paying for that expansion and all the profit it will bring Alabama Power for decades to come.
What needs to change? Transparency. We need a public rate setting process NOW.
The Commission has not held a public rate case in FORTY YEARS. Rate cases are the rigorous public process used across America to set fair utility prices. Two of the three current commissioners went on record in 2013 as being adamantly opposed to one. The third commissioner, Republican Terry Dunn, disagreed. He lost his seat the next year.
I am currently suing the three commissioners under the Alabama Open Meetings Act for their closed-door dealings. Last November the commissioners ejected me and former Commission candidate Kari Powell for quietly recording (an activity expressly allowed by our Open Meetings Act) a hearing on that sky-high solar fee. The commissioners CONFISCATED OUR PHONES before letting us return, rather than let the public see what was happening behind their closed doors. That case was brought, and recently argued, before the Alabama Supreme Court by former Democratic candidate for Attorney General Chris Christie, where it awaits decision. [This case was decided on Friday by the Alabama Supreme Court: Alabama Supreme Court sides with PSC in case over cell phone recording of hearing]
While that case worked its way to the state Supreme Court, the Commission took it upon themselves to ban the use of ALL electronic devices at OUR public hearings. They did that just days before holding a multi-day, marathon hearing on that new billion-dollar plant. During that hearing, our three elected commissioners sat in the audience like mere observers, asked no questions and did not participate in any way. The hearing was closed to all but the few who were present and willing to spend twelve-hour days packed into a hearing room in Montgomery with pen and paper. It was as if we were reliving FDR’s mammoth battle against private power from a century ago. Because we are.
What is happening at the Public Service Commission right now is not government. It looks far more like organized crime. We are long overdue for a change. Alabama deserves better than politicians who work behind closed doors for the few at the expense of the rest of us. Secrecy is not a formula for success, it is a formula for corruption.
*On September 1, the PSC granted Alabama Power’s motion to dismiss a challenge to the fees it charges residential customers who use solar panels or other methods to generate their own electricity. Even though the fees are one of the highest in the nation, a rate increase was also approved.
Laura Casey is currently running as the Democratic candidate for the President of the Alabama Public Service Commission. She is a former actuary and attorney, who is thrilled to be talking about making Alabama the best it can be! (Much gratitude to energy historian Casey Cater for his 2019 book “Regenerating Dixie: Electric Energy and the Modern South” which sparked many of the thoughts and ideas set forth in this article.)
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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.