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Alabama Public Service Commission set to decide fate of solar fee

Eddie Burkhalter

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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.

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“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.” 

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. 

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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

 

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Prosecution accepts misdemeanor plea in high-profile environmental administrator’s case 

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Bill Britt

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Almost two years ago, Trump administration EPA Region 4 Administrator Onis “Trey” Glenn III was charged with more than a dozen state felony ethics violations. On Monday, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges after reaching a plea agreement with the prosecution.

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

According to a statement from the Ethics Commission at the time, Glenn, along with former Alabama Environmental Management Commissioner Scott Phillips, was charged after a Jefferson County grand jury returned indictments against the two on Nov. 9, 2018, according to a statement from the Ethics Commission.

Rather than moving forward with the case, prosecutors dropped the felony charges against Glenn. They opted to reach an agreement to accept a plea on three counts of “unintentional” violations of the ethics code. Glenn received a two-year suspended sentence for his actions.

“In the interest of efficiency, we were pleased to take advantage of the opportunity to resolve this matter,” Glenn’s attorney Matt Hart told APR when reached for comment. “My client pleaded to unintentional, misdemeanor violations of the ethics law, and the matter is concluded.”

Questions surround the prosecution’s decision to settle the case for a confession to minor offensives in such a high profile case. Still, from the beginning, the case was marred by allegations that the Alabama Ethics Commission’s lawyers had mishandled the investigation and indictments.

Indictments against Glenn and Phillips were reported by AL.com even before the pair was arrested or served with the indictments. In AL.com’s report, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said that then-Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help indict the two men.

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As first reported by APR, shortly after Glenn and Phillips’ indictments, Albritton and his team’s actions raised serious questions about the process that led to charges against the two men. APR reported that Albritton and Ethics Commission lawyer Cynthia Propst Raulston approached Anderton, and he did not request help with the case from the commission, as was reported in AL.com.

Later, APR confirmed that the Ethics Commission approached Anderton, contradicting Albritton’s public statement. In a sworn statement given on Feb. 9, 2019, Anderton said it was Ethics Commission lawyers who approached him, as first reported by APR in November of last year.

According to Anderton, in the fall of 2018, Propst Raulston approached him because “she had a case she wanted to present to the Jefferson County Grand Jury.”

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He further states, “I told Ms. Raulston that I would facilitate her appearance before the grand jury but that my office did not have the resources to support her case. I also told her that she would have to prosecute the case herself.”

These and other aberrations came into sharper focus when Hart — the state’s most famous prosecutor of his generation turned defense attorney — began diving into the particulars of the prosecution’s case.

Glenn’s defense argued from the start that procedural process was circumvented when Albritton and Propst Raulston took the complaint directly to a grand jury rather than the Ethics Commission as prescribed by the Legislature.

An ethics commissioner told APR privately that the commission was never informed about a complaint against the two men, nor was the investigation.

According to internal sources, actions taken by Albritton and Propst Raulston created turmoil at the commission and raised a question about who would prosecute the case on the state’s behalf.

During the process, Albritton, Propst Raulston, and other attorneys for the commission asked the attorney general’s office to take over the case; however, according to sources within the office, the AG turned them down after a review found “statutory problems” with how the case against Glenn and Phillips was handled.

In a motion to dismiss, the defense said, “In sum, the Ethics Commission Staff trampled Mr. Glenn’s rights in obtaining the indictment without giving him his required notice and an opportunity to be heard as required by the Alabama Ethics Act, and then after indictment denied him notice as guaranteed by the Grand Jury Secrecy Act and failed to protect his presumption of innocence as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

While not explicitly noted in the motion to dismiss, the relationship between environmental group GASP and the prosecution was a subject that would have been heard in the hearing on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Immediately following Glenn and Phillips’ indictment, GASP posted a celebratory tweet, even taking credit for the indictment.

Former GASP director Stacie Propst is the sister of Ethics Commission lawyer Propst Raulston who presented the case to the Jefferson County grand jury.

While many in the environmental community celebrated Glenn’s indictment, the defense argued the prosecution took an illegal short cut to indict him, which denied Glenn due process and amounted to selective and vindictive prosecution.

Monday’s plea agreement ended the two-year drama without further exposure as to what happened behind the scene. Phillips’s case is still pending.

