1 year ago

2018 POWER and INFLUENCE 50: Alabama’s most powerful & influential business leaders

Today, we introduce the first segment of the 2018 Power & Influence 50 on Yellowhammer News.

Our team has spent weeks talking with key operatives and analyzing recent developments in public policy and politics. The intersection between business and politics in our state is undeniable, and our list is meant to provide you with an inside look at who wields the most power and influence in Alabama state politics.

The list is being released in three segments: elected officials, lobbyists and consultants and today’s segment, business leaders.

Don’t miss Yellowhammer’s 4th Annual Power of Service reception honoring the men and women on the Power & Influence 50 list who have utilized their stature to make a positive impact on the state. The event is set to take place Thursday, October 25 at Ross Bridge Resort in Birmingham. Past events attracted a who’s who of Alabama politics and business, including the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, pro tem of the Senate, members of Congress, dozens of state legislators and many of the state’s top executives, lobbyists, opinion leaders and political activists.

For more information on the event and to purchase tickets please click here.

Thank you for being a loyal reader of Yellowhammer News.

 

Alexia Borden, senior vice president and general counsel, Alabama Power Company

As a key member of the Alabama Power executive team, Alexia Borden oversees all legal matters for the company. Considering the vast reach of the state’s largest utility, this is a heavy responsibility.

Issues such as regulatory compliance, economic development and ongoing and potential litigation all end up in Borden’s office at some point in time and all require a keen understanding of both the legal and the political environment.

Borden’s experience has prepared her well for the general counsel role. She previously served as vice president with responsibility for Governmental Affairs and prior to that was a partner at the prestigious Balch & Bingham law firm.

Relationship-building is a critical trait for corporate general counsels and one that comes easily for Borden. Whether through her relationships with Alabama political figures or the company’s own board of directors, Borden has put herself in a position of significant influence in Alabama politics.

 

Stephanie Bryan, tribal chair and CEO, Poarch Band of Creek Indians

In 2014, Bryan became the first female political leader elected to the position of tribal chair and CEO for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. Raised by a single mother, her self-made rise as one of the state’s preeminent leaders is a made-for-movie script of hard-work, grit, determination and faith in God.

Today, Bryan oversees all tribal operations, including government, Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority and the PCI Gaming Authority. The tribe’s economy has grown a stunning 1,000 percent since Bryan began serving as vice-chair in 2006, which is a testament to her savvy and leadership acumen.

Bryan’s portfolio is highlighted by the tribe’s gaming facilities and its $250 million OWA (pronounced oh-wah) complex in Foley, which includes an amusement park and was named by the Alabama Tourism Department as its 2018 attraction of the year.

With a lottery bill on the horizon, look for Bryan to wield ever-increasing influence over the 2019 legislative session and remain an absolute must-visit for candidates on the campaign trail in the years to come.

 

Paul Bryant, Jr.

Paul Bryant, Jr. bears a name that needs little introduction in Alabama lore. Bryant and his legendary family legacy are staples in the Yellowhammer State. Sixty years after his father came to coach in Tuscaloosa, Bryant’s unquestioned power and influence extend into more realms, perhaps, than any individual in the state.

He is one of the state’s most successful businessmen, and his support is a must-have for aspiring political campaigns. His holdings include, or have included, banking, insurance, construction and agriculture. Bryant also possesses the type of well-oiled influence one might expect – and then some – at his alma mater, the University of Alabama. Essential to all of his activity has been a quietly efficient engagement in the state political process.

Observers in every nook and cranny across Alabama admit that Bryant’s influence is as unique as it is mighty. He might wear many hats, but his key to ever-multiplying success is modeled after President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous saying: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

 

Rick Burgess and Bubba Bussey, radio and TV entrepreneurs

During the last 25 years, few Alabama entrepreneurs have enjoyed as much success as have Rick Burgess and Bill “Bubba” Bussey. The pair began with a small radio show in northeast Alabama and have since grown it into a media and marketing empire.

They are now heard on 14 stations from the top to the bottom of the state, as well as through their recent venture on CRTV.

