San Antonio City Council member, Mario Bravo, has set an example that we should follow here in Austin. He is proposing to use part of their $75 windfall from high summer electric bills for a variety of wonderful programs that will protect the utility and help consumers. His plan is much better than giving ratepayers a one-time rebate of $22 to $29. Here’s the kicker in Council Member Bravo’s proposal. It would allow San Antonio to apply for Federal matching funds, to DOUBLE the amount of the revenues!
Let’s Double Down On This Opportunity!
This is a game-changer that changes my recommendation for Austin. I have asked each of the pro-consumer participants in Austin Energy’s rate case to make a list of the revenue options they have identified in their filing briefs. Let’s use those revenues to wipe out the rate increase. Then, let’s follow Council Member Bravo’s example. But first, we need Austin Energy to release their fiscal year to date Budgeted vs. Actual revenues. Bravo for Mr. Bravo!
The Texas Longhorns almost beat Alabama on Saturday. Let’s give them and the rest of the City a big win in the rate case. It is 4th down, and we’re just inches from the goal line. We can score a full consumer victory. And then get the extra dollars to sweeten the deal! Here is the San Antonio news story:
Let’s invest CPS revenue in real solutions to high energy bills
Due to an extremely hot summer, CPS Energy’s contributing revenue came in at $75 million over the city’s 2022 budget, and the city proposed returning some of that money to customers as a discount on their October bills. While a bill rebate after a summer of high bills sounds good at first, taking a closer look at where the money goes, we see how it could cost residents a chance at real solutions and savings.
In the city’s proposed rebate plan, the average residential bill would get a $29 rebate, and many would get even less. Half of my District 1 residents would get less than $22. Commercial customers would account for nearly half of the $42.5 million returned to customers, and residents and businesses outside of San Antonio would also get a significant amount.
This is a bad deal for San Antonio residents, and it’s why I’m proposing we invest some of this extra revenue to help protect residents from future high energy bills and prepare for more extreme weather.
As a city-owned utility, CPS Energy is owned by San Antonio residents. As owners, we now get a return on your investment every year with up to 14% of all CPS Energy revenue going into your city’s annual budget to help pay for your sidewalks, libraries, police and firefighters, parks, and more.
What about CPS Energy customers who aren’t San Antonio residents and therefore aren’t owners of CPS Energy? Under the current proposal, $12 million would go to residents and businesses outside of San Antonio.
There is also a huge corporate welfare component to this rebate proposal. Commercial customers will receive almost $20 million, with one corporation alone receiving close to $1 million.
I didn’t run for office so that I could transfer wealth from our city to corporations and residents outside of San Antonio. Fortunately, some council members have developed an alternative proposal which includes the following:
Create safe community spaces for extreme weather events and emergencies: Install backup power in public buildings for when the electric grid goes down. These buildings will serve as public cooling centers during heat waves and heating centers during freezing weather, as well as distribution sites for emergency supplies.
Protect low-income residents against future high energy bills: Weatherize and install energy efficiency upgrades to help reduce energy waste. The Department of Energy has found that weatherizing a home saves $372 per year on average. This will also reduce the peak electricity load on our utility, which then saves all CPS Energy customers on future bills.
Reduce urban heat and flooding: Plant trees in the hottest parts of our city to provide shade and cool our city down by up to 9° F on hot days. Also, plant trees that can absorb up to 4,000 gallons of water per year near drainage basins where we have flooding problems.
Add funds to a program to help prevent our most vulnerable CPS Energy customers from having their electricity cut off. This applies to low-income customers who are senior citizens, disabled, have small children in their homes, or require critical-care equipment.
The timing for this proposal is just right to achieve more for every dollar we invest. The federal government just passed the $700 billion Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $1.5 billion for tree planting and $1.9 billion to reduce urban heat island hot spots. Passing our proposal allows us to demonstrate that San Antonio is serious about doing this work and allows us to apply matching funds for the federal grants, allowing us to double or triple our investments.