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Interior Department designates new national recreational trail in Alabama

The designation is part of a broader national announcement that establishes 30 new national recreation trails in 25 states, adding more than 1,275 miles to the National Trails System.

Brandon Moseley

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Located in Cheaha State Park, the Doug Ghee Accessible Trail (Bald Rock Boardwalk) is a 0.3-mile boardwalk trail.

United States Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt this week designated a new national recreation trail in Alabama.

Located in Cheaha State Park, the Doug Ghee Accessible Trail (Bald Rock Boardwalk) is a 0.3-mile boardwalk trail that allows users of all abilities to journey through the enchanted hardwood forested foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

The designation is part of a broader national announcement that establishes 30 new national recreation trails in 25 states, adding more than 1,275 miles to the National Trails System.

The announcement is in addition to the 370 miles of national recreation trails that were designated in 2018, bringing the Trump administration’s total to 49 national recreation trails added, spanning 1,645 miles.

“I encourage Americans to get outside, enjoy our incredible public lands and visit a nearby national recreation trail,” Bernhardt said. “Spanning more than 83,000 miles, larger than the interstate highway system, the National Trails System provides easy access to a wide variety of outdoor experiences. The Trump Administration is committed to expanding public access to the outdoors, so more Americans have the opportunity and ability to experience it in all of its splendor.”

Bernhardt said that the new designations advance the Trump administration’s priority to increase public access to outdoor recreational opportunities in alignment with Secretary’s Order 3366.

Interior-managed outdoor recreation activities support more than 452,000 jobs and account for more than $58 billion in economic output across the country.

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“American Trails promotes and maintains the database of our country’s National Recreation Trails (NRT) and applauds this new slate of Secretarial designations from the Department of the Interior,” said NRT executive director Mike Passo. “The NRT program brings vibrancy to the National Trail System by uniquely highlighting trails that are accessible, relatable, and serve a wide diversity of our nation’s public. With these designations, the NRT database at AmericanTrails.org exceeds 1,300 trails.”

“American Hiking Society welcomes the designation of 30 new National Recreation Trails that will create enhanced recreational opportunities for hikers and all types of trail users,” said American Hiking Society executive director Kate Van Waes. “Each trail selected to receive this honor must support a diversity of users, reflect its region, and be among America’s best trails, all qualities that benefit the hiking community.”

“Americans are enjoying close-to-home recreation and thanks to our amazing National Trails System, they have even more places to explore,” said PeopleForBikes President and CEO Jenn Dice. “With a 75 percent increase in bike ridership on trails this year, we commend the Department of the Interior for this expansion and granting our nation more access to the outdoors. Thanks to these initiatives, we’re getting closer to meeting the needs of a fast-growing community of people outdoors and on bikes finding joy, freedom and health on our trails nationwide.”

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The National Trails System, which includes national scenic, national historic, and national recreation trails, offers an abundance of scenic, historic and recreation trails for outdoor enjoyment on America’s public lands.

The system promotes preservation, public access, travel within and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas, and historic resources of the United States.

The National Recreation Trails Program is jointly administered by the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, in conjunction with a number of federal and nonprofit partners.

The designation of a national recreation trail can be done by either the secretary of the interior or the secretary of agriculture on an existing local or regional trail with the consent of the federal, state, local, nonprofit or private entity that has jurisdiction over the trail.

Families are looking for more outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, fishing, hunting and camping given the dangers associated with group activities like sports, theaters and other activities during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hiking on the National Recreation Trails is a fun, safe activity that the whole family can enjoy while still maintaining CDC recommended social distancing.

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State shuts down flounder harvest in November

Fishermen can resume harvesting flounders Dec. 1, 2020, at 12:01 a.m.

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Marine Resources Division reminded saltwater fishermen that harvesting any flounder (Paralichthys albigutta) during the month of November is prohibited.

“The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division would like to remind anglers of the flounder changes that were adopted on August 1, 2019,” the MRD announced. “Flounder will be closed for harvest during the entire month of November for both commercial and recreational fishermen.”

Fishermen can resume harvesting flounders Dec. 1, 2020, at 12:01 a.m.

The MRD reminds saltwater anglers that the recreational size limit for flounder is 14 inches total length, and the daily bag limit is five per person. The commercial size limit is 14 inches total length with a daily limit of 40 per person or 40 per vessel.