Their business moves have been savvy. But their growth has been built on the trust they have built up with their listeners. For anyone in media, parlaying that trust into advertising is key. And that’s how they have grown their brand.

That same trust also has an impact on their ability to influence the political debate. When Rick and Bubba speak on an issue, their listeners afford them great credibility. When Rick and Bubba endorse a candidate for office, their listeners pay attention.

Rick and Bubba have reached a point of consistent power and influence in Alabama politics.

 

Mark Crosswhite, chairman, president and CEO, Alabama Power Company

There is a quote from Mark Crosswhite on the Alabama Power website that demonstrates why he has been so successful leading his company and also why he is a past recipient of the Yellowhammer News Power of Service Award.

Crosswhite says, “I believe in this company and I believe in this state. We will continue our long tradition of service to the people of Alabama.”

This expressed loyalty to his company and its people and the confidence in the many good things in Alabama, combined with a recognition of the importance of service, provides the bearings that should guide all corporate leaders.

These are the type of values Yellowhammer News seeks to highlight in compiling this list.

That same belief in his state compelled Crosswhite to serve as the driving force in the business community’s successful overhaul of the Business Council of Alabama (BCA). The decisiveness with which Crosswhite handled the changes brought the controversy to a conclusion from which the state’s economy will benefit for years to come.

Running a company that serves 1.4 million customers and employs 7,000 people brings with it significant power and influence. Yet, it is the expression of these traits through action that makes Mark Crosswhite quite possibly the most powerful and influential man in Alabama politics.

 

Johnny Johns, executive chairman, Protective Life Corporation

You simply cannot compile a list of the state’s influential leaders without including this icon of the Alabama business community. Currently serving as executive chairman of Protective Life Corporation, Johns, even while edging towards retirement, still towers at the top of every politician’s wish list of would-be supporters.

Johns first joined Protective as executive vice president and chief financial officer in 1993, when the company’s value was $580 million. By the conclusion of his tenure as president and chief executive officer, Johns had led the company through its $5.7 billion sale to Dai-ichi Life of Tokyo, Japan. The company is one of Alabama’s most historic success stories and continues to operate in Birmingham as the world’s 13th largest insurance company.

While Johns and Protective Life wield nearly omnipotent political power in the Yellowhammer State, their incredible philanthropic and civic accomplishments speak even louder. This is perfectly exemplified by the company’s pledge of more than $23 million in donations to Alabama entities through 2020.

 

Mike Kemp, president and CEO, Kemp Management Solutions

A newcomer to Yellowhammer’s Power and Influence List, Kemp is the type of crafty behind-the-scenes operator that prefers to keep his name out of the limelight. However, this Birmingham business leader has become known in Alabama political circles as a top-notch statesman, peacemaker and leader whose impact can no longer be kept secret.

As president & CEO of Kemp Management Solutions, Kemp is active in the booming construction industry. Having planned and managed more than 1,500 projects valued at more than $6.8 billion, he knows a thing or two about getting the job done. Kemp has been an integral contributor to the crucial Alabama Workforce Council, but his true influence extends beyond construction.

As the second-highest ranking officer in the Business Council of Alabama’s leadership this past year, Kemp is widely recognized as the individual on the executive board who put his foot down and put an end to the dispute between then-BCA CEO Billy Canary and some of the state’s largest companies. Simply put, without Kemp, the state’s business community might not have been able to put the pieces back together.

 

Terry Lathan, chairman, Alabama Republican Party

The effervescent and omnipresent chair of the Alabama Republican Party, Terry Lathan has led a tremendously successful conservative movement in the state. In three years as chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party, Lathan has presided over a party that dominates state politics.

Under her supervision in 2016, the party delivered a landslide victory for President Donald Trump in the Heart of Dixie. Now, she stands at the center of midterm efforts to quash the attempted “Blue Wave” in Alabama and, looking ahead, is already revving up the party’s machinery to defeat Sen. Doug Jones (D-Mountain Brook) in 2020.