The only reason we have this additional city revenue is because this summer heat wave has been brutal. We can expect to see summers like this and possibly even hotter going forward. Corporate welfare and rebates to people outside of San Antonio are a bad idea and do nothing to help address our future extreme weather and electricity grid challenges. Let’s invest these revenues, which could be doubled or tripled through federal grants, to protect our community against future extreme weather and associated high energy bills.
San Antonio has decided to allocate $42.5 million of the surplus for customer rebates. The rebates will be optional, as explained in this article.
You can’t get through a day in Austin now without seeing or hearing commercials about solar, home generators, etc. The boom is on. But Austin Energy’s rate proposal lacks the vision to carry us into the much-needed transition away from traditional carbon-emitting, centralized power plants.
Kudos to KXAN’s Avery Travis, who is spearheading a series of in-depth reports on a complicated issue. It’s time for a pause – to form a consensus among concerned citizens, local experts, the City Council and the good folks at Austin Energy who keep the lights on. No City recognizes the value of innovation better than Austin, Texas. We must make it happen!
Read the Austin solar article below. Then do yourself a favor, and bring a group of friends to the early show at the Elephant Room on Tuesdays, at 315 Congress Ave. You are about to meet Sarah Sharp…
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Local musician Sarah Sharp sings every week at a downtown jazz club, but she still remembers her first gigs in Austin: working at Fresh Plus Grocery in Hyde Park and Z’Tejas on West Sixth Street more than 20 years ago.
“My half of the rent was $415 a month,” she laughed. “I’ve tried to have a really positive attitude and roll with it and accept that change is just the fact of life, but it’s getting a little bit out of hand. It’s getting harder and harder to keep a positive attitude on the rapid growth and the cost and the things that we are losing — like our music venues and our beloved restaurants.”
Over the last few years, certain changes have made her feel like she is in “survival mode,” in more ways than one. She said described being worried about climate change, losing faith in the state’s power grid after last year’s winter storm and feeling alarmed about what seems like an ever-climbing utility bill. In search of some stability, she began researching the costs and benefits of solar panels for her home. She decided to install some and believes, if everything goes as planned, she will be able to “lock-in” her electric costs — even if others’ rates go up.
“It’s kind of primal,” she said. “To be able to have a predictable, steady payment and wanting to do what I can for the earth… and wanting to have some help in the situations where we can’t count on our own grid.”
But now, some changes Austin Energy has proposed for the solar program have Sharp worried about whether her panels will give her the consistency she was looking for.
Looking forward, or backward
On a sunny day, people with solar panels on their roofs are generating energy not just for their own houses or businesses, but enough for some to go back into the electric system that powers other homes and businesses. During darker hours, though, these homes may use some power from Austin Energy.
So, solar customers’ bills will reflect charges for any power usage and credit backfor the energy they generated. That amount is calculated by the utility’s Value of Solar rate.
As a part of its ongoing retail rate review process, Austin Energy wants to adjust the way the Value of Solar gets calculated.
The utility announced earlier this year it would be seeking to increase the base rate for electric service from $10 to $25 per month for customers, as well as trying to restructure the tiered system they use to charge customers based on how much energy they conserve. Austin Energy said these changes — along with the Value of Solar proposal — are necessary to cover the increasing cost of providing service.
Tim Harvey, Customer Renewable Solutions Manager for the utility, said the three specific changes proposed for the solar calculation will make it “more accurate.”
First, Austin Energy wants to change the way it calculates what are called “avoided costs.” Basically, this is the price the utility would have paid to produce the same power itself or purchase it from another source, but instead, it is received by solar customers’ power generation.
Currently, Austin Energy’s avoided cost methodology is forward-looking, using forecasts and projections to “try to grab those values from the future and bring them into present day,” Harvey said. The proposal aims to look at market data from the previous year to calculate the avoided costs. Harvey said the proposed method would rely on measurable data instead of predictions.
