Groups Appeal Alabama Public Service Commission’s Approval of $1+ Billion Gas Expansion
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Energy Alabama, GASP, and the Southern Environmental Law Center are appealing the Public Service Commission’s approval of Alabama Power’s petition for its single largest capacity increase ever, with a price tag for customers of over $1.1 billion.
The groups have filed an appeal in state court challenging the Commission’s decision allowing Alabama Power to increase its natural gas capacity by over 1800 megawatts, including building a new gas plant at the Barry Electric Generating Plant in Mobile County, while failing to approve a proposal to add 400 megawatts of solar plus battery energy storage projects.
In September, the groups petitioned the Commission to reconsider its determination that this capacity increase is needed, especially in light of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic; its decision to saddle customers instead of utility shareholders with the risk that the assets will become stranded; and its denial of the solar plus storage projects, which the utility’s own analysis showed had the most value for customers. The Commission denied the petition.
Starting January 1, Alabama Power’s electric rates are increasing for all 1.48 million residential, commercial, and industrial customers, raising the average residential monthly bill by about $4. As a result of the new natural gas capacity, bills are expected to increase further starting in 2023.
“Alabamians already pay some of the highest energy bills in the country and the pandemic has only worsened the financial hardships many are facing,” said Keith Johnston, Director of SELC’s Birmingham office. “Now the Commission is allowing Alabama Power to go forward with an unjustified, massive amount of new capacity that will further increase electricity rates, putting added strain on customers.”
The Alabama Attorney General’s office raised concerns in the Commission proceedings that the proposed gas plants could become stranded or uneconomic as a result of new emission standards or changes in technology, and recommended that the Commission impose a condition requiring that Alabama Power and its shareholders bear any stranded costs associated with its proposal instead of customers.
In its final order, the Commission ignored the Attorney General’s recommendation and failed to set any conditions on its approval, concluding it would be “inequitable” to burden Alabama Power shareholders with stranded asset risk, even though shareholders reap substantial profits from self-build assets like Barry Unit 8.
“The Commission failed to act in the public interest by approving unnecessary, expensive projects while leaving more affordable options on the table,” said Daniel Tait, Chief Operating Officer of Energy Alabama. “To make matters worse, the Commission has rubberstamped an enormous transfer of risk from utility shareholders to customers.”
Alabama remains the only state in the Southern Company territory, which includes Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, that prevents the public from any meaningful participation in the energy planning process.
“Alabamians deserve to have an open and transparent regulatory process, more information around how their energy decisions are being made, and the opportunity to provide input to ensure decisions are made in our state’s best interest,” said Michael Hansen, Executive Director of GASP. “When that transparency is missing from the energy decision-making process, we end up with unjust results where utility profits are given priority over people.”
In early March 2020 the Alabama Public Service Commission heard testimony from 15 witnesses concerning Alabama Power’s request to increase its total power-producing capabilities by almost 20%, despite the utility’s previous assertions that it wouldn’t need new electric generation sources until 2035.
On behalf of Energy Alabama and GASP, the Southern Environmental Law Center intervened in the docket to advocate for responsible, cost-effective investments to meet any need for additional capacity on Alabama Power’s system.
Energy Alabama and GASP’s experts exposed significant flaws in the planning and forecasting methods Alabama Power used to justify its claimed need. In written and oral testimony, the experts pointed to the utility’s long-standing efforts to profit from unnecessary and expensive new generation assets that increase costs for customers.
The groups also made the case that Alabama Power’s plan lacks significant detail about the cheapest, least cost resources, such as solar and energy efficiency. Alabama Power’s own analysis showed that solar plus battery storage are the least cost resources in its proposal and provide more value to customers.
Energy Alabama and GASP’s proposed order details their position based on the record developed during the hearing.
The groups also filed a motion for permission to file supplemental briefing regarding how the Covid-19 pandemic may impact the need for and timing of the resources proposed in Alabama Power’s petition. These issues were not addressed during the March hearings, which was limited to testimony filed long before the pandemic took hold.
Energy Alabama and GASP filed a supplemental brief arguing that the Commission should not rush forward with a decision without fully assessing the pandemic’s impacts and resulting economic fallout on the utility’s petition.
Following the PSC staff’s recommendations to approve the majority of projects that Alabama Power is seeking to build, buy or contract, the Commission voted unanimously in June 2020 to adopt the staff recommendations in their entirety.
The only resources the Commission refused to approve were the proposals for solar plus battery storage, by far the most economic options according to Alabama Power’s own analysis. Instead, the Commissioners signed off on the staff’s recommendation to evaluate the solar and battery proposals in another existing docket. The Commission issued a final order in August.
GASP and Energy Alabama filed a petition for reconsideration and rehearing in September, urging the Commission to reconsider Alabama Power’s need determination and to grant a rehearing to consider updated testimony in light of the changed circumstances resulting in lessened electric demand. The Commission denied the groups’ motion for reconsideration and rehearing in December.
About Energy Alabama:
Energy Alabama is a membership-based non-profit organization accelerating Alabama’s transition to sustainable energy. We accomplish our mission by educating at all levels, informing smart energy policy, building the next generation workforce, and providing technical assistance to deploy more sustainable energy. We believe in sustainable energy for all. energyalabama.org
About GASP: GASP is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Our mission is to advance healthy air and environmental justice in the greater-Birmingham area through education, advocacy, and collaboration. We strive to reduce exposure to air pollution, educate the public on the health risks associated with poor air quality, and encourage community leaders to serve as role models by advocating for clean air and clean energy. GASPgroup.org
About Southern Environmental Law Center: For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With over 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. www.SouthernEnvironment.org