We need more transparency and accountability for our state energy decisions at the Public Service Commission. When we need to be looking forward, the system in place with our current Commissioners holds us back. Our energy future hangs in the balance. Watch an interview based on years of watching the current system at work.
Joe Biden over Trump. Doug Jones over Tuberville. Laura Casey over Twinkle. Vote for Trust, Truth and Transparency and not for those whose names start with T. We will all be better for it!
Lately there are more and more Alabamians and other US citizens preoccupied with T.
I don’t just mean Trump, or his Tweets, Threats or Turmoil or even his Covid Tests.
I don’t mean Alabama Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville or Tigers or other Teams he coached before taking his football experience into politics where the main thing he knows how to do is have Trump’s back.
And I don’t mean a Trillion in excess profits that Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) allowed Alabama Power Company. Because, thankfully, it was only a Billion over 5 years out of customers’ pockets, not a Trillion. But it is about Twinkle, currently president of the regulatory body charged with balancing customer needs and those of our monopoly power provider.
Most important are Trust, Truth and Transparency in all three venues:
- Joe Biden’s experience, much-needed capability and decency for leading our reeling country.
- Doug Jones’ years of service, legal experience and bi-partisan bona fides to continue to represent Alabama in the US Senate.
- Laura Casey’s bid to replace Twinkle Cavanaugh as a welcome newcomer to examine some regulatory practices that seem more like rule by the regulated at the Alabama Public Service Commission.
Let’s start with Twinkle. Profits for monopolies are set by regulators since they don’t have any competition. In most states there is a formal process called a rate case to hear and evaluate different evidence for how much utilities should be allowed to earn in the absence of competition.
In 2013, Alabama Power hadn’t had that kind of oversight in 30 years. One of the PSC commissioners said it was long overdue because utilities here were allowed a much higher profit than those in other states. However, that year under Twinkle’s leadership, the Alabama PSC instead concocted “informal public proceedings” – more like infomercials for the three utilities they regulate. The two gas companies were cut closer to the norm. But for Alabama Power, the PSC, with help, came up with a new formula unused anywhere else in the country. It disguised the higher profits the company kept earning.
It made a difference in our pocketbooks! According to an analysis by the Energy and Policy Institute, from 2014 through 2018 the unusual new arrangement cost Alabama Power customers $1 billion more than the average for similar U.S. electric utilities.
Trust and transparency? There was supposed to be a review of the impacts of this unique new formula reward system in 2019, but there’s been no report. In late June 2020, the PSC Executive Director emailed “… the Staff’s report remains an ongoing work in progress, in that we have been rather occupied with higher priority items. I do not have an estimated date of when the report will be completed.” [emphasis added].
Transparency obviously isn’t a high priority for the PSC under Twinkle. What have they got to hide? Don’t forget that Twinkle Cavanaugh stood by as Laura Casey and two others were evicted from a March solar policy hearing for attempting to record or live stream the process.
Trust, Truth and Transparency at the PSC? Choose Laura Casey over Twinkle for some much-needed housecleaning.
Choose Doug Jones over Tuberville! U.S. Senator Doug Jones is a thoughtful and well-informed leader who sides with those of either party when they have good policies for Alabama and our country.
Coach Tuberville has refused to debate Senator Jones, and has shown that he knows very little about policies he will be called upon to support or oppose. In his three years representing us, Doug Jones has already passed 21 bipartisan bills signed by the president and also earned trophies in the form of three U.S. Chamber of Commerce awards for bipartisan and business-friendly leadership. He has concrete and workable plans to benefit our One Alabama.
Choose Joe Biden over Trump. Trust is built on truthful transparency. The Biden campaign is built on his years of moderate pragmatism and he has a platform based on science and facts. It spells out ways to move the country through and past this triple threat of pandemic, protests and economic hardships, to protect health care and address climate change. There’s no Republican platform except to continue with the many untruths, misinformation and misleading examples of the Trump-driven administration. The Economist puts it this way: “Joe Biden would not remake America’s economy. He would improve its fortunes, though.”