“Both ways, both methodologies, have value and can be correct,” he said. “It could be more accurate to look in the backwards, the rearview mirror on it, so to speak, because we can measure what happened in the past. We can’t really do that for the future.
Energy consultant Karl Rábago, however, compares the new methodology to someone clocking a runner’s average time for a 26-mile marathon by only looking at one mile.
Rábago served as Austin Energy’s Vice President for Distributed Energy Services back in 2006 and helped create the original Value of Solar tariff. He believes the forward-looking approach they designed treats customers more like a long-term investment for the utility, rather than a wholesale energy generator.
“What’s the price based on the fact that they’re installing a 25-year resource? Today’s Austin Energy is treating them like a commodity, like they’re just in a spot market — where if they happen to make electricity this year, they might not make electricity next year. They’re giving them only the short-term price,” he said.
To put it another way, he said, “If Austin Energy wanted to build or contract for a solar farm, they wouldn’t pay for it one year at a time, they would put it on the books as a long-term asset with 25 or more years of usable service.”
The Sierra Club, Public Citizen and Solar United Neighbors filed testimony claiming that the new formula ignores other resources provided by local solar customers, including avoided air pollution, benefits to the local economy and avoided distribution capacity costs. According to the document, they call the changes “unjust, unreasonable, and discriminatory” towards solar customers.
Austin Energy disagrees. Harvey said they ran an analysis using the proposed methodology and came out with a higher Value of Solar, at $.0991/kWh — compared to the analysis they ran using the other, future-looking methodology which came out to $.095/kWh. For context, the current value is $.097/kWh.
He said they would assess any market changes on a yearly basis, but wouldn’t necessarily change the rate every year.
“If it goes down, then we can talk about doing a rolling average and what that looks like,” he said.
Still, the possibility of variability concerns several consumer advocates, including Bill Oakey. He has worked on several utility rate cases over the years and has been following affordability issues in Austin since the 1980s. He sat on the Electric Utility Commission for several years and now writes a blog called Austin Affordability.com.
While he didn’t file testimony in this case, he believes the changes will make it more difficult for solar customers to plan ahead, which could discourage people from investing and committing to solar.
“The problem is that the rate is going to be variable, and so there is no guarantee of what it’s going to be,” Oakey told KXAN.
He said he’s concerned about anything that might hinder interest and accessibility for solar projects.
“The bottom line is that we need to be able to get from point A to point B, and just think about what point B might be 10 years from now, 15 years from now. We might have 15 to 20% of the population, both business and residential, using solar panels and storage batteries. If that were to happen, Austin Energy would need to learn to grow backwards,” Oakey explained.
He is critical of the reason behind Austin Energy’s larger proposed rate increase, urging the utility to eye a business plan that anticipates selling less power — as more customers conserve and trend toward energy-efficient patterns.
Harvey, however, insists the utility is not “defunding solar.”
“We’re not trying to cost-signal people to stop adopting solar. You know, quite the opposite. It’s the values going up, we’re intending to just pass through the benefits to the customers who are producing energy. But there can and probably will come a day where solar-hosting capacity is an issue that we’ll have to address. We’ll look to other utilities to find out what best practices are because there are other utilities that are further along the adoption curve than we are today.
According to the utility, another key piece of its proposal is to shift the recovery method for solar energy transactions with customers.
Currently, the Value of Solar expenses are recovered through the Power Supply Adjustment (PSA) charge. It has proposed recovering something called Societal Benefits through a different charge — the Customer Benefit Charge (CBC). The move would increase the CBC while decreasing the PSA, and Harvey said this “increases transparency” for customers.
“So, we’re breaking out the environmental values, we’re calling them societal benefits now,” he said. “By breaking those out, we’re able to show the public, you know how we come to that calculation.”
Harvey acknowledged some concerns about this shuffle, for example, the fact that certain commercial customers do not pay the CBC charge.
