Monthly Archives: July 2022

Austin Energy’s Rate Increase Tied To Not Selling Enough Electricity

By Bill Oakey – July 28, 2022

That headline should jolt anyone out of bed, if they are not awake already. Yes, you read it right! This is a deja vu from a few years ago. We were urged to conserve water. Then Austin Water told us they were raising its rates, because they weren’t selling enough water.

The shocking news from Austin Energy seems outrageous on its face. But the philosophy behind it is chilling and disturbing. Here’s the explanation from Austin Energy’s vice president of finance: “Customers have become more efficient in their energy usage, but the current rate design is not as efficient as the customers, causing the revenue to be unable to keep up with costs. This means the old rate structure was built in a way that assumed the top energy users would to an extent subsidize the lower energy users. However, over the last 20 years, customers have become more efficient in using energy. This has eliminated a large portion of the higher-end energy users, causing Austin Energy to lose revenue.” 

Wow! Let’s think about that statement. He is literally suggesting that wealthy people who have moved into Austin neighborhoods, into big fancy homes, have made those homes more energy efficient. Therefore, the outdated rate design does not allow these folks to pay more and “subsidize” the low and middle-income folks who pay less for electricity.

Austin Energy’s shameless solution is to stick the smaller users with the highest portion of the rate increase. It would guarantee that by raising the fixed monthly customer charge by $15.00. On top of that, they want to decrease the number of rate tiers, and flatten their impact. This will lower the costs for the biggest users.

Here’s Why That Philosophy Falls Apart

1. It would exacerbate the income inequality that underlies Austin’s affordability crisis.

2. Instead of solving Austin Energy’s revenue problem, it would make it worse. Residents and small business owners at all income levels would make energy efficiency a high priority. They would use this link and this link on Austin Energy’s own website!  Yes, Austin Energy is offering us rebates and incentives to conserve. Then, with the other hand, they want higher base rates every month because they’re not selling enough electricity!

3. And get this, folks…The future outlook is even worse. On June 28, the Fitch bond rating service downgraded Austin Energy’s revenue bonds to AA-. Here is a statement from the first page of their report. “The planned rate increase is projected to contribute an additional $48 million in base rate revenues. AE expects additional base rate increases will be necessary to improve the utility’s operating cash flows and leverage profile on a sustained basis.”

Yup, that’s Austin Energy’s brilliant management plan. Watch the customer base shrink, as more homes and businesses install solar panels, energy storage batteries, etc. Have they not been adjusting their operational plans to coincide with the evolving market? It looks like they’re desperately trying to keep the ship afloat, by piling rate increases onto the masses of people who can’t afford to join the solar club.

I Have a Much Better Solution

1. Use the list of single-click links in my previous blog posting to email every City Council member and the Mayor. Ask them to cancel the proposed rate increase. The record daily highs and record high overnight lows this summer are producing historically high electric bills. This will easily shore up Austin Energy’s revenues.

2. The City Council owes it to the citizens to hold a series of public engagement sessions to evaluate the best path forward for Austin Energy. As for the ongoing formal rate hearing process – Nip it, Snip it, STRIP it! A new City Council will be sworn in next January. Why suffer through the agony of the other kind of swearing, that would accompany a raucous and contentious electric rate battle this fall? Citizens and small businesses are already being crushed by high summer bills.

3. Ausin Energy is the most important asset that our city owns. It provides us with electricity. But it is also a vital revenue source for the City’s general fund. Their financial dilemma needs to be carefully evaluated by our new Mayor and City Council. And most importantly, you and I and our friends and neighbors deserve a seat at the table!

Call To Action – Let’s STRIP Austin’s Electric Rate Increase Proposal!

By Bill Oakey – July 25, 2022

On Friday July 22nd, KXAN-TV News aired a story about our oppressively high summer electric bills. The historic triple-digit heat has led to these burdensome bills, that are straining family budgets at a time of record high inflation. But, as I pointed out in the news segment, Austin Energy has a nasty surprise for us, lurking around the corner. They want to pile on a new base rate increase!

In the news interview, I explained that Austin Energy will be sweeping up the highest peak season profits in their history, from May through September. This will pour tens of millions of extra dollars into their coffers, well above their current year’s budget. The City Council will have every reason to nip the rate increase in the bud, as well they should.

