Connect with us

Environment

Alabama Public Service Commission set to decide fate of solar fee

Eddie Burkhalter

Published

on

The fate of Alabama Power’s extra fees to customers with rooftop solar panels now rests with the Alabama Public Service Commission, although it was unclear Thursday when a decision would come or whether there will be a public hearing on the matter. 

Alabama Power, which provides electrical service to about two-thirds of the state, says the extra fees are needed to offset costs the company says are associated with providing backup power to customers with rooftop solar panels. 

Solar energy advocates argue, however, that Alabama Power’s extra fees are unfair, unsupported by evidence of real customer data and discourage homeowners from using clean solar energy to lower their power bills. 

Alabama Power hasn’t always charged this extra fee.

The Alabama Public Service Commission in 2012 ruled that the utility company could charge an additional monthly fee based on the size of the homeowner’s solar system. So, for example, if a homeowner installed a 5-kilowatt system, their bill would start at $25 a month, in addition to all other fees and electrical usage. This fee applies to homes, small businesses and schools. 

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a complaint with the PSC in April 2018 arguing that Alabama Power’s extra fees run counter to state law, were “unfair, unreasonable, unjust, discriminatory, contrary to the public interest and otherwise unlawful” and aren’t based on actual costs of providing electrical service to those solar customers. 

Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman reiterated to APR on Tuesday that the extra fee is needed to offset those costs.

“There is a cost to having back-up power available to customers who demand it from the utility, including customers with solar systems who remain tied to the grid for backup service,” Sznajderman said. Of course, individuals with solar systems who choose not to remain tied to the grid for backup service avoid any and all costs related to Alabama Power serving them.” 

Advertisement

Sznajderman said that because the company has a pending matter before the PSC the company is limited in what it can discuss. 

The SELC argues in its filings to the commission that at the time of the fee increase Alabama Power hadn’t conducted studies to determine what actual costs and benefits are associated with customers with rooftop solar and that the PSC approved the changes without holding hearings, hearing testimony from Alabama Power or taking public comments. 

The SELC in this matter is representing the Birmingham-based environmental nonprofit GASP, and there are two additional co-plaintiffs represented by another firm, Birmingham-based Ragsdale LLC.

In its responses, Alabama Power told the commission that without the additional fees, the costs associated with providing backup electricity to solar customers might otherwise be paid by customers who don’t have solar. 

In fact, the power company told the PSC in a filing that the earlier estimate of that cost was low, and that the company wants to increase the fee from $5 per kilowatt-hour to $5.42 per kilowatt-hour. 

Asked by the PSC whether Alabama Power had studied any costs or benefits associated with solar customers, the company responded in a filing by saying that it had not, but instead conducted a “cost of service” analysis. Conducting those studies could take up to three years, Alabama Power told the commission. 

During testimony, Alabama Power’s expert, Natalie Dean, regulatory pricing manager for the utility, was asked by an SELC attorney about a study done by Southern Company, Alabama Power’s parent company, called “A Framework for Determining the Costs and Benefits of Renewable Resources.” 

Dean responded that she had seen the document, but that Alabama Power “did not use this document” in determining its fees to customers with solar systems. 

Asked if Alabama Power performed an independent assessment of the costs and benefits to the company before setting those solar fees, Dean said that it had not, but that it conducted an “embedded cost of service analysis.” 

In testimony and other filings, Alabama Power’s analysis used hypothetical solar customers as a model to determine possible costs associated with providing backup power. 

The SELC’s expert, Karl Rabago, former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy and director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center, testified that Alabama Power should have used actual customer data to better determine the costs and benefits before setting the fees, not hypothetical customers. Doing so is standard practice, he said. 

The SELC attorney asked Dean if she was aware that the Georgia analysis showed that the benefit of customers with rooftop solar systems actually exceeded costs to the company, and Dean replied that she was unaware of that. 

In December 2018, the SELC asked the commission to hold a public hearing on the matter, as it had asked in previous filings. 

“A fair and open hearing on this matter would be beneficial to all parties and the public,” the SELC attorney wrote. 

Alabama Power in January 2019 filed a motion in opposition to a public hearing, arguing that the commission isn’t required to hold a public hearing unless the “Commission determines to investigate the rate or service made subject of the complaint.” 

The Alabama Center for Sustainable Energy, which goes by Energy Alabama, later joined in SELC’s fight against Alabama Power’s extra fees. The nonprofit formed in 2014 to advocate for a transition to clean energy in Alabama. 

