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.