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Alabama Public Service Commission sets public hearing on solar fees

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Public Service Commission on Monday announced it would hold a “limited” public hearing to discuss a complaint over Alabama Power’s fees to customers with solar rooftop arrays. 

For many months it was unclear whether the PSC would allow the environmental group complainants — Energy Alabama and the Birmingham-based Gasp, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center — to make their case for abolishing the extra fees to the commission in a public hearing. 

The environmental groups and Alabama Power have both made their arguments in written filings to the commission since the complaint was initially made in April 2018, which argued 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 has said the extra fees are needed to offset the costs associated with providing backup power to customers with rooftop solar panels. 

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. A 5-kilowatt system would increase a customer’s bill by $25 a month, in addition to all other fees and electrical usage. This fee applies to homes, small businesses and schools. 

During written arguments to the PSC since the complaint was filed, Alabama Power decided that after reviewing the figures the company wants to increase the fee from $5 per kilowatt-hour to $5.42 per kilowatt-hour. 

The decision to allow the public hearing will give both sides the opportunity to make those arguments in person and in front of the public. 

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“We were pleasantly surprised,” Said Daniel Tait, Energy Alabama’s chief operations officer, speaking to APR on Wednesday. “Happy to see the Public Service Commission actually listen to constituents and hundreds of petitions. A lot of people around the state were making their voice heard. So, nice. Nice to see that have an impact for once.”

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Tait cautioned, however, that the decision to hold the public hearing meant only that he and the other supporters of dropping the extra fee would get another chance to make their cases. 

The decision still rests with the PSC as to whether to get rid of that $5 per kilowatt-hour fee, allow Alabama Power to raise it to $5.45 per kilowatt-hour or keep it at the current $5 rate. 

“We are focused on protecting all our customers and ensuring that those who use certain services pay for those services,” said Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman in a statement to APR on Monday regarding the public hearing. “We believe we have a compelling case and have demonstrated it, but we are certainly prepared to provide the PSC with whatever additional information it believes is warranted.”

Michael Hansen, executive director at Gasp, told APR on Wednesday that he was glad to see the PSC decide to hold the public hearing. 

“I’m happy the PSC granted the hearing we requested in 2018, albeit limited in scope, so that our members and the people of Alabama might get answers as to how Alabama Power justifies their highest-in-the-nation penalties for customers who go solar,” Hansen wrote to APR. “…we’re proud to be fighting for a just and equitable energy economy for everyone in Alabama, and this case is one part of that work.”

John Garner, chief administrative law judge at PCS, wrote in his order Monday that the hearing would be limited to evidence that had previously been submitted to the commission. Witnesses who provided prior written testimony to the commission must attend the hearing and be prepared for cross-examined, the order states. 

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 public hearing is to take place on Nov. 21 at 9 a.m. in the main hearing room at the Carl L. Evans Hearing Complex located at 100 North Union Street in Montgomery. 

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