Alabama is a sportsman’s paradise with year-round freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing and hunting opportunities. Hunting and fishing are activities that the whole family can enjoy while still social distancing to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Remember that you must have a valid license to hunt or fish. You can get the appropriate licenses online.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is tasked with promoting wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. More information is available online.

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ADEM director weighs-in on coal ash pond closures

APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

Bill Britt

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ADEM Director Lance LeFleur

Over the next few weeks, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management will hold public hearings on the regulated closures of three coal combustion residuals storage sites, commonly referred to as coal ash ponds.

While ADEM receives high marks from federal regulators and businesses within Alabama, there is always a certain skepticism that surrounds environmental issues both on the left and the right side of the political spectrum.

Recently, APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

“I know that there’s skepticism about government,” LeFleur said. “And it’s healthy to have skepticism about government, state governments, local government, federal government. Skepticism is part of how we operate.” But LeFleur wants the public to know that ADEM’s first purpose is Alabamians’ health and safety.

“Our mission is to ensure for all Alabamians a safe, healthful and productive environment,” LeFleur said. “It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.”

LeFleur says while there are many competing sides to the issues that arise from coal ash disposal, ADEM must focus on “science and the laws.”

According to LeFleur, there are two primary issues that must be addressed when closing coal ash ponds: “avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.”

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EPA does not classify coal residue as hazardous waste, but LeFleur says that all closures must ensure dangerous elements are not leaching down into the groundwater.

“I think there’s pretty much unanimous opinion that these coal ash ponds need to be closed; they need to be closed properly,” said LeFleur. “And we need to clean up the groundwater that’s in place.”

He says that the entire process will take decades, but the power companies have committed to safely closing the coal ash ponds. “We are dealing with power companies that are going to be around for a long time. And they, they are obligated to get the result right,” said LeFleur.

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Alabama currently has 14 regulated CCR units at eight sites throughout the state. They are comprised of 10 unlined surface impoundments, one lined landfill, one lined surface impoundment all closed, and two lined landfills still in operation.

Public hearings are a significant part of the permit granting process, according to LeFleur, and ADEM’s website allows any individual to review every document and comment about a coal ash pond’s closing.

“You can see all of the comments that we received,” LeFleur said. “Every issue raised during the comment period and written response to comments are available.” ADEM’s website also includes the closure plans as well as all correspondence between agency and utility companies.

According to ADEM, the purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups, and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits.

“This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA, and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plan —including the CCR unit closure component— and answer residents’ questions,” said LeFleur.

Closing a unit requires months of planning with ADEM engineers to make sure all procedures are followed correctly. Federal rules for closing CCRs have only been around since April 2015, when EPA released final measures for management and disposal of CCRs from electric utilities. In 2018, ADEM issued its state CCR rule, which closely tracks the federal regulations.

Under both Presidents Obama and Trump, the EPA has allowed for coal ash sites to be closed by two methods — closure in place and by removal.

Alabama’s utilities have chosen the cap in place method. Some environmental groups prefer removal. But estimates say that moving CCRs from Alabama Power’s Plant Barry would take around 30 years with trucks leaving the site every six minutes.

“Regardless of which method of closure is used, that process will take a couple of years to accomplish at these sites,” said LeFleur. “If it’s kept in place, the material has been de-watered then pushed together to create a smaller footprint, and then that will be covered with an impervious cover.”

The objective, according to ADEM, is to protect the groundwater and the environment from pollution.

Power providers and environmentalists seem to agree there isn’t a perfect solution. Public hearings are to ensure that community voices and those of environmentalists are heard.

“This entire process is designed to stop contamination to groundwater and future contamination to groundwater; those are the most important facts now,” said LeFleur. “There are always political issues, you know, at least two sides, and sometimes there’s three, four or five sides. We focus on science and the laws. That’s what we do.”

While ADEM has its critics, it receives a high rating from the EPA, and an annual survey by the Alabama Department of Commerce finds that it gets top marks from business and industry in the state.

ADEM’s first public hearing on coal ash permits will be held Tuesday, Oct. 20, for Alabama Power’s Miller Steam Plant in west Jefferson County. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the West Jefferson Town Hall. Other upcoming hearings are Thursday, Oct. 22, for Plant Greene County located in Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County.

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