Joe Biden over Trump. Doug Jones over Tuberville. Laura Casey over Twinkle. Vote for Trust, Truth and Transparency and not for those whose names start with T. We will all be better for it.
ACT NOW – Request that the Alabama Public Service Commission hold a public hearing on the excess solar charge.
Our Alabama Public Service Commission has allowed Alabama Power to charge us the highest connection fee in the country if we want to generate some of our own electricity but be connected to the grid for backup. Why should Alabama be the only state where our energy future continues to be decided behind closed doors? This important issue is discussed in public everywhere else.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has filed a complaint with the PSC on behalf of Gasp and some of its members about the inappropriateness of the tariff stealthily imposed in 2013 on self-generated electricity with grid backup. APC responded with a request to dismiss their complaint and to raise the fee.
Ask for the simple opportunity for a public hearing about the charges on self-generated electricity. And let others know to ask our elected commissioners to open the closed doors so we can hear this discussed in public, even if we’re not allowed to speak! The PSC received all the formal documents it requested by August 20th, 2019 but still hasn’t ruled – so don’t wait.
- How to contact the PSC directly – Calls are counted: 334-242-5218.
- President:Twinkle Cavanaugh – firstname.lastname@example.org
- Place 1: Jeremy Oden – Jeremy.Oden@psc.alabama.gov
- Place 2: Chip Beeker – email@example.com
- Our designated advocate – Assistant Atty. General Olivia Martin – OMartin@ago.state.al.us
- PSC Exec. Dir. & Chief Admin. Law Judge: Judge John Garner- Karen.Rogers@psc.alabama.gov
- Secretary: Walter Thomas – Walter.Thomas@psc.alabama.gov
- Energy Policy Director: John Free – John.Free@psc.alabama.gov
What we need to see that’s behind the Alabama PSC’s closed doors:
- Information for comparing Alabama Power’s allowed earnings with other similar investor owned utilities. Everyone else uses Return on Equity -around 9-10% on average. Alabama PSC – for Alabama Power only – uses a Weighted Return on Equity – 5.75-6.15%. Do the math and Alabama Power still gets a higher profit on its equity capital than any other electric utility in the country.
In 2013 the PSC changed Alabama Power Company’s (APC’s) allowed earnings calculation from one based on the industry standard Return on Equity (ROE) to a weighted cost of equity formula created just for it, unused by any other regulator.
During 2013 “informal public proceedings” in place of a rate case, APC picked what they considered to be peer investor owned utilities to compare in order to show that their ROE wasn’t so high when capital structure was considered. However, data required to compare APC earnings with peer IOUs haven’t been made publicly available since, either by the PSC or APC. They can provide these comparisons easily, but it is extremely difficult and costly for consumers to try to track down comparable numbers locked behind paywalls.
If it objects to using ROE for compensation, citing the importance of utility capital structure, then APC and/or the PSC should provide comparable Weighted Return on Equity data. (PSC calls it Weighted Retail Return on Common Equity = WRRCE).
Actual ROE for the company was above 13.2% in 2017 and 2018. APC projects its WRRCE to be 6.12% in 2019. With its planned increase of percent of capital from equity to 51.24%, its projected ROE works out to be 11.94%. How does this 6.12% figure compare to other electric utilities’ weighted cost of equity? We don’t have that information. The 11.94% calculated ROE projected for 2019 is still very high – see background information below.
With the closed system at the Alabama PSC, we have no way to determine if we’re getting the best service at the lowest reasonable cost. The PSC should initiate pre-decision transparency in its review of APC’s rates, instead of providing only a post-hoc set of meetings for APC to share financial information that has already served as the basis for an effective filing with the PSC. They should also provide comparable return data from other utilities in order to allow comparison to APC’s returns using their unique adopted formula.
- Access to and participation in the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan. On July 17, 2019, after various public hearings and stakeholder recommendations, Georgia Public Service Commission approved Georgia Power’s 20 year plan for providing electricity to its customers. Alabama Power faces no PSC requirement for submitting its plan, which remains behind closed doors.
