Across party lines, candidates running for president of the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) believe the current commission doesn’t do enough to make its work transparent or to support the public’s interest against the larger utility companies its supposed to be regulating.
Lagniappe spoke with two Democrats and a GOP primary candidate who all raised similar concerns during interviews for this profile on the race. The only candidate who didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview was the current PSC president, incumbent Republican Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh.
Though it performs a number of regulatory functions, PSC is probably best known for regulating utilities that provide Alabamians electricity, gas, water and steam. Despite that, Robert Mardis, one of the Democratic candidates vying to take Cavanaugh’s place, told Lagniappe he’s met many people on the campaign trail who say they’ve never heard of PSC and don’t know what it does.
“That’s the prime example of why you need new leadership. You have an entity that controls a large portion of your pocketbook and you hear people who didn’t know that it existed,” Mardis said. “I call them ‘Private Service Commission.’ If elected, I’ll work to publicize more of what’s going on and try to hold meetings in the mornings and after working hours so more of the public can attend.”
Mardis, who has been involved in Democratic politics in Jefferson County for some time, is running his first statewide race in his bid to lead PSC. In addition to making the agency more transparent to the public, his platform would focus on bringing renewable energy to Alabama and reducing utility rates.
He said wind, solar and other renewable sources of power are “the wave of the future” the same way the horse and carriage preceded cars. He’d like to see coal phased out as a primary power source, though he wants to protect mine workers by making sure they can get jobs producing new, cleaner forms of energy.
Yet, as Mardis’ Democratic challenger, Laura Casey, pointed out, PSC has limited authority restricting how utility companies impact the environment — a responsibility that would typically fall to an agency like the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).
Among other responsibilities, PSC regulates what utilities are allowed to charge customers and settles disputes between those companies and the public. That’s exactly what was supposedly happening last year when Casey was kicked out of a public PSC meeting for live streaming the proceedings on her phone.
At the time, commissioners were hearing a dispute brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center against Alabama Power over the “capacity reservation charge” its customers are required to pay if they generate their own solar energy but still connect to the company’s power grid for emergencies.
“It was 45 minutes in when they made this ‘no streaming’ announcement, but my understanding was the Open Meetings Act allowed me to record it,” Casey said. “We were escorted out and one of the conditions of being able to return was that they would confiscate our phones.”
Officials with PSC have argued Casey and others weren’t allowed to film because the proceedings that day were an administrative hearing that’s more akin to a trial. She has since joined a lawsuit challenging PSC’s authority to prevent someone from recording or streaming.
Casey said the actions of PSC are indicative of larger issues with a lack of energy policy in Alabama. She said Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office is supposed to represent the public’s interests during these kinds of challenges, but typically will file a motion to intervene and then do little else.
“Nongovernmental, nonprofit advocacy groups are doing the work you’d think your government would be doing … that’s what I want people to understand,” Casey said. “It has become a string of offices that are supposed to be interconnected to protect consumers, but instead they have effectively blocked Alabamians from getting residential solar and given us the second-highest power bills in the country.”
If elected, Casey said she wants to focus on lower power rates by publicly examining what providers like Alabama Power are allowed to charge and why. She would also focus on removing barriers to clean energy like the “capacity reservation charge” that has made solar unaffordable to many in the state.
Cavanaugh’s challenger in the GOP primary is retired educator Robin Litaker. She has also expressed concerns about utilities’ rates in Alabama, which are ranked anywhere between the second and fourth highest in the country, depending on how they’re being measured.
“When you ask about that people usually say, ‘it’s because it’s hot in Alabama … Well, it’s hot in Georgia, too. It’s hot in Florida,” Litaker said. “It’s very concerning bills are that high, but the more concerning thing to me is that nobody will step up and say, ‘yes, our bills are high and here’s why.’”
Litaker said she would also do more to increase transparency by publishing reports about what she does during her day-to-day business, whom she meets with and what they discuss. She said greater access into the agency would dispel the perception that PSC “functions is a rubber stamp” for major utilities.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).