Green Groups Sue Alabama Regulators for Penalizing Private Solar Power Adoption

Image: Tiia Monto via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit against Alabama state regulators, alleging that the state’s utilities are using fees to discourage the private adoption of solar power. The case was filed by The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and Ragsdale LLC on Monday on the Alabama Public Service Commission. Plaintiffs include four Alabama Power customers with solar panels on their properties and the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP). Lawyers from the SELC say that these fees hold Alabama’s energy market back and that private citizens shouldn’t have to pay extra to go green.

Why This Matters: 1.5 million people rely on Alabama Power to keep the lights on, but as we’ve seen in past months, power grids across the country need an update. For many, diversification of power sources must be a crucial part of infrastructural updates. Despite making some significant investments in nuclear and hydroelectric power, Alabama’s energy profile has been dominated by coal and natural gas for decades. Alabama produces more energy than it uses, exporting much of it to other states.

Still, experts say that Alabama must catch up with other Southern states or risk losing its grip on the energy market. That could spell trouble for the state’s economy, and discouraging the private adoption of renewable energy only compounds that risk.

Playing Catch-up We’re asking the court to require the Commission to follow the law so that Alabama Power will stop unfairly taxing private solar investments,” said the director of SELC’s Alabama office, Keith Johnston. Alabama power charges customers who use solar panels or secondary private power sources a $5.41-per-kilowatt fee. These fees can double the cost of owning solar panels; the average price of a 30-year solar panel set up is $10,000, but utility fees can average $9,000 over that lifespan. The SELC says these fees stand in the way of the state’s energy ambitions.

The utility claims this fee covers backup costs if a private power source fails or is unable to provide enough energy to power a home. “It is important to us that all of our 1.5 million customers are treated fairly, “ said Alabama Power spokesperson Alyson Tucker. “There is nothing about the lawsuit that changes our position – we believe the lawsuit is without merit. Customers who want to rely on the company to back up their own generation should pay their share of associated costs.”

Last month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected a request by environmental groups to take legal action against the Public Service Commission. Despite the rejection, two panelists expressed concern that Alabama state regulators may be violating federal policies that support the development of cogeneration. But while the state continues to impose fees on private solar panel owners, it’s investing in some significant solar projects. Alabama power’s proposal to build an 80-megawatt solar farm was recently approved by the Alabama Public Service Commission and could produce enough energy to power 15,000 homes.

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