Testimony filed by Sierra Club, Public Citizen and Solar United Neighbors states, “the utility effectively creates an uneconomic subsidy in which customer [solar] generators are required to subsidize other non-solar customers (especially large users of electricity) and the utility. Whenever customer-generators are forced to subsidize other customers, they will be less likely to invest in solar generation, frustrating policy and economic goals for the community.”
Rábago voiced a different concern about this switch. He argues that by recovering the Societal Benefits through the CBC, the utility could “starve” other energy efficiency programs that are funded by the CBC.
“They are making those non-utility resources fight for themselves for an ever-decreasing slice of pie,” he said.
He is particularly alarmed by the third change proposed by Austin Energy, which involves adding a new, third value to the Value of Solar calculation, called the Policy Driven Incentive (PDI). This incentive would ultimately be provided to solar customers “for a fixed term and at a fixed amount” based on the customers’ power production and other factors — but would adjust annually — according to a written statement by utility officials.
Harvey explained it as “a proposal” to meet with the community and interested parties “to help inform our incentive solutions, so that we can meet policy-driven goals.
Those goals include having 200 megawatts of solar from Austin Energy customers — about twice as much as exists today, according to Harvey.
“We want to get there in the most effective and easy way possible for customers, and also the most cost-efficient way,” he said.
Rábago, however, argues that the need for an incentive is an indicator that the Value of Solar itself may not be compensating customers fairly. He told KXAN that was his intention, when he helped craft the original tariff.
“That having a price set on value would create the holy grail: a self-sustaining market. A market where installers could figure out what things were worth; they could make the sales proposition to customers; the customers would feel they were getting a reasonable payback — that their investment in the community, as well as of course themselves, was going to be respected for a long time.”
Sharp said, whatever the methodology, she hopes the utility chooses to prioritize customers’ goals.
“We’re just trying to do our part. Quit making it so darn hard. It’s ridiculous,” she said.
The announcement should come as no surprise. Austin Energy’s windfall revenues from the historic summer heatwave are considered “post test year data” in the parlance of traditional utility ratemaking procedures. But that doesn’t stop the City Council from adopting my proposal to scrap the rate increase. They should stuff some of the mountains of rate case filing documents into the recycle bin. But, as mentioned in this blog, there is plenty of material in those papers to guide the Council toward permanent, progressive and meaningful reforms.
Here is a summary statement by the IHE, Impartial Hearing Examiner. (See Page 7).
”The IHE recommends approval of a substantial portion of AE’s revenue requirement, cost allocation methods, and VoS. Besides rate design, these are the basic elements that facilitate AE’s duty to remain financially stable. AE presented well-reasoned arguments based on ratemaking principles, City and Financial policies, and its status as a non-profit MOU. Where the IHE departs from AE’s Base Rate Package is rate design. Although certain participants challenge whether AE is correct on its cost concerns, AE is focused on assigning cost recovery to those customers who create the costs and moving from declining energy sales to better recover demand costs.”
“The IHE agrees with certain participants, particularly the ICA, who express concern over potential rate shock. AE’s proposal to increase the customer charge from $10 to $25 may not result in rate shock for certain AE customers. However, the IHE is concerned that, for those customers who are vulnerable to rate shock and yet ineligible for CAP (as it is currently designed), AE’s proposed increases may exacerbate a known affordability problem in Austin. As a result, the IHE recommends that AE’s proposed rate design and targeted customer assistance programs like CAP be revisited by AE and the participants.”
What’s the Bottom Line?
In my view, the IHE did a very thorough analysis. Wading through it is cumbersome, however, because his conclusions for each piece of the rate package are scattered throughout the document. There is no convenient breakdown listed in a single place. The best part is the recommendation that Austin Energy’s controversial rate design should be revisited. But most of his conclusions ultimately just rubber-stamped Austin Energy’s. Their rate recommendations are hampered by antiquated methodologies, an outdated business model, and the urgent need to combat climate change.
