Op-Ed: UAB, Public Service Commission operating under same rules

by | Dec 23, 2014

The following op-ed was published on al.com Tuesday, Dec. 22. View it and weigh in here.

In following recent local news, I am struck by the similar circumstances between the demise of UAB’s football program and the way in which Alabama Power’s electricity rates are determined.

Starting next month, customers will pay 5 percent more for electricity, courtesy of our Public Service Commission’s rate-setting “system.” Around the same time, the UAB Faculty Senate will be taking a no confidence vote in university President Dr. Ray Watts. In both instances, decisions that affect a great many Alabamians were made with zero public or customer input.

Alabama Power is a monopoly. With no competition to put downward pressure on prices, what faith can customers have that we are not getting fleeced? In most states, there is a formal and public process overseen by government officials designed to protect the interests of you, the customer. Not in Alabama.

For decades now, the decisions about how much you pay for electricity and where that energy comes from have been made behind closed doors. Your representatives in these decisions are the three commissioners: President Twinkle Cavanaugh, Jeremy Oden, and Chip Beeker.

As reported by al.com political reporter Mike Cason, Cavanaugh analogized a Dec. 9 PSC meeting on Alabama Power’s rates and environmental compliance to “a press conference after a football game. The coaches can answer questions, but the score is already in the books.”

Underscoring that point, Michael Churchman, executive director of the Alabama Environmental Council, said, “Once a year the public gets to ask questions, and yet is derided for asking those questions, given very little time.”

John Garner, the chief administrative law judge who presides over PSC meetings, repeatedly made clear on Dec. 9 that questions about the lack of transparency in how rates are set were “outside the scope of the meeting.” Questions about clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar were quickly quashed.

Back to Twinkle’s football analogy, did you catch what she said? The game is rigged. The plays have been called. The “score is already in the books.” We, the stakeholders, are not even a part of the game. We’re bystanders relegated to merely observing the inconsequential song-and-dance routine after the fact. It’s all for show.

It’s time to throw a penalty flag. As columnist Kyle Whitmire wrote about the UAB debacle, “football shouldn’t define a university, this fight is about who gets to define UAB — the real stakeholders there, including faculty, students and alumni, or a bunch of absentee landlords 60 miles away.”

In the same way, those of us who have no choice but to buy electricity from Alabama Power have no say about what we pay for electricity, where it comes from and how — those decisions are made by politicians who are legally corrupted by campaign donations.

These decisions affect our pocketbooks and our quality of life. Transparency will help clear the air.

About The Gasp Team
Gasp is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Our mission is to reduce air pollution, to educate the public on the health risks associated with dirty air, and to encourage community leaders to serve as role models for clean air and clean energy production.
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