APC and its sister operating companies and most other utilities prepare a plan (Integrated Resource Plan – IRP) every 3 to 5 years to look ahead 20 years. APCs last IRP was in 2016, finished in late 2015, and it will be completing another in 2019. An IRP includes not only traditional electricity supply, transmission and distribution, but also renewables and demand side options such as energy efficiency and distributed energy, generated by customers. The IRP is a guide for future decisions by APC, such as decisions made to comply with environmental requirements.
In other states, stakeholders can provide input into these plans allowing the opportunity for a broader perspective. Many have a stake in electric utility plans – residential, commercial and industrial customers, clean air, water and land use advocates, representatives of low-income groups, environmental justice supporters, clean energy businesses and others. APC’s sister Southern Company operating company, Georgia Power, has a relatively transparent planning process for its IRP. Affected parties can review and comment on the parts of it that aren’t trade secrets. Assumptions, including the viability of old plants, can be challenged and the draft plan changed before it’s approved by the Georgia PSC.
In Alabama there is no requirement for IRP approval by the PSC, much less allowance for stakeholder participation, or even the opportunity to read a redacted version. Assumptions about future demand, market conditions, regulations and other factors influencing APC choices are evaluated behind closed doors.
The PSC should require that: stakeholder input be built into APC’s IRP development process; the completed IRP be filed with the commission; and, after considering stakeholder review and comments and making appropriate changes to the final plan, the Commissioners should formally approve it.
- Legitimate APC price comparisons more specific than “below the national average”.
Alabama Power Company (APC) is proud to claim that their rates are lower than the national average. The national average includes Hawaii and Alaska, and other states which have very high rates. This “average” also mixes residential, commercial and industrial rates. In discussions of our high electricity use and bills, APC has pointed out that the Southeast differs in important ways from other sections of the country. That being the case, it is more relevant to compare APC rates by customer class with other similar IOUs in the 11 Southeast states (SE).
The U.S. Energy Information Agency reports annual average prices for each customer class by state, ownership class and utility. Comparing 2017 prices for 33 IOUs in the SE, APC has the 7th highest residential prices at 13.37 cents a kWh, the 4th highest commercial price at 12.16 cents/kWh and is slightly below the SE IOU average for industrial users. In addition, APC has the 10th highest residential price of the 36 utilities all over the country which the utility itself chose in 2013 as comparable IOUs to justify its high ROE.
APC and its regulator, the Alabama PSC, should provide at least annual utility price comparisons that unpack the convenient but misleading “below the national average” refrain relied on by the power company.
- Pre-decision public discussion of consequences and impact on consumers of all major APC-requested orders – well before the Commission votes.
Perhaps the most serious and consequential APC and PSC surprise decision, which continues to seriously affect electricity consumers and the state of Alabama, occurred on January 8, 2013. The PSC voted, with no discussion or public evaluation of impacts, to impose a stiff tariff of $5 per kW nameplate capacity on any self-generated electricity, including solar, if the customer chose to remain connected to the grid for backup.
The request for this decision was made electronically on December 20, 2012 just before the holiday. There is no available record of how long this request had been before the PSC staff and commissioners, or what review and analysis they or our assistant attorney general consumer advocates did or didn’t do. However, this is business as usual for any APC request, except in rare cases of acquisition or construction of new generation, which require a hearing.
The PSC allows APC to withhold their requests for PSC orders from public view and submit them online only two weeks before the expected formal vote. The staff may have worked with the utility for months or longer. By some unclear process, prior to the PSC monthly meeting, the commissioners have individually and privately assessed matters they will be voting on. At their meeting they typically vote without discussion. The official meeting seldom lasts even an hour, including pledge, prayer and point of personal privilege from the commissioners.
Ideally, Assistant Attorney Generals assigned to consumer protection at the PSC have participated in shaping the requests to reflect consumer interests, but there is little public demonstration of their involvement. They work for the Attorney General, who activates them only if she or he deems it in the “public interest”. Consumer advocacy groups in Alabama are relatively few, underfunded, understaffed and can seldom effectively challenge the business as usual decision processes at the PSC. However, Southern Environmental Law Center did file a complaint against the “solar tariff” and there is now testimony on both sides. See the background point number 4 for more information.