Despite the many challenges that have been thrown at Lathan, the ALGOP is at its highest electoral standing in state history. Just this year, the party adopted its first-ever state platform, ensuring Lathan will be at the forefront of policy discussions as the legislature begins a new quadrennium.

 

Jimmy Parnell, chairman, president and CEO, ALFA Insurance Companies and Alabama Farmers Federation

Words cannot do justice to ALFA’s unparalleled influence on Alabama’s elections. From state House races to the Governor’s Mansion, the Alabama Farmers Federation has a quiet chokehold on elections big and small. While they pick and choose which candidates to get behind, ALFA is the bellwether trade group – if you get ALFA’s support, it’s your race to lose.

At the helm of this dominance is Parnell, a fifth-generation Chilton County farmer with a degree in agricultural business and economics. He is a partner in his family’s beef cattle and timber business and his long history within the Federation spans more than 20 years. The state’s farmers are his extended family, and he is a tireless advocate when it comes to the interests of those he serves. There is no greater friend, and no mightier adversary, to have in Alabama politics than Parnell.

 

Joe Perkins, founder and principal, Matrix, LLC

A man, a myth and a political legend –  where can you even begin with Joe Perkins? The visionary founder and leader of the nerve-inducing consulting firm, Matrix, LLC, Perkins has done and seen it all in his storied career.

While most Democratic consultants have changed skins since Republicans took control in 2010, Perkins has survived, and even thrived, by sheer force of will and maintaining a political operation unrivaled in organization, guile and influence.

While the AEA’s demise has shrunk one of his former calling cards, Perkins efficiently remains one of Alabama Power’s most trusted strategists. With the state party’s incompetence, Perkins is the only real Democratic power structure left in the state worth talking about. As his recent work to get Doug Jones elected and now piloting Walt Maddox’s gubernatorial bid shows, Perkins displays no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

 

Jimmy Rane, chairman and CEO, Great Southern Wood Preserving

What can you say about a man who has it all? Besides being Alabama’s richest man, Rane may have the most widely known nickname around – the “Yella Fella.” It comes as little surprise that Rane’s power and influence commands the type of respect normally reserved for dignitaries of the highest order, with politicians near and far wanting an audience with the venerable business leader and philanthropist.

Called the Sam Walton of the small, southeastern Alabama town of Abbeville, Rane has not only sustained his community in the Wiregrass, but his support of his cherished alma mater Auburn University has been crucial to growth on the Plains. He has served as president pro-tem of the Board of Trustees and the Jimmy Rane Foundation has given over 250 college scholarships. Now, he is a vital part of Auburn’s ramped up governmental affairs efforts, with the emerging Tiger Paw PAC ready to roar.

 

Quentin Riggins, senior vice president for Governmental and Corporate Affairs, Alabama Power Company

The reforms and leadership changes enacted at the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) amounted to the most significant political move of the previous 12 months. And if Mark Crosswhite was the driving force behind the business community’s overhaul of the BCA, then Quentin Riggins was the mastermind behind the effort.

The BCA controversy presented a unique dilemma for the business community and those seeking reform because it was an insider’s game but with a far-reaching impact. What may have involved a relatively small amount of people would have a tremendous effect on creating and maintaining a climate for job retention and growth, economic development and industrial recruitment.

Under those conditions, Riggins proved to be the only person who could put together the type of effective strategy to bring about the necessary reforms.

Riggins leveraged his background in state government, prior experience at the BCA, superior political relationships and extensive business community knowledge to put together a workable plan that would not only bring about leadership changes but also reform the organization’s entire structure.

To chart the course for such a major shift at the state’s largest business organization shows why Riggins sits on any list of Alabama’s most powerful and influential.

 

Britt Sexton, CEO Sexton, Inc., CEO of FS Financial, Inc., managing member of Sexton Investments, LLC

Any politico worth their salt knows that Sexton is in the very upper echelon of Alabama power players. As a member of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, Sexton has carved out a lofty role that many aspire to, yet only dozens reach.

