By Bill Oakey – November 15, 2022
On Monday, I met with Mayor Adler’s Senior Policy Advisor. The rate case is coming down to the wire. The City Council has planned a final vote for early next month. Any change in the rates would ring in the new year, on January 1st.
Mayor Adler took the lead, and did an excellent job in tackling the doubled-barreled rate shock of increased fuel and regulatory charges. Those new charges hit our monthly bills at the stroke of midnight on Halloween night. Mayor Adler’s efforts led to the City Council’s decision to increase those charges gradually over three years. The first round may seem somewhat small over the winter months. But, if we have another triple-digit heatwave next summer, folks living in three bedroom homes will definitely feel the rate shock.
Why Does Austin Energy Want a Base Rate Increase?
As this blog has pointed out, Austin Energy says they want it because “our rate design is not as efficient as our customers.” In other words, there are too darned many energy efficient small living units. Those customers aren’t buying enough electricity. Well, there are many problems with that reasoning. Zapping those customers with a $25 monthly customer charge would send the wrong signal on conservation. If you have to pay more, you might as well use more and get your money’s worth. And the biggest users would see their electric bills decrease. So, their motivation to conserve flies right out the window. Austin Energy’s rate plan runs in direct conflict with the City’s adopted Climate Equity Plan.
My Proposal Offers a Fair and Financially Prudent Solution
I recommend that the City Council keep the current rate design and customer charge in place. If they review all the input from the rate case participants, and still conclude that a compromise base rate increase is necessary, then approve it – but make it temporary.
A standard rate increase would have to stay in place for a few years, until the next routine rate review comes around. Austin Energy’s rate request was determined by using 2021 as their “test year.” They soldi less electricity than they needed to cover their expenses in both 2020 and 2021. Well, we all know that we had a 100-year pandemic that affected both of those years. And in 2021, we had a historic winter storm and a milder than normal summer, on top of the pandemic.
The charts that Austin Energy presented to the City Council, clearly show revenues exceeding expenditures in every year leading up to 2020. So, their own data fails to show any proven trend of not seeing enough electricity. The need for an ongoing rate increase was built upon on a false foundation. If any rate increase is needed, it should only cover the losses caused by the unusual circumstances in 2020 and 2021. Most importantly, the record-setting summer heatwave this year certainly doesn’t portray a dire decline in electricity sales.
Austin Energy’s Big Credibility Problem
When Austin Energy filed the rate request last April, no one had predicted the upcoming heatwave. It was not included in last year’s budget, that ended on September 30th. There is no doubt that the utility sold more electricity than in any summer throughout their history. San Antonio’s ratepayers received bill credits from part of their $75 million surplus. So, what did Austin Energy do with all that money from their windfall budget surplus? Until they satisfactorily answer that question, the public has every reason to question their credibility.
Is a Temporary Rate Increase Needed? If So, Then How Much?
The rate case participants have each submitted a treasure trove of expert testimony, chock full of data-driven analyses and thoughtful conclusions. It’s as if the City has been handed a stack of expensive consultant reports, each of which represents many months of tedious, detailed work. In my opinion, the experts have identified more than enough revenue and cost-saving options to wipe out any rate increase. But the City Council may disagree.
It so, they should consider a six-month temporary amendment to the existing rate tariff. The only thing that should change is the base charges for each customer class. The solar benefits should not be changed until more study and citizen input takes place.
Review Austin Energy’s Financial Position After Several Months
The City Council could monitor Austin Energy’s financial position. By late next spring, they should know whether another triple-digit heatwave is coming. So, what happens with rates next fiscal year should start with a spring financial review. During that review period, the City Council could decide whether to leave the amended rate tariff in place, or whether they can revert back to the base rates that we are paying now.
This approach is certainly not a common practice, and Austin Energy would be less than thrilled with the idea. But we are in a time of record inflation, sky-high rents and crazy-high property taxes. We have a large number of folks at various income levels, struggling to make ends meet. And seniors living on fixed incomes. Many small businesses are still trying to recover from the pandemic. One double-dose of rate shock is bad enough. We certainly cannot afford any other type of rate increase, for any longer than it is absolutely necessary.
Also, the six month review period would give Austin Energy, with oversight from the City Council, time to explore and evaluate new utility business models. It is true that solar panels and new, evolving technologies will lead to rapidly rising utility losses from customer adoption of these technologies, in the not too distant future. Energy-efficient building renovations and new construction, combined with energy-saving appliances will add to this trend.
Austin Energy’s existing plans rely on an outdated business model. That model calls for continuous base rate increases, to counter the conservation-driven revenue losses. The City should call upon national experts, to help guide them toward a sustainable and financially viable plan, for the inevitable future that is coming.
Any rate plan based on the revenue foregone due to wider adoption of conservation measure like solar is indeed outdated, and should be protested vociferously. Which City Council members can we count on to agree and prevent such rate increases?