When APC requests a major new or changed tariff, program or service of any kind, and especially for distributed or renewable energy, the PSC should require that there be open analysis of the potential impact on each customer class. In order to provide time for informed participation and possible intervention, this information should be easily available to the public well before any PSC vote.
- Allowed earnings – Background
Five years ago, the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) changed the formula for how much Alabama Power Company (APC) is allowed to earn. From 1982 to 2013, Return on Equity (ROE) was used to determine electric utility returns by every PSC in the country, including Alabama, which had one of the highest, if not the highest allowed ROE in the U.S.
Most other regulated electric utilities in the country have had their allowed earnings set by occasional structured, technical rate cases with expert testimony reviewed, analyzed and discussed in order to determine a return on equity capital (ROE). This allowed return has historically been based on various ways to calculate the cost of obtaining that capital, but the Alabama PSC uses a Rate Stabilization and Equalization (RSE) formula implemented in 1982.
The Alabama PSC hasn’t had a formal rate case since RSE was implemented in 1982. In a series of “informal public proceedings” in 2013 in place of a rate case, the formula for APC was changed in a way that allowed them to continue that high rate of return without it being so visible. However, allowed ROE for the gas companies was cut about 20% from their 13% range to a 10% range, and it’s been cut even more this year.
Alabama Power earned an ROE of 13.24% in 2012, more than any other reported regulated utility in their class was allowed, but within their PSC range of 13.0 to 14.5%. After the formula was changed from ROE to a weighted return on equity (between 5.75% to 6.21%), APC has continued to earn very close to its 2012 rate, ending 2017 with an ROE of 13.27%. 2018 earned ROE was 14.38% but Rate RSE operated to reduce that to 13.21% because they were over their allowed range.
Edison Electric Institute, a trade organization for investor owned utilities (IOUs) like Alabama Power, provides a summary of average ROE’s allowed in IOU rate cases. For the 10 quarters from 2016 through Q2 2018, the high average allowed ROE of 10.26% in Q1 of 2016 declined to a low of 9.51% in Q2 of 2018. Alabama Power’s results of over 13% ROE are higher than any reported by their trade organization. Comparisons are complicated by other considerations, but with the closed system at the Alabama PSC, we have no way to determine if we’re getting the best service at the lowest cost.
- Integrated Resource Plan – Background
Energy Alabama has reviewed the IRP processes for TVA and APC. Their IRP policy brief reaches the following conclusion – that legislative action is needed to require a transparent and more accountable integrated resource plan for Alabama Power.
”The Alabama Public Service Commission has an opportunity to improve the provision of low-cost, low-risk electricity for its only regulated utility, Alabama Power, by following the best practice lead of other states and the advice of investors and regulatory advisors. Planning should be transparent, and consumers should have an adequate opportunity for knowledgeable and effective representation in the planning process and in the rate setting process overseen by our Public Service Commission.
To have a successful Alabama IRP process the Alabama legislature should enact a law requiring the PSC to conduct an open and transparent IRP process, as Georgia has required since 1992.
Without this necessary legislative and PSC action, customers are left in the dark about the demand and supply assumptions and analyses the utility conducts and whose interests they serve.”
- Comparison of rates and prices – Background
As an example of in-state rate comparison, Georgia PSC performs residential annual summer and winter rate surveys for electric cooperatives, municipals and their one investor owned utility, Georgia Power. “Surveys rank electric service providers by rates based on total electric bill amounts for 500, 1000, 1500 and 2000 KWH (kilowatt hours). Surveys are conducted biannually with winter surveys utilizing rates in effect for the month of January, and summer surveys utilizing rates in effect for the month of July. All electric providers in Georgia participate…”
There are avenues for the Alabama PSC (APSC) to be more forthcoming with APC customers about comparable rates even without doing the annual survey its neighboring PSC performs. The APSC prides itself on giving money back to the general fund. This practice may be a disservice to utility customers by cutting budgets and shortchanging them on important informational services as well as robust public proceedings.