But my jaw dropped to the floor, as I listened to Austin Energy’s response to that suggestion on KXAN. Here are their misleading and faulty arguments:

1. We don’t make any profits. The extra revenue is returned to the City.

2. We will earn extra revenue, but we also have additional expenses, with “the high cost of energy.”

The full costs of fuel and ERCOT power purchases are passed through to us, the customers. That charge appears on the Power Supply Adjustment line on our electric bills. The summer demand surge will undoubtedly push the charge higher. The fixed monthly amount is modified each year in November.

It’s true that Austin Energy’s revenue transfers to the general fund are not the same as a private business profit. But, here we’re talking about a revenue surplus – a windfall. In a recession or a time of high inflation, the revenue surplus can be used to keep customer rates stable. (Hint for the City Council)!

Imagine this historic seasonal windfall, with a new base rate increase stacked on top of it! That would generate even more tens of millions of extra revenue – every year. There are suspicions that the City wants to dodge the Legislative property tax cap with higher general fund transfers.

Here’s The Rub – Get Ready for a Snub!

The rate increase proposal would shift some base rate costs away from big businesses, onto residential ratepayers. And it would upend the residential rate tiers, pushing higher costs onto low and middle-income folks. We simply can’t let that happen! It’s a slap in the face in a city with extreme income inequality and an affordability crisis, plus high inflation.

It’s Time For a Call to Action!

S-T-R-I-P: Stop The Rate Increase Proposal

Nip It, Skip It, STRIP It!

My plan is to meet with neighborhood groups and civic organizations across the City, to explain what’s going on here. This is my fifth decade of affordability activism. I served on the City Electric Utility Commission from 1985-1990. This time around, we may have a victory in the palm of our hands. There are four City Council seats and the Mayor’s race on the ballot in November. Even if the current City Council adopts the lopsidedly unfair rate proposal, the new Council could scale it back or STRIP it completely. It’s up to you and me and our friends and neighbors, to elect a consumer-friendly Mayor and City Council. We can do it! Any future rate increase must not penalize small users, and it must protect residential and small business ratepayers!

Here’s What You Can Do to Help

1. Contact every City Council member and the Mayor. Ask them to STRIP (Ooooh!…They can do some of it behind closed doors, subject to the open meetings law limitations).

2. Ask the City Council to put senior discounts on the fixed customer charges for every category on our utility bills. It’s high time for the City to help our longtime residents.

3. Alert your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. Send them the link to this blog piece.

4. Subscribe to this blog to stay up to date on our path to victory. A convenient STRIP Guide will soon be made available. It will tell it like it is in plain, simple language. The veil of special interest subterfuge will be peeled away and clearly exposed. We will wrestle our publicity-owned utility away from the special interests, and give it back to the people!

Use These One-Click Links to Send Emails to the City Council:

Mayor Steve Adler steve.adler@austintexas.gov
1. District 1 – Natasha Harper-Madison natasha.madison@austintexas.gov
2. District 2 – Vanessa Fuentes vanessa.fuentes@austintexas.gov
3. District 3 – Sabino “Pio” Renteria sabino.renteria@austintexas.gov
4, District 4 – Jose “Chio” Vela jose.vela@austintexas.gov
5. District 5 – Ann Kitchen ann.kitchen@austintexas.gov
6. District 6 – Mackenzie Kelly mackenzie.kelly@austintexas.gov
7. District 7 – Leslie Pool leslie.pool@austintexas.gov
8. District 8 – Paige Ellis paige.ellis@austintexas.gov
9. District 9 – Kathie Tovo kathie.tovo@austintexas.gov
10. District 10 – Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter alison.alter@austintexas.gov

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

1. “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” – Harry Connick Jr., from “When Harry Met Sally”
2. “The Stripper” – David Rose, 1962 #1 song
3. “Behind Closed Doors” – Charlie Rich
4. “The Streak” – Ray Stevens
5. “Heat Wave” – Martha & the Vandellas
6. “Windfall” – Rick Nelson
7. “77 Sunset Strip” – Don Ralke
8. “Tell It Like It Is” – Aaron Neville
9. “The High Cost Of Living” – Wood’s Tea Company
10. “When The Lights Go On Again” – Mary Duff

Two More Electric Bill Shocks Are Coming!

