Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Rate hikes, border zones, & Walter Anderson’s landscapes

When the board of directors for Tennessee Valley Authority—the country’s largest public power utility that serves 9 million people in seven Southern states—unanimously approved a new “grid access fee” earlier this week, they were immediately under fire for pushing more costs onto the poor.

The utility is cutting wholesale power rate by a half-cent per kilowatt-hour, and adding a half-cent fee per kilowatt-hour fixed fee for all customers. Executives say the change will cost people no more than $30 a year total, but activist groups claim rates could increase much more than that. The change is “consistent with other utilities and service providers across the country,” TVA reportedly said.

U.S. utilities asked regulators for fixed charge increases nearly 80 times in 2017—up from about 70 in 2016 and 60 in 2015, according to Utility Dive. These companies say it helps make up for stagnant demand. Earlier this year, Kentucky Power tried to raise residential rates by 9 percent to cover program costs, although the state’s public service commission eventually decreased customer bills by 4 percent. The burden is falling on customers in rural and low-income areas: earlier this year, some people in Eastern Kentucky told methey were paying anywhere from $600 to $1,000 per month for electricity and were getting no answers to why their bills were so high. American Electric Power recently filed a rate increase request with West Virginia regulators, citing “significant decline in the amount of electricity used by customers.” This would raise residential and commercial rates by 11 percent, or around $15 a month for residential customers. The North Little Rock, Arkansas city council also just voted to raise the fixed rate the local utility charges all customers.

Utilities are attempting to recover costs from behemoth projects that have gone over budget, been delayed, or failed completely. Lawmakers in South Carolina are still deciding on how much they should cut bills by for utility customers who are paying to recover costs for SCANA and Santee Cooper’s failed V.C. Summer nuclear project. Southern Company and Mississippi Power are seeking rate increases to bankroll the $7 billion Kemper project in Mississippi, a coal gasification plant that will now burn cheaper natural gas. Ratepayers are also fronting some of the costs of the multi-billion dollar Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia that is still under construction.

Some utilities are trying to limit distributed solar as well, which is creeping up as a competitor to their business models. Watchdog group NC WARN sold solar energy per-kilowatt-hour to a Greensboro, North Carolina church at a rate about half the price of Duke Energy. North Carolina regulators said the agreement violated state laws since only a utility can sell power in the state, and this week the state Supreme Court upheld the decision. As InsideClimate News reports, this policy is not uncommon: seven Southern states have banned or restricted third-party solar sales, and three have no clear policy. Utilities are lobbying against other solar-friendly policies as well. Last month, South Carolina utilities campaigned against a bill that would raise the state’s net metering cap, which would allow rooftop solar to expand by giving more homeowners credit for the excess power they produce. A measure to raise the cap from 2 to 4 percent eventually passed in the House in early May, but it has quite a few hurdles to pass before it becomes law.

All of these changes come at a time when the Trump administration has been pushing to throw lifelines to coal and nuclear plants, enact tariffs that could potentially harm the U.S. solar industry’s growth, and allow industry more influence over decisions being made at the federal level. The sway the utility industry has on state regulators is also becoming more clear: a new report funded by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy shows that the rate of political spending by Florida utility companies more than doubled during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles compared to the previous decade. Georgia campaign finance records show Georgia Power and Southern Company funneled money into a public service commissioner’s campaign.

There are many moving parts here, complicated by the political influence of utilities, as well as rapidly changing energy landscapes and customer bases. According to recent Energy Information Administration data, South Carolina and Alabama spend the most of any state in the U.S. on electricity. Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas also have some of the highest usage rates per customer. Southern states pay less for electricity than many other places in the U.S., but this region is also quickly becoming more densely populated

It’s unclear what will come of all these individual cases; time will tell as the courts and lawmakers decide who will bear the brunt of costs for the massive projects that keep utilities afloat. But as more communities call out injustices and more people find alternative ways to generate power so they can rely less on electricity companies, major utilities are putting their energy into ensuring the power structure they created stays in place. 

Stories worth your time

Ever heard of the “border zone?” CityLab has a detailed map showing who lives in this area along the edges of the U.S., which also extends 100 air miles inside the country. Different areas of the zone—home to 65.3 percent of the entire U.S. population and around 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population—have different legal standards for border patrol agents. These agents have “wide discretion to stop, question, and detain individuals they suspect to have committed immigration violations—and can even use race and ethnicity as factors to do so.”

This gorgeous piece in Bitter Southerner by Boyce Upholt, with photos by Rory Doyle, is about Walter Anderson, a little-known artist inspired and haunted by Southern landscapes. “You will hear Walter Anderson’s name if you live in Mississippi — especially if, like me, you are drawn to wild places,” Upholt writes. “He’s a kind of John Muir of the Gulf Coast, a Henry Thoreau of the South.”

Huffington Post tells the story of a pastor and an environmental group leader who have teamed up to fight the South’s expanding wood pellet industry by advocating for environmental justice. For more on biomass in the South, read Southerly from a few weeks ago.

News flying under the radar

There’s a lot going on with the water commission in Rogersville, Tennessee. The superintendent was fired recently after he said he misplaced $69,000 (he was accused of stealing $300,000). Now, the town mayor is trying to abolish the Water Commission. Officials say it needs $2 million to upgrade the local water system. 

Nearly 50 years ago, a West Virginia mine exploded and killed 78 men. The town of Farmington is still haunted by the event, and this week families of victims filed a request to reopen a lawsuit that was thrown out.

The Martin County, Kentucky water district missed its first deadline to submit financial records to state regulators after they approved a 28 percent rate increase. Earlier this year, I wrote about the county’s major water infrastructure issues and how citizens are trying to hold their leaders accountable.