- Pre-decision public discussion and analysis – Background
The imposition of the extra charge of $5 per kW nameplate capacity of the self-generating electricity source has created a major disincentive to solar installation and jobs in APC territory – the southern 2/3 of the state. Taking this vote without any public discussion of its impacts or analysis of actual costs or benefits to the system is just one example of the consequences of the lack of transparency at the PSC. According to the PSC rules, there was public notification. APC’s requested new tariff was posted online on the PSC data base 5 days before Christmas 2012 and the vote was made with no discussion a week after New Year’s day 2013. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the timing, no interested party picked up on this major requested extra charge, thereby missing the short window of opportunity to intervene and request a hearing.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has filed a complaint with the PSC on behalf of Gasp and some of its members about the inappropriateness of the tariff imposed on self-generated electricity with grid backup. APC responded with a request to dismiss their complaint and to raise the fee. This process is only partially available for public view, through searching the proceedings file located on the PSC website for dockets #U-4226 and #32767. If depositions are taken, they won’t be available to the public and the process will not necessarily result in a public hearing.
This question of the value of solar and its contribution to the grid is being debated all over the country – in public – but not in Alabama.
Another curious aspect of the Alabama PSC formal public monthly meetings is the vote on the off-agenda administrative details as the last item. Although a public vote is evidently required, there is no notice of the content, just a mention of a recently-circulated document. Only once was the public able to see an administrative issue that was involved, because two commissioners introduced procedures that upset the president of the commission by limiting her ability to speak unilaterally on behalf of the PSC. She objected in public, complaining about decisions being made “behind closed doors”. Yes!
See also: Outdated Alabama Public Service Commission needs change By Joyce Lanning 10/26/18
 The ROE formula used before 2014 capped the amount of capital from equity at 45%. In the new formula, WRRCE, which weights common equity by multiplying it by ROE, the capital from equity can rise as much as the company desires. Higher equity and lower debt are perceived by investors as less risky. Southern Company operating companies, including Alabama Power, are increasing equity toward 55%. Note that, with the WRRCE formula, as capital from equity increases, allowed ROE declines. The maximum ROE under the 2018 WRRCE formula with 55% capital from equity is (6.21+.07) = ROE x 55% equity. ROE = 6.28/55 = 11.42%. The bonus points of .07% are awarded if the company has an “A” bond rating or high customer satisfaction, which is almost always the case. The new 2019 base WRRCE range was changed in June 2018 and is 5.75%-6.15% (or 6.22% with bonus addition). At 55% capital from equity, the maximum ROE would be 11.31% . With a projected WRRCE in 2019 of 6.12 and the added bonus and projected % capitalization of retail equity of 50.21%, their 2019 projected ROE would be (6.12+.07)/51.24=11.94%.
 The open meetings law prevents discussions of conclusions among a quorum of members of a governmental organization when that subject will later require a formal decision by the body. However, it allows a quorum, including two members of a three-member body like the PSC, to “…gather for the sole purpose of exchanging background and education information or for the sole purpose of discussing an economic, industrial, or commercial prospect or incentive that does not include a conclusion as to recommendations, policy, decision, or final action on the terms or request or an offer of public financial resources.” See https://www.openmeetings.alabama.gov/generalpublic/downloads/Act2015-475.pdf
 The Discounted Cash Flow model, Capital Asset Pricing model and Allowed Return Risk Premium Analysis.
 Weighted Retail Return on Common Equity (between 5.75% to 6.21%) = ROE x % of capital from equity. Given the two other numbers in the formula, you can calculate ROE=WRRCE / % capital from equity.