By Bill Oakey, July 21, 2022

If you have seen your latest electric bill, you know that the historic heatwave has pushed it way up. That’s bad enough – with rents skyrocketing, along with gasoline, grocery bills and property taxes. But strap yourself in…The second and third episodes of this ugly electric bill drama are right around the corner. At least we may have a chance to slow down or significantly curtail Episode 3. But that will require a call to action, with a united citizen backlash. (I’ll be on the front lines for that!)

Episode 2 – The Power Supply Adjustment Charge

The sky high bills that we are seeing this summer are simply based on our usage – the number of kilowatt hours that we consumed in order to beat back the heat. Most of us were propelled into the third tier of the base rate structure. Anything above 1,000 kilowatt hours is billed at a higher rate. It doesn’t take much to jingle the cash register to $25, $50 or $100 above the normal charges that we are used to seeing.

So, you might wonder, how could it get any worse? Well, there’s the little matter of power generation costs – Austin Energy’s fuel costs, plus their energy sales and purchases through the ERCOT power grid. Those net costs are passed through to the customers, but there’s a hitch. The Power Supply Adjustment is a fixed monthly charge. Austin Energy and the City Council only recalculate it once a year. So, this summer it’s relatively small. That’s because we had a mild summer last year, before the latest calculation was made. The adjustment charge will be reviewed next month, as part of the City’s annual budget discussions.

That’s when the next shockwaves will probably come to light. Many Texas utilities adjust their fuel charges and ERCOT net costs on a monthly basis. Statewide news reports are filled with grim accounts of skyrocketing electric bills. They cite the huge spike in national gas costs for power plants. That’s because of the war in Ukraine and the worldwide heatwave. Texas is one of the highest U.S. gas producers. We are exporting lots of it to Europe.

That’s where supply and demand kicks in. It falls to ERCOT to regulate the daily sales and purchases of electricity across the state. Because of the Big Special Interests who created this system, and lobbied the Legislature to keep it, we’re screwed! During peak demand periods, the price per megawatt hour for ERCOT transactions can skyrocket. The normal rate of $40 to $50 per megawatt hour can legally spike up to $5,000 per megawatt hour. It shouldn’t hit that cap unless the grid goes into a weather emergency, like it did during the 2021 winter storm. But it has already swung to well over $1,000 per megawatt hour at times, during this heatwave.

For now, we are at arm’s length from Episode 2 of electric bill shock. I have asked the City Council to give us some sort of estimate of how bad it might be. Austin Energy actually made a $100 million profit during the winter storm. They produced more electricity than they were allowed to use. So, they sold it through the grid and netted a profit. But without any usage restrictions yet this summer, we are probably on the hook for high power purchase costs.

Episode 3 – A Ludicrous and Outlandish Rate Increase Proposal

As mentioned in my last blog posting, Austin Energy wants to jack up the fixed monthly customer charge from $10.00 to $25.00. That extra $15 per month would generate a stunning annual windfall of $84 million. Suspicions abound that a great portion of that would be transferred to the City’s general fund. They could be planning to circumvent the Legislature’s 3.5% revenue cap on property tax increases.

In addition, the rate proposal calls for increasing the charges for small users of electricity. This is a shameful act from Austin Energy. Austin’s “inverted block” rate structure was never based on “cost of service.” It was proudly established over 40 years ago, pioneered by Austin consumer and environmental icon, Shudde Fath. Sticking low-income residents with such a penalty during a city affordability crisis should be unthinkable. Let’s just hope that the City Council agrees. In the meantime, we’ll have to wait out a formal rate hearing process, peppered with reams of paper full of lawyerly crosstalk and legal jumbo-jumbo.

By the way, we may not even need a rate increase. Austin Energy will be earning historic profits from a record hot season from May through September. I’ve asked the City Council to request an updated estimate on that.

A Blast From the Past

This is my fifth decade as a consumer activist in Austin electric rate battles. In the early 1980’s, I defeated a 20% electric rate increase, by getting it cut in half. Late one night, I discovered a “magic sentence” in the City Budget. It stated that the 20% rate increase was based in part on the passage of lignite bonds in a City election. Well, the budget was adopted before the election, and the lignite bonds failed. City staff forgot to mention that detail to the City Council when they passed the rate increase.

Get Ready For A Big Shock – Watch Out For Your Next Electric Bill!