“We don’t know that it will happen,” said Daniel Tait, Energy Alabama’s chief operations officer, speaking to APR about the possibility of a public hearing. “My best guess is that it won’t happen … These policies were put in place, specifically by the power company, to stop solar development, because that’s a competitor. That’s a threat to their business model.” 

Keith Johnston, managing attorney for SELC, told APR on Thursday that he believes Alabama Power’s solar fees are a blatant attempt to discourage solar use. 

“And every utility is not like this. Other utilities are trying to embrace it,” Johnston said, pointing to Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana. 

Georgia Power, which along with Alabama Power is a subsidiary of Southern Company, dropped a similar solar fee proposal in 2013 that would have added about $27.80 per month to solar customers’ bills. 

The Georgia Public Service Commission in November 2013 found that Georgia Power hadn’t proven that solar customers were dodging costs. 

Georgia’s all-Republican, five-member Public Service Commission voted unanimously last month to direct Georgia Power to nearly double the giant utility company’s solar capacity, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

Questions to PSC about whether a public hearing will be held, or when a vote might take place, went unanswered. PSC spokeswoman Angier Johnson in an email to APR on Wednesday replied that it would not be appropriate for the commission to respond to questions because it is an ongoing proceeding. 

National Public Radio reported in June that Alabama Power has the highest backup fee based on the size of the residential solar system among all other large, investor-owned utility providers in the U.S. 

The next regular PSC meeting is set for Sept .10. The agenda that sets what is to be deliberated in the meeting will likely be released around Sept. 6.

Motion for Hearing

SELC Response

Amended Complaint

Alabama Power Response to Motion for Hearing

 

Advertisement

Environment

Alabama’s drinking water is safe during COVID-19 crisis, ADEM Director Says

Staff

Published

on

By

Alabama’s drinking water is safe, so there’s no need to hoard cases of bottled water during the coronavirus crisis, according to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

“With so many things Alabamians have to worry about – their jobs, social distancing, the welfare of loved ones, gathering food and other necessities – the safety of their drinking water shouldn’t be one of them,” said Lance LeFleur, ADEM’s director. “The water they get from their tap, whether it’s from a large municipal system or a small, rural utility, is 100 percent safe due to the proven safety requirements they are required to follow and that ADEM enforces. People don’t need to fear the coronavirus as far as their water is concerned.”

LeFleur in a statement from his office points out that the disinfectants used in the water systems—as standard operating procedures kill viruses, including COVID-19. It is also a standard operation of municipal wastewater systems to kill any viruses before the treated water is discharged into Alabama’s rivers and streams.

“ADEM, through its permitting and inspections, is making sure the drinking water systems, as well as wastewater systems, abide by the appropriate, stringent clean water standards,” LeFleur said.

In a letter sent to Gov. Kay Ivey, on Friday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew R. Wheeler emphasized the importance of the public having confidence in their water supply during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“Ensuring that drinking water and wastewater services are fully operational is critical to containing COVID-19 and protecting Americans from other public health risks,” Wheeler said. “Handwashing and cleaning depend on providing safe and reliable drinking water and effective treatment of wastewater.”

Wheeler also said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recognizes water and wastewater treatment workers and their suppliers as essential critical infrastructure workers and urged state and local officials to “ensure that these workers and businesses receive the access, credentials, and essential status necessary to sustain our nation’s critical infrastructure.”

LeFleur agrees with Homeland Security’s designation of essential workers.

Advertisement

“From an environmental standpoint, nothing is more important than maintaining clean drinking water,” he said. “While coronavirus does not in itself pose a threat to our drinking water, nor to our wastewater treatment systems, it would be impossible to fight the virus without clean water. Our water systems and their employees are essential, and from our standpoint, so too are the people, our people, whose job is to make sure those systems are safe and well-maintained.”

Aubrey White heads the drinking water branch of ADEM’s Water Division, which oversees municipal and rural water systems as part of the agency’s authority delegated by the EPA to carry out the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Alabama. ADEM does this through enforcement of regulations, construction and operating permits, robust monitoring and reporting, and frequent inspections of the nearly 600 public water systems in the state.

“Obviously, this is a huge responsibility given us, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” White said. “Even as a lot of business and state agencies have curtailed activities due to COVID-19-related mandates, we must continue the monitoring, inspections, reporting and enforcement of the regulations that help ensure our water is clean and safe and will remain clean and safe.”

