December 2, 2019 by Sara Harper, LHC Student Intern
Thursday, November 21, I attended the Alabama Public Service Commission’s public rate hearing on Alabama Power’s fee on solar producers. Alabama Power charges solar users who are plugged into the “grid” $5 per kW of energy they produce. The idea behind the fee is to cover the costs of solar-users who draw supplementary power from the grid during non-productive hours. However, the fees erase most savings that solar producers would be getting from switching to renewables and make recovering the cost of installation difficult. GASP, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Energy Alabama requested the hearing, testifying that the stand-by fee is unnecessary, discriminatory, and has impeded upon Alabama’s solar progress for years.
The inside of the courtroom was representative of the greater issue we were there to discuss. People of all ages and races filed in until the space became standing room only. Supporters of the cause sported a sticker reading “Let it Shine” emblazoned with a bright yellow sun. Once the stickers were passed out to those willing, it was easy to discern there was a greater majority of “pro” than “against”. Advocates of all demographics exemplified that Alabama Power’s monopoly is a bipartisan issue that concerns all of Alabama’s residents.
On the other hand, the current public service commission seems entirely partisan, all three of its members being part of the Republican Party, and was moderated by an agitated Administrative Law Judge John Garner. Alabama power was represented by one lawyer and Team Leader of Regulatory Costing, Natalie Dean. The whole scene conveyed that Alabama Power was not intimidated by their challengers and the legislators were annoyed to be pulled into work so early in the morning (the hearing was scheduled at 9AM to deter public engagement).
Alabama Power, backed by the Public Service Commission, continues to force Alabamians to pay some of the highest solar rates in the US. Throughout the course of the day it was easy to tell that the Public Service Commission was not interested in the minutia of the hearing: one example of this being Judge Garner and Commission chair Chip Beeker exchanging phones and giggling to themselves on the stand while the SELC was cross examining Natalie Dean. A blatant example of misuse of power was displayed when Judge Garner disrupted a testimony to order the bailiff to remove anyone filming the hearing from the courtroom. Several audience members, all adorned with sunshine stickers, were removed from the courtroom; most notably Kari Powell, who has run for a Public Service Commission seat in the past. This removal was unconstitutional and those several who were removed were prepared to show the bailiff the exact legislation that defended the legality of their recording. The recordings were an attempt to make the “public” hearing accessible and keep Alabama Power and the Public Service Commission accountable for what was discussed, despite the two entities being involved in controversial a smear campaign a few years prior.
An official decision on the fees was not made on the 21st. Both parties have until December 20th to submit their final orders and a decision will be made after that. The odds seem stacked against the Alabama advocates for solar energy; however, an appeal of the case could be sent to the United States Supreme Court.