By Bill Oakey – July 18, 2022

We all know that electricity can shock you, if you touch a live wire. But within days, hundreds of thousands of Austinites will be shocked out of their socks, by looking at their electric bills. Make sure you are sitting down before you look.

The basic rates have not changed – yet.  But the historic summer heat wave is causing big shockwaves for three important reasons:

1. The war in Ukraine has caused a severe shortage in Europe of the natural gas used for electric power plants. Texas has been exporting lots of gas to European countries. This has caused our own gas prices to skyrocket. And, even worse gas shortages in Europe may be coming soon.

2. Texas has fallen behind in building new power plants to keep up with climate change and population growth. This article explains the grim consequences.

3. Austin Energy is required to sell electricity at the fluctuating market rate determined by ERCOT. Our ERCOT power grid uses a demand-based pricing structure that allows energy producers and wholesalers to charge wildly inflated prices. No other grid anywhere else in the country uses this terribly flawed system. During last year’s winter storm, the legalized price-gouging caused several Texas utilities to take on massive debts. This summer, the exorbitant rates are not as high as that winter. But at close to $1,500 per megawatt hour, they are staggeringly higher than the normal rate of $40 to $50 per megawatt hour.

Why does Texas use such a crazy, unfair system that can cripple the finances of Texas businesses and families? The simple answer is political cronyism. The Good Old Boys in the oil and gas industry laughed all the way to the bank after the big winter storm. Other fat cats got fatter by making lucrative investments in Texas energy futures on Wall Street. All while many Texans, some who died, sat huddled under blankets, freezing in the dark during that storm.

Did the Legislature “fix” the grid during their last session? Well, they applied a few bandaids. On the financial side, they lowered the power grid price cap from $9,000 to $5,000 per megawatt hour. So, now the outrageous price limit is only 100 times the normal rate. Whoopie!

Here’s a Look at ERCOT’s Recent and Current Pricing:

1. Houston provides a good example.

2. A good overview of ERCOT policies and pricing.

3. Check out the ERCOT dashboard to see the current daily prices for wholesale electricity.

4. Keep in mind that Austin Energy buys electricity and also sells electricity through ERCOT. So, the final impact on ratepayers is the net gain or loss from those transactions each month.

5. Check out this link to compare ERCOT pricing with other U.S. power grids.

We just have to hope that ERCOT doesn’t reach an emergency status this summer, like it did during the winter storm. If that happens, the exorbitant price-gouging will reach stratospheric proportions, and could even last longer than the few days of the winter storm.

Are You Ready for a New Austin Energy Base Rate Increase?

Put down your high-priced bag of groceries, grab a beer and try to swallow this news. Austin Energy is just now wrapping up formal hearings on an outlandish rate increase proposal! The details call for a separate blog posting. But here are a couple of highlights:

1. They want to raise the fixed monthly customer charge from $10.00 to $25.00  As an accountant, I couldn’t resist doing some math. That’s $15.00 per month more for every residential customer in their service area. How much new revenue would that bring Austin Energy in one year? Here’s the calculation:

$15.00 X 467,291 customers X 12 = $84,112,380

And that’s based on customers in Fiscal Year 2021, which ends on August 31. What does Austin Energy plan to do with that huge windfall? The extra $84 million paid in customer charges, before a single light switch is flipped on?

What?? Did I hear somebody say that the City might transfer it to the General Fund? To try to get around the Legislature’s 3.5% revenue cap on increased property taxes? The City Council should strap themselves in, and get ready for an angry backlash. Whatever Austin Energy has up its sleeve needs to be delved into and explained with full transparency. Perhaps they were told to tack on those extra charges. Or, maybe they just woke up from a weird dream and proposed this on their own.

Whatever the case, there are consumer activists lurking in the shadows. We are coming out now, and looking over their shoulders, with calculators and spreadsheets in hand. Finally, here’s just one simple little question for Austin Energy and the City Council:

How Much Extra Profit Will the Utility Make During This Historic Summer Heat Wave?

The number of triple digit daily highs and higher than normal overnight lows has broken all records. And we still have almost two and a half months to go until the end of September. So, Austin Energy will record record profits for the 5 months covering May through September. I am asking the City Council to request that revenue estimate as soon as possible. The need for a hefty rate increase at this time should wither considerably. Just like our grass, trees, flowers and plants. It’s time for a major City Hall reckoning on this entire situation!