Behind the scenes, Sexton has methodically played a key part in waking the sleeping political giant that is the UA System. Due in large part to his leadership, now there are only a handful of political apparatuses in the Yellowhammer State that breath the same rarified air of influence as the boys in Tuscaloosa.

As one of the state’s most successful investors, with business interests ranging from financial services and private equity to software and real estate, the Decatur-based Sexton has also become one of north Alabama’s most notable philanthropists and civic leaders.

His drive to make Alabama a better place for future generations burns bright, and while many other power players of his stature are in the twilight of their careers, Sexton still has decades ahead of him.

 

Gary Smith, president and CEO, PowerSouth

If there are jobs being created in south Alabama, it is highly likely that Gary Smith and his PowerSouth team are playing an integral role. And because of this, Smith maintains an important part of the policy-making process in Montgomery.

PowerSouth is an ambitious energy cooperative with its headquarters in the Wiregrass. It was formed in 1941 and provides energy for members who serve 39 Alabama counties. The amount of communities to which PowerSouth connects in those counties puts it in touch with elected officials and political players at every level of government.

With that comes measurable influence. And it all funnels to Smith.

Now that Alabama’s economy is picking up speed, expect to see Smith and PowerSouth an even larger part of the conversation.

 

Zeke Smith, executive vice president of External Affairs, Alabama Power Company

It seems as if there are some people that are natural born leaders. Zeke Smith is one of those people. As the leader of Alabama Power’s vast external affairs division, Smith must lead a team comprised of too many people to count and dealing with so many different issues there is not space to list them.

Whether it is legislative policy-making, state agency rulemaking, regulatory issues, economic development or public relations, all fall within Smith’s responsibility. And his unequivocal success in these areas has created a wide base of power and influence.

None of this would be possible without Smith possessing the traits of executive leadership that he does.

His demeanor, unmatched knowledge of the business and sharp communications skills are evident to those who meet him. Like other successful executive leaders, these are a product of that careful balance between confidence and humility, focus and vision, knowledge and delegation and firmness and understanding.

Smith’s leadership skills, and the results it has produced, have given him heightened credibility across the political spectrum and in different business sectors. Power and influence have followed.

 

Finis St. John, IV, interim chancellor, the University of Alabama System

From his downtown office in Cullman, attorney “Fess” St. John wields power that extends far and wide.  For years, he has been perhaps the most influential member of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees. His know-how and vision were affirmed just months ago when he was named as interim chancellor to replace the retiring chancellor Ray Hayes. His passion for the UA System and its multi-campus setup is also evidenced by his newfound position of trust, as St. John is serving as chancellor in an unpaid capacity.

While his fierce advocacy for the system and his visionary leadership work wonders behind the scenes, St. John’s humility looms even larger than his considerable influence. His humble nature might stem from his long family history in Alabama politics, as St. John’s father served as president pro tem of the senate in the late 1970s. Under Fess’ watchful eye, his family legacy and his beloved UA System could not be in better hands.

 

John Turner, president and CEO, Regions Bank

Only one Fortune 500 company is headquartered in Alabama: Regions Bank. As president and CEO, John Turner leads a company that has $125 billion in assets. This looks like a daunting task for anyone. However, Turner has prepared for this his entire career.

Turner has experience in the Alabama banking community going all the way back to his days at AmSouth Bank where he held senior consumer, commercial and business positions. He also served as president of Whitney National Bank in 2008. Turner joined Regions in 2011 when he became president of the critically important south region of Alabama, Mississippi, south Louisiana and Florida Panhandle.

Turner now oversees the massive multi-state operation of Regions, including more than 200 branches in Alabama. With that connection to so many communities around the state, Turner and his company have seats at the table in Montgomery and beyond. As a result, Turner’s power and influence will remain formidable.

 

Tim Vines, president and CEO, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama

Few industries are forced to engage so closely in the political and policy-making process to the extent of the health insurance industry. Under the leadership of Tim Vines, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama has successfully continued that engagement.

