By Tom Baxter
There has recently been a dust-up over in Alabama which might have set our ears to ringing here in Georgia, had our ears not already been deafened by the clamor from Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Residential and commercial customers in Alabama pay more for their electricity than those in Georgia, even though the price of the fuel needed to produce the electricity is less there than it is here. According to a recent survey, Alabama Power customers paid $1.5 billion more over a six-year period than they would have if they could have bought the electricity from Georgia Power, even though both companies are owned by Southern Co.
And even though vast reserves of natural gas have been discovered in Alabama while Georgia is still prospecting for its first big strike, customers of the two largest natural gas utilities there are charged two to three times more in operations and maintenance costs than customers in Georgia or Mississippi.
Unsettled by these numbers, Alabama Public Service Commissioner Terry Dunn made a motion at the January PSC meeting for formal hearings into the matter – meaning those who testified would be put under oath.
Dunn is a Republican contractor and businessman who lists the Alabama Tea Party Express and Conservative Christians of Alabama among his affiliations. But when he suggested that utility executives put their hands on the Bible, you might have thought he was the love child of Angela Davis and Ralph Nader.
Twinkle Cavenaugh, who chairs the Alabama PSC, immediately blasted the idea as “half-baked,” and in an op-ed column charged that he was a tool of “environmental extremists” whose real agenda is attacking the coal industry and costing the state jobs.
“They hope that once formal hearings, which do not allow for public input, are convened, they can trot out their fancy San Francisco environmental lawyers and junk science hucksters to make what amounts to a legal, judicial case against coal production within our borders,” she wrote.
Jeremy Oden, the third PSC commissioner, refused to second Dunn’s motion for formal hearings when he brought it up, and it failed. Asked about the controversy later, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley was reluctant to weigh in on the question of formal versus informal hearings.
“But I do know there are groups in our state and in the country who are trying to infiltrate and change things so we can’t use the things we have in abundance in this state like coal,” Bentley added. “I support Oden and Twinkle, I do.”
The governor may have felt comfortable referring to Twinkle on a first-name basis because she is a former executive director and later chair of the state Republican Party. About a fourth of the money she raised for her PSC campaign last year has been traced to coal mining companies and PACs connected to the coal industry.
Responding in a letter to the state Republican Party, Dunn called the fevered reaction to his motion “a smear campaign orchestrated by Republicans against a fellow Republican.” He finds himself in a much different place now than last year, when he defeated a Democratic incumbent who outspent him by more than 2-to-1. He has said elsewhere that he doesn’t want to shut down power plants or kill coal jobs, and believes the utilities are “good companies who provide us with jobs and energy.”
“I just think we need to do the job the people of Alabama sent us here to do and that includes occasionally holding formal hearings to find out if people are paying too much for gas and power or maybe not enough,” he told a reporter for Al.com. “I don’t know. I just think we need to find out.”
Alabama Power has protested the comparison with Georgia Power, essentially arguing that it’s apples and oranges. The company maintains that it would be more fair to compare the total retail price in the two states, which includes the cheaper industrial rate charged in Alabama. If that were included, the company said, rates in Alabama were actually lower.
Part of the reason it costs more to provide power to residences and businesses, the company said, is that Alabama has fewer customers in urban areas, and it takes more transmission lines, power poles and other equipment to get power to rural areas.
It’s true that Metro Atlanta, with nearly 5.5 million people, is much larger than Birmingham, with 1.1 million. But you might be surprised to learn that the second, third and fourth-largest cities in Alabama actually are larger in population than the second, third and fourth largest cities in Georgia. (Roughly the same is true when you compare metro areas, but it’s more complicated. Much of Metro Columbus spills over into Alabama, and much of Metro Chattanooga spills into Georgia. Both metros are counted in their neighboring states.)
There are in any case a lot of rural customers in Georgia. Alabama is smaller than Georgia by 7,000 square miles, and flatter by a mean of 100 feet. So it’s a little hard to figure how the costs of running transmission lines to rural areas there could account for much of the difference of $1.5 billion over six years.
There may be good answers to these questions, but why would the answers be any different under oath? There’s a saying, common to both states, that a stuck pig squeals. In Alabama, it’s squealing loud.