An example of ADEM’s continuing efforts to safeguard public health is the State Revolving Fund (SRF), through which the agency provides low-interest loans to public water, wastewater and stormwater management systems to pay for infrastructure improvement projects. Three such projects recently were awarded funding by ADEM totaling millions of dollars and are currently in the public comment period – $1.25 million to the Grand Bay Water Works Board in Mobile County for a new wastewater treatment unit; $1.2 million to Phenix City for a sanitary sewer lift station; and $462,000 to Spanish Fort to restore and improve a drainage canal.

“Some of these projects might not be possible if not for the financial assistance we help provide,” said Kris Berry, chief of ADEM’s State Revolving Fund section. “These projects were proposed by the local authorities based on what they need to maintain and improve their safe water managing systems, reviewed by our staff and opened to the public to weigh in.”

Created by 1982 Law

Making sure our drinking water is safe is just one of the many vital roles ADEM performs. Protecting the state’s air, water and land by enforcing state and federal rules and regulations is why ADEM exists.

ADEM traces its roots to the Alabama Environmental Management Act, passed by the Alabama Legislature in 1982 to create a comprehensive program of environmental management for the state. The law created the Alabama Environmental Management Commission and established ADEM as the vehicle to absorb several commissions, agencies, programs and staffs that had been responsible for implementing environmental laws.

 ADEM, with 575 employees at its headquarters in Montgomery and regional offices in Birmingham, Decatur and Mobile, administers all major federal environmental laws. These include the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts and federal solid and hazardous waste laws.

During the current health crisis, LeFleur said his agency is following the new mandates issued by Gov. Kay Ivey and the state health officer to curtail the spread of COVID-19, which means some employees are working remotely. However, ADEM offices are operating under normal business hours while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

“All essential functions of the department are being performed,” the director said. “All citizen complaints received by ADEM will be investigated, and they can be submitted and tracked electronically. In addition, ADEM staff is readily accessible, and public contact is available seamlessly by phone and email.”

ADEM’s website, www.adem.alabama.gov, provides plenty of useful information, LeFleur said. Website visitors can keep up with current issues, including notices, comment periods and contact information, as well as enforcement actions.

If past public health and public safety crises are an indication, ADEM could be called on to help in another way. ADEM trucks and vehicles are available to the Alabama Emergency Management Agency to transport medical supplies and other uses. LeFleur said those vehicles helped transport supplies following the Gulf oil spill as well as in the aftermath of hurricanes and tornadoes that struck the state.

Helping Protect Jobs

LeFleur said ADEM continues to work with local economic development offices concerning new industry. These efforts help protect current jobs and provides assistance to industry that create new jobs. In addition to the current SRF loan projects, other programs through which ADEM provides assistance include scrap tire cleanups, unauthorized dump cleanups, recycling grants, water and air quality monitoring, weather forecasting, underground storage tank monitoring and cleanups, anti-litter campaigns and brownfield cleanup program.

“The fact is, we are doing a lot that the public is not aware of to assist businesses and local governments,” LeFleur said. “That is especially important now when everyone is eager for the coronavirus crisis to end and for people to go back to work.

“That is not to say, however, that we are going easy on them. To the contrary, if they violate their permits and regulations and cause environmental harm, rest assured we are going to hold them accountable. Our job one is protecting Alabama’s water, air and land resources, and by extension public safety. That is what we are continuing to do.”

 

Continue Reading

Environment

Department of Conservation says most state parks will stay open

Brandon Moseley

Published

on

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said last week that most of their outdoor facilities remain open for recreation.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ADCNR has made a number of temporary changes to its business operations for the safety of its employees and the general public. The changes will be in effect until at least April 6, 2020.

Alabama State Parks and associated facilities remain open with the exception of cave tours at Rickwood and Cathedral Caverns state parks.

Some dining operations will be modified to limit close contact of guests.

The Alabama Political Reporter was in Eufaula on Thursday and ate breakfast at Lakepoint Lodge’s formal dining room, but by that night the restaurant had become carryout only and the seafood buffet scheduled for Friday night was discontinued.

“Park visitors are encouraged to follow all current hand washing and social distancing guidelines,” ADCNR wrote in a statement. “For updates, please follow Alabama State Parks on social media.”

ADCNR said that all state public fishing lakes remain open as well as all ADCNR shooting and archery ranges.

ADCNR Wildlife Management Areas and Special Opportunity Areas remain open.

Advertisement

“ADCNR’s state and district offices are closed to the public with the exception of the Marine Resources Division offices in Gulf Shores and Dauphin Island,” ADCNR said. “Those offices will be open for commercial license sales only on Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

ADCNR Law Enforcement Offices are also closed to the public but remain staffed to answer questions by phone. More information is available here.