Vines took over this year as President and CEO after 24 years with the company. His knowledge of the business, its mission and its operation are fully ingrained in his leadership approach.

However, Vines also knows Alabama. Originally from LaFayette, Alabama, and a graduate of Auburn University, Vines serves on boards for the American Red Cross Alabama Region, the Better Business Bureau of Alabama and Samford University.

In addition, Blue Cross and Blue Shield is one of Alabama’s largest job-creators, employing thousands of people throughout the state and providing insurance to nearly 3 million. It is one of the few companies in the state that operates in all 67 Alabama counties.

That type of reach across Alabama, and a strong understanding of its people, places Tim Vines squarely on any list of the most powerful and influential in Alabama politics.

 

7 hours ago

Huntsville Police officer shot, killed in the line of duty — Sixth Alabama LEO slain this year

A 20-year veteran Huntsville Police Department officer on Friday evening was shot and killed in the line of duty.

The officer’s name is expected to be released on Saturday. The suspect, whose name also has yet to be released, is in custody.

Huntsville PD Chief Mark McMurray during a press conference confirmed the officer’s death, outlining that the officer was shot in the heart during a drug-related task force operation and later was pronounced dead at an area hospital. The officer was reportedly wearing a bullet proof vest when the shooting occurred.

Following Lowndes County Sheriff John Williams’ death most recently, this Huntsville officer becomes the sixth Alabama law enforcement officer slain in the line of duty in 2019.

U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town of the Northern District of Alabama released a statement, saying, “All of Alabama is heartbroken again as another Alabama peace officer is gunned down in the line of duty.”

716

“The Huntsville Police Department investigator, whose name will be released tomorrow, will always be remembered as a good man and a fine officer. Those of us who knew him admired his dedication and professionalism. We must now direct our prayers to his grieving family and pull together in full support of the Huntsville Police Department and law enforcement everywhere who lost another brother of the badge tonight. I am beyond grief,” Town concluded.

Governor Kay Ivey also released a statement.

“I am grieved to hear of the Huntsville Police Officer killed in the line of duty and extend my deepest sympathies and prayers to his family for their unimaginable loss,” the governor stated. “It has been an exceptionally tough year for our law enforcement community, and this will be felt across our state.”

“I will also be praying for strength for the Huntsville Police as they grieve the loss of their fellow officer, as well as for their continued protection as they keep us safe. May the Lord’s peace that passes all understanding be with the family and everyone who loved this dedicated officer,” Ivey added.

Oxford Police Department Chief Bill Partridge, who is president of the Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police, tweeted, “It seems the attack on our brothers and sisters of law enforcement continues. We have lost another officer tonight to gunfire. Please keep the Huntsville Police Department and the family of the fallen officer in your prayers. This assault must stop!”

In addition to the Huntsville PD officer and Sheriff Williams, Tuscaloosa Police Department Investigator Dornell Cousette, Mobile Police Department Officer Sean Tuder, Auburn Police Department Officer William Buechner and Birmingham Police Sergeant Wytasha Carter have been shot and killed in the line of duty this year.

State Rep. Rex Reynolds (R-Huntsville), a former police chief in the city, posted a powerful tribute about the unmanned officer on Facebook.

“He always wanted to be in drug enforcement, that’s all he talked about as a young officer. He worked the streets diligently until he got his dream assignment,” Reynolds wrote. “Now he is the victim of a murder, killed trying to make our community safer. There are mean evil people in this world that have no respect for human life.”

“I pray for his family, our officers, our Chief that tried to provide comfort in the worst of times, and I pray for the families and the officers that graduated the police academy this morning,” he concluded. “There is no reasoning. Bad day for the good guys.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle stated, “Our City is broken hearted tonight.”

“All of Huntsville mourns along with the Huntsville Police Department and the family and friends of our fallen officer. We owe a continual and deep debt of gratitude to the men and women in law enforcement who protect our community every day. Let it never be taken for granted the sacrifice that officers make to keep us safe,” the mayor continued.