 APC ended 2018 with WRRCE=6.75% which was over the allowed range of 5.75%-6.21%. An adjustment was required by the Rate Stabilization and Equalization formula in order to return over-collected amounts as a credit on customers’ bills, lowering the resulting earnings to a calculated ROE of 13.23%. See https://www.alabamapower.com/content/dam/alabamapower/Rates/RSE.pdf
 § 46-3A-2. Filing and approval of an integrated resource plan O.C.G.A. § 46-3A-2 (Lexis Advance through the 2018 Regular Session of the General Assembly)
 See the Energy Alabama Policy Brief: Open and Transparent Integrated Resource Planning https://alcse.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Energy-Alabama-Policy-Brief-Open-and-Transparent-IRP.pdf
 https://www.pscpublicaccess.alabama.gov/pscpublicaccess/PSC/PSCDocumentDetailsPage.aspx?DocumentId=170fd1f2-3a15-4bb9-b960-4bb960825d64&Class=Filing Redacted Testimony of Karl Rabago and Accompanying Exhibits Filed by Southern Environmental Law Center
Tuesday, May 1, 2018 the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) will decide how much you and I and the rest of Alabama Power Company (APCo) customers will get as a rate decrease.
You probably remember that Congressional action slashed taxes for corporations, including APCo. The head of Southern Company (SO), their parent, said these federal tax breaks to the utilities should give customers a 5-7% rate decrease (1). However, its subsidiary, Alabama Power, says our tax rate decrease will be 9% (2), but there are some other adjustments that it wants to make to protect its creditworthiness. For one thing, it’s concerned that tax payments collected from customers will be lower, so it will get a haircut on the cash flow generated by our monthly payments toward it’s taxes. The company uses these collected payments as “float” to partly fund operations between the time of collection and its deferred tax payments. Also, it wants to protect its creditworthiness by various adjustments and pay itself back for under collected fuel costs, which we owe, but can’t see since the usual report disappeared.
These major changes – which were deemed a “material change”, worthy of reporting to investors through an 8-k filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission – would benefit from some transparent public sharing process well before a few days prior to the scheduled vote.
But late notification is what has happened and continues to happen. Although the utility and the PSC staff have been working on this for months, they only let its customers know about it two weeks before the scheduled vote. You have to know the secret sauce to even search out their plans – buried in the PSC filing system under “How do I”/”Search Proceedings”/”Search for Document” … and more. (End of this search chain has links which are provided in case you’re interested (3)). The PSC meeting agenda, also searchable on the PSC site, is usually only posted on Friday before Commissioners’ Tuesday vote (2). Unlike for sister Southern Company Georgia Power, there is no provision for public working meetings of the Alabama PSC to discuss upcoming electric utility requests before the final vote.
Possibly, the final calculations agreed to through these complex deliberations could all work to our benefit, but most other utilities are watched by internal or external groups dedicated to looking out for customers’ interests. In Alabama, our protection is legally mandated through Assistant Attorney Generals assigned to the PSC to protect our interests. Unfortunately, they act only if the elected Attorney General determines that is in the “public interest”. And there’s not much evidence when or if these capable attorneys are actively involved in our consumer protection. After all, how does anyone but the AG assistants know what the AG defines as “public interest” in this context?
So, I asked for a public hearing now and for changing the process going forward to have a timely hearing whenever the PSC considers a change that requires investor notification (4). I scrambled through unfamiliar procedures to file a proper request in the relatively short time between Tuesday April 17 and Friday, April 27.
If we had had a public hearing process in place back in January 2013, maybe we would have more solar panels and jobs in Alabama. At least there’s a group at work to roll back the damage done to the solar industry and its customers in Alabama by that power company request and hasty PSC decision over 5 years ago (5). It’s not too late for positive change.
Let’s get engaged and tell all the folks running for the PSC in November that we want them to come out from behind the closed doors and make their decisions more transparently. And for candidates for Attorney General, find out how they plan to set their Assistant AG’s to work at the PSC on our behalf – and in our interest.
It’s way past time to open the doors on this major decision process and to improve the extremely “closed” way our electric utility is regulated in Alabama. But it’s not too late to act now.
- https://www.pscpublicaccess.alabama.gov/pscpublicaccess/ViewFile.aspx?Id=8c1bd303-5f4f-40c7-af05-66e2fb0a8366 and https://www.pscpublicaccess.alabama.gov/pscpublicaccess/ViewFile.aspx?Id=26402922-9876-44a8-9de1-c88dadedce37]
- https://ourenergyfreedom.wordpress.com and PSC-Hearing Request-re APC 4-17-18 filings
Past Time for the PSC to Restore the Energy Cost Recovery Report – allow customers to see what they are owed by Alabama Power.