Even without those concerns, Austin Energy’s own documents defeat the logic of a rate increase. A revealing 2020 memothat they sent to the City Council, combined with a set of their own charts paint a clear picture – There is no compelling trend that points to declining revenues.
Stay tuned, as the long, tedious but invigorating process winds down to a full consumer victory!
On August 14th, this blog asked the City to evaluate whether the historic summer heatwave will raise enough of a budget surplus to nullify the need for an Austin Energy rate increase. That was over 3 weeks ago. There has been no response from City Hall, or from the Utility. I first raised this question in a July 22nd KXAN News broadcast. Since then, we have learned several new factors that make that case stronger than ever.
City Officials Should Answer These Important Questions?
1. What is the revenue status now in Austin Energy’s current budget?
As pointed out in my August 14th blog post, San Antonio’s City-owned utility announced a $75 million budget surplus. Their City Council has held work sessions on how best to utilize those funds. Just yesterday, San Antonio City Manager, Erik Walsh, discussed the options in an on-air interview with KSAT-TV. A rebate to customers is being considered.
2. Where, and at what time will the Hearings Examiner deliver his recommendation on the rate increase?
His report is due tomorrow. But where and when is that supposed to take place? Austin Energy published a procedural timeline, but it does not address that question. When I asked one of the prominent participants in the rate case, I was told that they have not been given that information. This is a perplexing and frustrating lack of transparency!
3. What impact will a budget revenue surplus have on the rate
Let’s hope that the City Council will ask Austin Energy immediately for a current estimate of their fiscal year to date “budget vs. actual” revenue status. They should have been able to conduct the same type of revenue and spending option evaluation that San Antonio has been doing for the past month. If not, somebody should tell us why not.
We already know that accounting errors identified by the Independent Consumer Advocate have been accepted by Austin Energy. This caused them to lower their rate case revenue requirement from $48.2 million to $35.7 million. (See pp. 1-2). At this point, the current budget status should be an essential part of reviewing the Hearing Examiner’s recommendation.
4. Does Austin Energy have the opportunity to improve its bond ratings, based on new revenue estimates, along with the diligent and excellent recommendations by all of the rate case participants? The picture is much better now than it was at the beginning of the summer. The best outcome would avoid the need for ongoing rate increases.
This blog has raised a whole host of other questions. And, there are more to come. Stay tuned. I remain optimistic that the Austin community can come together, and ultimately end up in a better place. If we get onto the right path, we can be a leader in the country’s quest to obtain affordable clean energy, while setting achievable goals to combat climate change.
A Fun Thing to Think About
What about the other Central Texas utilities? A friend asked me about Pedernales Electric Coop. It got me to wondering. Won’t all of these utilities have summer windfall revenues? Bluebonnet and what-all. They don’t hesitate to raise rates when financial woes strike them. But now they are awash with boatloads of unanticipated surpluses. Is it executive bonus time at champagne galas? Or, do their customers deserve a billing credit or a rate decrease? This question should apply from Buda, Kyle and Dripping Springs to Pflugerville, Round Rock, Cedar Park and Georgetown. Maybe even San Marcos and Bastrop.
I don’t have time to look into it. But, maybe somebody should.
In the summer of1985, I took a seat behind a nameplate on the City’s Electric Utility Commission. This was my first meeting as its newest member. City Council Member, George Humphrey had appointed me. This followed a fun adventure that concluded on a happy note the year before. It began in 1983, when I read a newspaper headline that the City had approved a whopping 20% electric rate increase.
During my lunch hour that day, I left the accounting office where I worked, and walked over to City Hall. For the next three weeks or so, I stayed up late in bed, scrutinizing the City Budget by lamplight. How could such a huge rate increase even be possible? One lucky night, I hit the jackpot. It was all right there, in a single “magic sentence.” It said that the 20% rate increase “is based, in part, on the successful passage of the lignite bonds in the November bond election.”