Battle advised, “We stand side by side with our police department and in the days, weeks and months ahead – have no doubt – we will use the full extent of the law to bring the perpetrator to justice.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 hours ago

Ivey lights official Alabama Christmas Tree

MONTGOMERY — Governor Kay Ivey, Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, Air Force General James B. Hecker, a children’s choir and several hundred of their fellow Alabamians gathered on the capitol steps Friday evening to light Alabama’s official 2019 Christmas tree.

The tree, standing 34-ft tall, was decorated with tens of thousands of lights as well as special ornaments marking Alabama’s bicentennial.

“Christmas is a direct reminder of the hope we find in Christ,” Ivey said in her remarks.

Caroline Blades, age 4, talked to Yellowhammer after the event. She agreed with her dad that the tree was “really pretty’ and that it “was cool to see other kids up there.”

112

At the event, Ivey made sure to remember the Americans serving in the armed forces, saying, “[T]his time of year it’s important to remember the brave men and women, away from home, protecting us.”

Lieutenant General James B. Hecker, commander and president, Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, followed the governor in speaking. He said, “There is not a state in the country that welcomes their military members like Alabama.”

Watch the lighting here or below:

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

11 hours ago

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson: No plans to seek higher office beyond Mobile Mayor

MOBILE — Whenever there is an opening for a high-profile statewide office, one of the names always mentioned as a potential candidate for that office is Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.

As of late, the city of Mobile has had a good run under Stimpson’s leadership with the growth of Austal USA and Airbus Mobile while Stimpson has won two mayoral elections in Alabama’s port city. Those are the hallmarks of a potential political up-and-comer and make Stimpson a viable candidate for higher office in the eyes of some political watchers.

However, Stimpson says not to expect him to throw his hat into the ring for any higher office beyond mayor any time soon.

During a wide-ranging interview about economic development, infrastructure and education policy on location in Mobile with Huntsville radio’s WVNN, Stimpson dismissed the possibility of having any political ambitions outside of Coastal Alabama.

234

“We all have choices to make, and my choice was to stay married to the lady I’ve been married to for a number of years,” Stimpson said. “I’m not going to change that, and so as long as that’s the way it is, I’m going to stay right where I am. But I’m honored that somebody would suggest to think that I could run for a higher office.”

According to Stimpson, he sees one of the keys to Mobile’s success as having longevity and stability at the helm. He also pointed to situations in two of South Carolina’s major cities as an example.

“We still have a whole lot of work to do in Mobile. It takes a number of years to really understand all the dynamics of being a mayor. When I look at some of the cities that have been very successful — Greenville, South Carolina or Charleston — you have a mayor that’s been there 12 or 16, or in Charleston’s case 40 years. That won’t be me. But it does take a while, and if you start getting the momentum going and things are going right in the city, it’s important to support that.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

11 hours ago

BCA’s ProgressPAC endorses five statewide judicial incumbents

The board of directors for ProgressPAC, the political arm of the Business Council of Alabama (BCA), on Friday voted to endorse five statewide 2020 judicial candidates, including in the hotly contested race for place one on the Supreme Court of Alabama.

All five candidates endorsed are incumbents.

Political observers will likely consider the endorsement of Associate Justice Greg Shaw for reelection as the only non-foregone conclusion undertaken by ProgressPAC on Friday.

Shaw faces a tough primary challenge from popular State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster). Former State Sen. Bryan Taylor (R-Prattville) has also qualified for the place one race, although he has yet to announce a final decision on whether he is actually running or not.

245

Additionally, ProgressPAC endorsed Associate Justice Brad Mendheim, Judge Beth Kellum (Court of Criminal Appeals, place two), Presiding Judge Mary Windom (Court of Criminal Appeals, place one) and Judge Bill Thompson (Court of Civil Appeals, place one). All are Republicans.

In a statement, Progress PAC chairman John Mazyck said, “All of these candidates have proven track records of being fair and impartial while serving on the bench.”

“Their commitment to the rule of law and conservative judicial philosophy made the decision to endorse an easy one,” Mazyck, of The Frazer Lanier Company, Inc. in Montgomery, added.