To report hunting or fishing violations, please call (800) 272-GAME.

Conservation Enforcement Officers will continue to patrol state land and waterways and render aid to the public. Forever Wild tracts remain open for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, paddling, and hunting — as permitted.

The 5 Rivers Delta Resources Center facilities are closed, but the grounds remain open to the public during regular business hours for trail use and kayak launching.

Hunting and fishing licenses are still available online, through the Outdoor AL mobile app, or at various license agents located throughout the state.

Due to the evolving nature of the pandemic, ADCNR recommends calling individual state parks and other facilities if you have questions about reservations or operational hours. Contact information can be found here.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

 

Continue Reading

Congress

Democrats reject coronovirus bill, saying more is needed for working people

Eddie Burkhalter

Published

on

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, said he voted Sunday evening against moving forward a $1.6 trillion emergency rescue package during a procedural vote because it doesn’t go far enough to help working people who need relief the most.

“We need a strong, bipartisan package that directly assists our workers, our health care providers, and vulnerable folks who need it most,” Jones said in a statement. “We have no time to waste, so I am hopeful that this failed vote reiterates the message to Leader McConnell that the time for games is over and we need to move tonight to a bill that can receive broad support from the Senate and also pass in the House. We’ve got more work to do on this bill to make sure we’re not leaving working families behind.”

Democrats say the bill too heavily favored corporations and their executives, and does too little to help working people. Democrats also said the package didn’t include money for state and local governments,  and only provided three months of unemployment insurance, according to Politico.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. had postponed the vote earlier on Sunday when it became clear not enough Democrats supported it to move it forward.

Continue Reading

Environment

“It’s their choice. Individual freedom:” Alabama beaches to remain open for now

Eddie Burkhalter

Published

on

The Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism president said that the families and college students at Alabama’s beaches this week are there by “individual choice.” 

As beaches in some parts of Florida closed in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Alabama’s coastline this week remained busy. 

Photos shared widely on social media show a crowded Orange Beach, with college-aged people lying close to one another on beach towels, and splashing in the surf. 

Public health officials caution against standing within 6 feet of others, or risk exposure to the virus that’s infected more than 7,000 in the U.S. and killed more than 100. The Baldwin County Commission on Saturday declared a local state of emergency due to the pandemic. 

Herb Malone, president of  Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, said during a press conference Wednesday that people visiting the beaches during spring break this week are making an “individual choice” to do so. 

Malone said the area is in the middle of spring break and is running at about “70 percent capacity.” 

“We do have families with children. We do have college kids who are very pleased to be here…so we welcome them this year,” Malone said. 

“Our questions are, why are they still here? Because it’s their choice. Individual freedom,” Malone said. “People have spent money to get here. They’ve made reservations some time ago.”

Advertisement

The remarks Wednesday came as a leader of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force urged young people to take the virus seriously. She urged young people to heed the advice to socially distance and be wary of the coronavirus pandemic even though they do not fall in the highest risk groups, CNN reported.

“There are concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill and very seriously ill in the ICUs,” Birx said.

“We think part of this may be that people heeded the early data coming out of China and coming out of South Korea of the elderly or those with preexisting medical conditions were a particular risk,” she continued. “It may have been that the millennial generation … there may be disproportional number of infections among that group and so even if it’s a rare occurrence it may be seen more frequently in that group.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday declined to issue an order to close the state’s beaches, and instead ordered beachgoers refrain from gathering in groups of 10 or more. 

“What we’re going to be doing for the statewide floor for beaches, we’re going to be applying the CDC guidance of no group on a beach more than 10 and you have to have distance apart if you’re going to be out there, so that applies statewide,” DeSantis told reporters. 

Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach announced they would close their beaches this week, however, and the City of Boca Raton followed and also closed beaches.

Joining Malone at the press conference Wednesday was the Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency Director Zach Hood, and Alabama’s assistant state health officer Dr. Karen Landers, who joined by phone. 

Neither Hood nor Landers spoke about the beachgoers or the threat they faced from contracting COVID-19 by congregating in large numbers. 

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon has asked Gov. Kay Ivey to close the public beaches, Al.com reported Wednesday. 

Asked at an earlier press conference on Wednesday if she was considering closing the beaches, Ivey said, “Certainly that’s under consideration, but we’re exploring efforts to protect the people of Alabama, but, if we decide to make that announcement we’ll do that at a later date.”

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Authors

Advertisement

The V Podcast

Facebook

Trending

.