Climate Activists Confront Alabama Power Company’s Formidable Influence

Interview with Michael Hansen, executive director of GASP, the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

In late February, climate justice activists from all over the U.S., along with a group called Arm in Arm, arrived in Birmingham, Alabama to support local residents in their fight against Alabama Power company. The utility is a subsidiary of the Southern Company, which has some of the highest electricity rates in the country, and has done little to begin the transition to clean energy.

The activists hung banners around town, held a teach-in and organized a march from the company headquarters to City Hall and back, among other actions.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Michael Hansen, executive director of GASP, the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution. Here, he describes the impact of the utility’s policies and rate structure on its customers, the influence the company wields in Alabama and the importance of support from activists outside the state in recent protest actions.

MICHAEL HANSEN: Alabama Power is owned by Southern Company. Alabama Power is generally considered by most people – politicians, media, activists – to be the most powerful company in the state, and not because they generate electricity, (but) because of the money they wield and the power they wield. Alabama Power has one of the highest guaranteed profit margins of any investor-owned utility in the country.

Alabamians simultaneously have among the highest energy burdens of anywhere else in the country, typically ranking at or near the top in electricity bills. That’s different from rates; Alabama Power likes to distinguish that their rates are in the middle of the pack. Well, our bills are still the highest. Alabama Power operates the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases left in the country: that’s the Miller steam plant in Jefferson County, just outside of Birmingham city limits. Alabama Power has tons of coal ash stored in unlined pits along Alabama rivers, including the Coosa River, the Black Warrior River, the Mobile River, America’s Amazon, which is the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in South Alabama.

They’re also, at the same time, investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure, including 1,900 megawatts of new gas to their generating capacity at a time when we know we need to be transitioning away from fossil fuels.

And probably the biggest one we’re working on right now is what they call “capacity reservation charges,” or what I call a sun tax. They charge customers $5.41 for the privilege of generating their own solar electricity if they’re connected to the grid, and that’s per kilowatt per month. So if you have a 5-kilowatt system on your home, it comes out to about $27 per month for the life of the solar panels, as long as they’re connected to the grid. These fees basically double the return on investment period for the solar panels. And then, just to add insult to injury, Alabama Power ranks dead last in the country among the top 50 investor-owned utilities in energy efficiency. So, that’s another factor that contributes to our high electricity bills; they’re not doing anything to help customers be more energy efficient at home.

MELINDA TUHUS: Michael Hansen, I understand that Alabama Power has set up its own news source. What can you tell us about that?

MICHAEL HANSEN: It serves as sort of like a wire service for news agencies in the state. In other words, they publish this content and they clearly say that you’re free to use this if you credit Alabama News Service. The thing is, if you go into the website on the About page in the footer, you’ll see that it’s owned by Southern Company or Alabama Power, I forget which one it says. But you know, most people don’t look at that stuff. They’ve hired legacy media journalists – old-fashioned like TV reporters and newspaper reporters. One of their staff actually bragged to me before it came out that they were going to “own the media,” own the channels of communication. At the time I was like, what does that mean? Now I see.

The way it’s most commonly used, I’ll say, like in the suburbs of Birmingham, they have very limited staff; they may have interns who are doing the majority of the reporting oftentimes. And they’ll use articles from Alabama News Center to fill up columns in the paper, whether it’s print or online.

It’s really kind of like an Alabama and Birmingham booster news outlet, and they weave in pro-Alabama Power stories. There’s never anything critical of the power company; there’s just occasional stories that are mixed in with everything else, so it doesn’t really stand out as being anything fishy.

Alabama Power has a foundation, and they’ve used that foundation to purchase the only black-owned newspaper in Birmingham, and that is ostensibly owned by Alabama Power now. And it’s a way of controlling the narrative in the black community especially, you know, Birmingham is a 70 percent black city, so it’s really important to them that their image is solid in that community.

MELINDA TUHUS: So was this action a shot in the arm for people whose struggles seem to have been ignored?

MICHAEL HANSEN: What I was asking for was, just show people that it can be done and for folks outside of Birmingham to show solidarity and give us the courage to do this more, going forward.

For more information, visit Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution at

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