This came the same day that Windom’s campaign announced she raised the most of all judicial candidates last month, per public filings. She ended November with $269,699.89 total in her campaign account.

Windom was first elected to Court of Criminal Appeals in 2008 and has presided over that court since 2012. Prior to her first election, she served as an assistant U.S. attorney, as well as a deputy attorney general for the State of Alabama.

She stated, “When I was elected to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals, I promised that I would bring justice to victims of crime, protect the constitution and apply the law as it is written, not create new laws or legislate from the bench. I am proud that I have kept those promises and I will continue to do so.”

The Republican primary will be held March 3, 2020.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

12 hours ago

Darkness in sunny California

California is plagued by unreliable access to electric power, a situation that will persist for years to come. It’s happening as part of Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), one component of the wildfire prevention plans implemented by electric utilities and approved by regulatory commissioners appointed by the governor. During periods of significant wildfire threat, the utility with equipment in those high-risk areas shuts off the power to avoid starting a wildfire. The plan has been in place for years and implemented hundreds of times over the past decade. It is about as popular as you would imagine. If you’re wondering who or what to blame, California offers many targets.

Assignment of blame, of course, is divided along political lines. Liberals blame climate change, a failure to live sustainably, and unscrupulous corporations. Conservatives take aim at the California Public Utilities Commission, the governor and a housing crisis that resulted in home construction in high-risk fire areas. One-sided arguments fed by confirmation bias belie an important truth – there is no one political party or company to blame. The scariest part – we’ll actually all have to work together to solve a complex problem. And it’s going to take decades. Can we do it?

1280

Wildfire prevention has not been a priority. Activities that remove fuel, such as logging or animal grazing, help prevent wildfires. Logging was made more difficult in California. California law made it impossible to remove wood from state forests that was not already dead and on the ground. Air quality laws in California all but stopped prescribed burns and other treatment measures designed to remove fuel. Finally, several invasive species and diseases killed millions of trees and added to the fuel load. In many forest areas, grazing animals were banned and native species that graze have not recovered to levels that adequately manage grass and brush growth in the forests.

Other actions made management of fires more difficult and the damages they cause more severe. Road building clears vegetation and creates fire breaks while providing access to firefighters. President Clinton all but banned road building in U.S. forests in the 1990s, President Bush restored it 15 years later, and President Obama stopped it less than five years later. While fuel accumulated in the forest and road building ceased, a growing housing crisis drove new home construction in the wildfire-urban interface. Homes were constructed that did not follow state rules on building materials, fire breaks and other fire-related design criteria. And with that, the stage was set – forests full of fuel and private property nearby. All that’s needed is an ignition source.

In the tinderbox that is California, there are many possible ignition sources. Just ask Glenn Kile. In July 2018, Mr. Kile noticed a wasp nest underground in his backyard. He was allergic to wasps, so he hammered a metal stake into the ground to keep the wasps from surfacing. Sparks from his hammering ignited the largest wildfire in state history.

Sparks from power lines can also ignite a fire. Cal Fire (the state firefighting agency) investigators said the Camp Fire, the deadliest (86 killed) wildfire in California history and the costliest natural disaster in the world in 2018 ($16.5 billion in damages), was started by a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) power line failure. While power lines cause a small amount (less than 5%) of the 50,000-plus wildfires started each year in the U.S., many severe fires are caused by power lines. The reason is that severe fires and damaged power lines often share a common cause – high wind speeds. High winds can damage power structures and can also rapidly spread wildfires, making them more difficult to manage.

Maintaining power infrastructure, and the vegetation around that infrastructure, is critical to preventing fire and is the responsibility of electric utilities. As was the case with other stakeholders, wildfire prevention was not a priority of utilities or the regulatory bodies that oversee them. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) repeatedly cut funding to electrical distribution improvements and tree trimming budgets, in the name of keeping rates affordable, and higher priorities like decarbonization. The CPUC also failed to immediately ensure all electric utilities implemented a wildfire mitigation plan even after it became clear that power lines posed a threat to public safety.

