By Bill Oakey – November 16, 2022, Revised November 21, 2022
Forget all of the confusing excuses and convoluted explanations surrounding this long, frustrating ordeal. Share this timeline that makes it simple, and ties all the loose ends together.
August 2021 – The City Council approved Austin Energy’s annual budget, which began October 1st.
April 2022 – Austin Energy made a presentation to the City Council, requesting a $47 million base rate increase. The reason given was declining electricity sales. But, Austin Energy’s charts show revenues exceeding costs from 2014 through 2019. No evidence of declining energy sales is provided, except for 2020 and 2021. A 100-year pandemic and a highly unusual winter storm caused the lower sales in those years. Not mentioned in the presentation is an August 2020 memo from Austin Energy to the City Council. At that time, they forecast a $19 million revenue surplus for 2021. So, it is crystal clear that the lower energy sales caused by the pandemic and the winter storm were abnormal. There is no evidence of an ongoing trend. The rate case was flawed from the very beginning.
May Through September 2022 – Rate case participants offered a broad range of revenue and cost-saving opportunities to reduce or eliminate the rate increase. Austin Energy agreed to correct two accounting errors, reducing the rate request to $35.7 million. (See pp. 1,2)
Late Spring Through Early Fall 2022 – Austin ratepayers filled up Austin Energy’s coffers, by paying for the biggest, baddest and longest triple-digit heatwave, since the city was founded in 1839. This huge increase in revenue was not predicted, and not budgeted. Austin Energy spent tens of millions, without budgetary approval from the City Council. They never publicly disclosed the base revenue surplus amount. San Antonio’s municipal utility announced a $75 million budget surplus, and gave $50 million of it back to the ratepayers.
October 2022 – The City Council was blindsided by Austin Energy’s eleventh-hour announcement of a 71% increase in the monthly Power Supply Adjustment and 24% increase in the Regulatory Charge. The City Council voted to spread the rate shock over 3 years. Austin Energy estimates that these increases will cost the “average customer” only $15 per month this year. But folks living in 3 bedroom houses will pay much more, especially during the hot summer months.
Early November 2022 – Rate case participants presented a compromise rate proposal to the City Council, even though their rate filings offered enough options to completely wipe out the rate increase.
Here is my proposal:
This Proposal Is Simple, Fair and Financially Prudent
1. The public deserves to be told the amount of the un-budgeted base revenue surplus from the summer heatwave, and how it was spent.
2. The City Council may decide that a small base rate increase is needed to cover the pandemic and storm-related losses from 2020 and 2021. If so, it should be done as a temporary adjustment to the base rate charges in the current rate tariff. The City Council can determine how long to keep the temporary rate increase in effect.
3. No changes to the rate design, customer charge or Value of Solar benefits should be included in the temporary rate adjustment.
4. The City Council should regularly monitor Austin Energy’s financial position. They should conduct a financial review, towards the end of the adjustment period. If the utility’s financial position has stabilized, the City Council should suspend the temporary base rate increase.
5. Austin Energy, with City Council oversight, should develop new short term, midterm and long term plans. These plans should guide the utility toward the inevitable future of rapidly accelerating customer adoption of solar and other energy-saving technologies. They should examine and implement some of the emerging business strategies outlined in the 2019 report, commissioned by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Early December 2022 – The City Council faces critical choices. They should protect our existing conservation-based rate design, and honor their commitment to the City’s adopted Climate Equity Plan. A higher customer charge would threaten affordability for customers across several income levels.
The City should postpone the rate decision until the new Mayor and City Council take office in January. They should comb the rate filing briefs, consult with the participants and citizen experts. They should adopt the various measures to wipe out the rate increase. If any rate increase is deemed necessary, a temporary adjustment is the most reasonable approach.
New Year’s Eve 2022 – This is a time for Auld Lang Syne and fun celebrations. It would help to know that our City leaders are committed to that word that is so often casually supported, but so seldom backed up with concrete action – affordability.