This Energy Cost Recovery Report had been printed in the PSC agenda regularly until July 2015. It showed the budgeted amounts for each month, updated to actual figures when data became available after a two-month lag.
Customers now have no accessible information about the cumulative amount of funds owed to them or to the company since only the monthly over or under collection is provided in the PSC agenda.
Alabama Power did not request that the report disappear. Now that the ECR report has been missing for 15 months, surely whatever hidden purposes its removal served have been accomplished. The over collected amount is slowly decreasing, as required, from $237.7 million in December 2015 and is $111.5 million as of October 2016..
Time for the PSC to let customers in on the full story behind the millions that the utility owes them – or that they might one day owe the company. Hiding the accustomed report has been an affront to transparency and accountability. The PSC has the power to easily remedy rather than compound the problem by quickly restoring the report and allowing customers to easily see the balance in the Alabama Power ECR account.
How customers are kept in the dark about their money that Alabama Power is allowed to use to improve its cash flow.
This report is about transparency – Alabama Power customers’ right to know how much they owe or are owed. Currently, the Alabama Public Service Commission has allowed customers to over-pay Alabama Power $177.5 million for pass-through fuel costs, an amount that was up to $237.6 in December, 2015 when the PSC announced a small “rate decrease”. Sounds good until you understand that this comes from money already owed to customers, a fact not mentioned except by the press.
A year ago, in July, 2015, six months before the announced “rate decrease” of about $5 a year for the average customer, the PSC removed the regular report that would allow customers to easily see the total they owe or are owed. The PSC has refused to put it back, in spite of repeated requests, and in spite of Alabama Power’s approval of public access to the report. Slowly, some of this excess money is being given back to customers, where it belongs, but the PSC refuses to let us see the total owed, publishing only the monthly change and no information about the total or how fast or slow our money is expected to be returned. You wouldn’t let your bank get away with that.
It is neither transparent nor accountable to arbitrarily hide information readily available for years from customers who don’t have the capacity or time to dig into the online filings in the PSC system.
With practice and effort one can discover deep in the proceedings on the PSC website numbers which can be used to reconstruct some of the discontinued report. See a reconstruction at 2016 PSC July ECR Report (PDF). But inquiring minds would like to know: why was the usual report pulled off the agenda halfway through 2015 and who benefited from its disappearance? Certainly not the customers.
And why focus on this small report about who owes whom and how much? Primarily because it’s such a glaring example of the ease with which the Alabama PSC can deprive customers of knowledge about activities that materially affect them.
Alabama Power Company is a government-sanctioned monopoly, operating without competition, so they have to have a regulator to ensure that there’s a balance between the utility’s profits and the customers’ need to pay no more than necessary. In Alabama, that responsibility falls to the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC), led by three elected commissioners who make most of their utility decisions behind closed doors, ratifying them in quick monthly public meetings. Professional staff must abide by their directions and decisions.
Like most utilities, Alabama Power passes through the cost of fuel to customers, not making any profit on what they pay for fuel to create the electricity we need. In November or December of each year, Alabama Power and the PSC estimate what factor the PSC needs to apply to customers’ electricity use each month of the coming year to collect the estimated monthly fuel cost – a pass through to customers under Rate ECR, the Energy Cost Recovery Rate. The company provides an estimated budget for the coming year of expected fuel costs and expected recovery of those costs.
Since no one can know exactly what fuel costs will be, sometimes the account is over collected and sometimes under. In the early years, the energy cost factors were adjusted several times a year to keep the ECR account better in balance. Alabama Power was seriously under recovered at one point, and a formal hearing was held to consider their request to raise the recovery rate. For a very interesting history of Rate ECR, see Larry White’s testimony filed October 19, 2005 for a hearing on November 8, 2005.