At the same time that regulators chose to prioritize other activities, electric utilities like PG&E were mired in distractions created by others (state mandates for renewables, electric vehicles) and of their own volition (pipeline explosions, bankruptcy filings). Already hamstrung by reduced budgets for vegetation management, PG&E served a customer base which increasingly fought them on tree removal. Using California tree laws, customers could take PG&E to court over a single yard tree. While negotiations to trim/remove trees stalled, PG&E would simply skip the tree and move to another property.

With every stakeholder distracted by other priorities, wildfires raged on with an increasing frequency and intensity. From 1980-1999, wildfires burned an average of 3 million acres in the U.S. each year. Over the next 20 years, that burn rate more than doubled to 6.5 million acres per year. The damage from these fires can be severe, especially with more than 2 million homes built in areas with high or extreme fire risk, mostly in the last 20 years.
The delayed response from all stakeholders has now turned into an urgent, all-of-the-above approach to preventing wildfires. Utilities, facing financial destruction from wildfire liabilities, plan to accelerate replacement of aging equipment and adopt new technology, among other measures. Elements of the plan, already in progress, include, but are not limited to:

● Increased weather monitoring to improve the ability to forecast conditions that result in fires and manage equipment appropriately.

● Increased frequency of all inspections of distribution poles and transmission structures, including ground, drone, helicopter and climbing methods.

● Increased vegetation management, including quadrupling tree removal year over year with a priority placed on removal of dead, drying or otherwise high-risk trees in extreme risk areas.

● Hardening of the electrical system, including replacing wooden poles with more resilient, fire-resistant poles, replacing open conductors with covered conductors to minimize sparking and undergrounding power lines.

● An increase in switches in the system, so that fewer people will have to face a planned power outage, if the line starts in an area where fire probability is low.

Even with an all-out effort by utilities to prevent fires, power will be shut off as a last resort. How often should we expect utilities to resort to this measure? A lot. Since 2013, San Diego Gas & Electric shut off power 216 times for public safety reasons.

Power shutoffs aren’t the only measure under consideration. Virtually every stakeholder, from individual citizens to state government, are taking action – some of them dramatic:

● Governor Brown, on his last day in office, signed two forestry bills making it easier to log state forest lands and to build and maintain roads in those areas. The second bill removed requirements to follow California air quality rules when doing planned burns to remove fuel from forest floors and create areas with no fuel to stop fires.

● Governor Newsom issued an Emergency Proclamation that directs Cal Fireto increase vegetation management activity. Historically CAL FIRE planned to treat some 400,000 acres but only treated about 30,000 acres.

● Governor Newsom signed 18 bills to boost housing construction. It’s not just that there is a wildfire crisis in California, it’s that so many people live in wildfire zones. Construction is needed in order to provide housing choice.

● The California Public Utility Commission sped up work on General Order (GO) 95 that includes fire hardening the electric grid with 23 new recommendations finishing work that started years earlier with a final ruling in 2017. Further work is underway to improve GO-95.

● Facing a decade of intermittent darkness, individuals will take matters into their own hands and increasingly look to maintain their quality of life during power shutoffs. Already the leading state for rooftop solar, interest in self-generating power is soaring following the PSPS epidemic, as customer inquiries into rooftop solar and storage have reportedly doubled in recent months.

● With rooftop solar plus storage coming in at $40,000 per typical home, down from the 2016 NREL estimate of $51,000, we can also expect to see sales for diesel generators ($400-$1,100) or backup generators ($7,000-$16,000) soar. Local suppliers have reported customer inquiries increased more than 1,000% in recent months.

Those measures, some of them extreme, highlight the scope of the problem. Many of the measures require a decade or more for implementation. Sweeping changes are coming. Meanwhile, to save lives, it will be dark in California every time there is a high risk of wildfire.

Corey Tyree is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Energy Institute of Alabama. Tyree is also a Senior Director of Energy and Environment with Southern Research. He directs a team of engineers, scientists, and technicians focused on innovative technology solutions for clean energy, air and water.