KUB: Time to put the PUBLIC back in public power

It's time to hold KUB accountable for serving us, the customers, with transparency, accountability, and affordability like the public power company it's supposed to be.

Stephen Smith | March 12, 2019 | Energy Justice, Tennessee, Utilities
Diverse Knoxvillians joined SACE staff at the February KUB board meeting to say, “Freeze the Fees!”

TVA customers are routinely told we have some of the lowest rates in the country. This messaging is distracting and misleading. Yes, our rates are low but, due to high usage in the south, in combination with constantly increasing fixed fees from TVA’s local providers (like KUB and its contemporaries in other Tennessee communities), Tennesseans routinely suffer some of the country’s highest electric bills despite “low rates.”

If you’re a KUB customer and you’ve noticed an unwelcome trend on your electric bill lately, you’re not alone. KUB’s “basic customer charge” – otherwise known as a mandatory fixed fee – continues to steadily increase. In 2010 this fee was $6.09 a month; and since then it has more than tripled. Most recently, in November 2018 it jumped from $17.50 to $19 (a nearly 10% increase in one fell swoop), and is slated to continue to rise over time. KUB customers in 2019 will pay at least $228 in fixed fees, completely separate, and in addition, to the charges for the electricity they use! It’s time to hold KUB accountable for serving us, the customers, with transparency, accountability, and affordability like the public power company it’s supposed to be.

Since fixed fees are not dependent on usage rates and cannot be controlled by conservative energy use, these fees disproportionately hurt low-income families, those on a fixed income (students, the elderly, single resident households), and small businesses. They also disincentivize homeowners and small businesses from investing in renewable energy or energy efficiency measures. SACE has been at the forefront of the fight to raise awareness of this regressive, punitive fee structure, and we are continuing and ramping up our efforts in the face of massive resistance from KUB leadership.

[NOT] PUBLIC POWER

KUB is a local public power company that buys power from TVA (a federally owned public power utility) and sells it as an electric distributor to Knoxville-area customers. As public power entities, KUB and TVA should be held to the highest levels of transparency and accountability, providing affordable services, and should ultimately be serving the public good. Clearly, this is not what we are witnessing: Rather, KUB appears to want to emulate the TVA playbook, which includes tactics such as blocking public input, manipulating fees, paying their executives excessive salaries, and killing incentives for customer-owned renewable energy systems or efficiency measures.

We have outlined three areas that the public must demand KUB make changes to ensure equity and promote fairness. Imagine a KUB Customer Bill of Rights. What would such a document include? I put some thought recently into this and my answers can be largely summed up in these three areas: (1) transparency, (2) accountability, (3) affordability.

Two concerned Knoxvillians deliver petitions to KUB, bringing the total delivered petitions to nearly 3000.

(1) TRANSPARENCY

Currently the KUB board meetings are held in the middle of the work day, making them difficult for customers to attend, especially those who work full time and do not enjoy schedule flexibility (likely the most impacted by the choices made at the meetings). These meetings are not live streamed, and there is no method for customers to provide input remotely or in advance.

Clearly, KUB does not value customer input in their decision-making process, and does not place a premium on hearing what their client base has to say. This is even further illustrated by the fact that, when customers are able to provide input, KUB largely ignores them: at the February board meeting, KUB leadership was presented with 1700 additional signatures, totaling 2500 since January, petitioning them to freeze the fees, yet, in typical fashion, the board refused to comply, giving no justification or answer to the calls for equity.

  • These meetings should be held after business hours, and should offer inroads for customers who cannot attend to view, listen, and provide their own input via live streaming and/or remote attendance.

(2) ACCOUNTABILITY

In an unusual and nearly unheard of leadership design, the KUB board of directors essentially self-selects new members: the current board creates a list of potential new members from which the Knoxville mayor chooses an incumbent and the city council approves. The result is a board with no representation from environmental, low-income, or consumer advocacy.

  • City Council should be selecting members to fill vacancies on the board, and there should be a requirement that the board have diverse representation and backgrounds.

(3) AFFORDABILITY

There is simply no excuse for KUB to increase fixed fees by over 300% in the past decade. This punitive, unjustifiable move disproportionately impacts our most vulnerable neighbors and benefits the few at the expense to the many.

  • We call on KUB to immediately Freeze the Fees, and ultimately to roll them back to reflect a more fair, equitable, affordable rate structure.

In the coming months we think it is important to have public meetings and open discourse with KUB customers to further share the details of these concepts and spread awareness and understanding of how systemic changes like these could benefit all KUB customers.

Stay tuned for public meetings in your area, and join us to work to put the public back in public power.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has 30 years of experience effecting change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as its executive…
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