More recently the changes have been made annually. The over-collected cumulative total belongs to the customers and the under collected amount is owed by customers to the company. When the report was discontinued at the July 2015 PSC meeting, the total owed to customers was $87.7 million. By December it had grown to $237.7 million. This amount was due to over recovery in the following months and also to a transfer to the ECR account of fees and damages related to the Federal government’s failure to follow through on charges for disposition of spent nuclear fuel.
The discontinued ECR Report showed the twelve months previous monthly changes and the cumulative total, as well as budgeted amounts for each month of the current year and the budgeted cumulative totals. When figures become available two months in arrears, the ECR Report changed the estimated budgeted costs and over or under recovered amounts to the actual amounts. The collections can swing over or under more than $20 million each month, so the ECR account is volatile.
On July 24, 2015, Mr. Free, Director, Electricity Policy Division of the PSC, responded to a request for a reason for the disappearance of the usual report as follows:
As we discussed after the July Commission meeting, the ECR presentation was modified because the accumulated recovery balance can be erratic and result in large swings from month to month. Accordingly, the balance at any one point in time can be misleading.
The amount of money APC owes customers is what it is, and that is not misleading. However, discontinuing the report so customers can’t see the actual figures is misleading.
Providing only the monthly change when the PSC could easily provide the cumulative amount and expected future collections as has been usual keeps the ordinary customer in the dark, with no easy access to the amount the company owes customers or customers owe the company.
Transparency is access to relevant information used by decision makers, presented in a comprehensible format, and with an opportunity for the public to review and respond. Actually, removing and refusing to return the ECR report is the opposite of transparency.
When the PSC commissioners voted to lower the Energy Cost Factors for 2016, and declared a “rate decrease”, they should have revealed the large over collected Energy Cost Recovery Account and explained that customers were only receiving some of the over collected money already owed them. By removing the report when they did, the PSC commissioners were able to claim a “rate decrease”, rather than revealing that they were slowly reimbursing customers for some of the money owed them.
The money in Alabama Power’s ECR account doesn’t affect the company’s bottom line, but does affect its cash flow, with over collected amounts providing the company cash it can use, though it doesn’t belong to them. Alabama Power was seriously under recovered at one point, and a formal hearing was held on their request to raise the recovery rate. For a very interesting history of Rate ECR, see Larry White’s testimony filed October 19, 2005 for a hearing on November 8 2005.
Alabama Power was $42 million over-collected at the end of 2013 and $47 million over-collected at the end of 2014 (see page 4 for both documents). Those amounts are not exceptionally high due to the volatile nature of the account. The cumulative amount continues to be carried over until lowering the fuel recovery factor or increasing cost of fuel to the company results in eventual under collection by the company. The account is not “zeroed out” at the end of each year. The total in the ECR account as of the end of December, 2015 (page 4) was $237.6 million.
The notice of the “rate decrease” announced Dec. 1 provided that customers would pay $120 million less in 2016. However it failed to mention that this pennies-a-month amount would only be returning some of customers’ own money.
It is strange that the ECR report disappeared when it did and that in December, no mention of the millions owed customers by the company was made when announcing the rate change. This oversight was pointed out in an editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser on Dec. 11, 2015: “PSC Operates with Impunity”.
This lack of transparency is regrettable and a disservice to the customers the Alabama Public Service Commission serves. Georgia Power also asked for a decrease in fuel cost factors in 2015. In that jurisdiction, however, fuel cost factor changes merit a public hearing, whether for a decrease or an increase. On December 1, 2015, Georgia Public Service Commission held a public hearing on Georgia Power’s fuel cost factor; the Georgia PSC made its decision two weeks later so customers were relatively well informed about the sources behind their rate change. Alabama Power customers deserve a Public Service Commission with more transparent processes.
In the interest of transparency and accountability, the Alabama PSC should reinstate Alabama Power’s full Energy Cost Recovery report, which has been provided consistently for at least 15 years until it was removed in July, 2015. Returning the report to its former place on the PSC agenda would be in the best interest of customers, the company and the Public Service Commission. In the meantime, check the 2016 PSC July ECR Report (PDF). This site will occasionally post information that can be gleaned from the proceedings section of the PSC website as well as news and views about the changing energy sector and our stake in it.