Well, the City Budget was adopted in late September, to take effect on October 1st. Thanks to Max Nofziger’s “Austinites for Clean Energy” activist campaign, the lignite coal bonds failed, by a margin of 61% to 39% (See Prop. 2). I did some other Budget calculations, and came up with a proposal to cut the rate increase by half, down to 10%. The Electric Utility Commission accepted it, and made the recommendation to the City Council. The 10% reduction became official at the City Council meeting on April 12, 1984. (See Page 3, Electric Rate Ordinance).
“Cost of Service” Emerges As a Rate Case Lynchpin
At my first meeting on the Electric Utility Commission, I was introduced to a whole new world of confusing jargon. We met at the old Electric Building Auditorium at 301 West Avenue. At each meeting, we received agenda packets stuffed with papers and documents. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves embroiled in a major rate case. That was my initiation into the mystical and mysterious realm of “cost of service.” A more formal name for it is “cost allocation.”
Don’t get scared off! Don’t quit reading! I will make this simple and painless, even fun…
People Just Love to Play With Words
I quickly learned that phrases used by City Staff should not be taken at face value. One should always ask questions and do research. “Cost of service” is based upon a specific model, and there are many different models. The rate cases in the mid-1980’s featured intense battles between consumer advocates and industrial ratepayers. Cost of service always took center stage..
Here’s the bottom line on the different models. The industrial ratepayers favored an antiquated model, that some say dates back to the jazz age – when you could buy an Edition phonograph, or one made by the Victor Talking Machine Company. That model lumps all the power plants together. Then it assigns the cost allocation to each class of customers.
That model is simplistic, flawed and unfair. Industrial power comes primarily from expensive power generation sources that are used 24/7. Residential power comes primarily from cheaper generators, and used during peak hours of the day. Consumer advocates prefer a modern, sophisticated model, that allocates cost based on numerous factors, including types of power generation, time of year, hours of the day, etc.
Even Gary Hart Didn’t Change Models
We often debated those 1980’s rate cases in a packed City Council chambers. One of those lively public hearings happened during the 1987 primaries for the next year’s Presidential election. Gary Hart was the Democratic front runner, to take on George H.W. Bush. But Hart was in a heap of trouble over a mistress, a model caught nestled in his arms, on a boat named “Monkey Business.”
I argued to the City Council that that the Electric Utility should not switch to the industrial ratepayers’ favorite cost of service model. To attempt a bit of humor, I said “Even Gary Hart didn’t change models.” He at least appeared to remain loyal to his one favorite mistress, Donna Rice.
Fast-Forward to 2022 – It’s Business As Usual
Here we are folks, over 35 years later, and we’re still stuck with business as usual. The Electric Utility Department has rebranded as Austin Energy. The funky, stacked Independent Condos Tower now stands where the Electric Building Auditorium used to be. The iconic “Katz’s Never Kloses” deli, down the street at 6th and Rio Grande, got gentrified into oblivion several years ago. But, the very same electric cost of service models are once again being tossed about in this year’s rate case.
The Graphics That Should Steal the Show
With online research, it’s exhilarating to turn over a rock and discover a gold nugget. These images come courtesy of the Regulatory Assistance Project, as presented to the Rate Design Subcommittee of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in 2020 (Section 4, Pages 22-23). These were identified as Best Practices. Click each image to enlarge it:
One of the “old ways,” shown in both graphics, is Austin Energy’s current method, the 12CP Model. In their final rate filing brief, the TIEC, Texas Industrial Energy Consumers, endorsed their same, worn-out 1987 model. Here is a statement from their brief, “TIEC’s witness, Jeffry Pollock, recommends the Average & Excess Demand (AED)-4CP allocation method, which has been consistently used for Texas utilities under PUCT jurisdiction for decades (their italics).” (See Page 3 from their brief). But, Texas has also had horrifying child foster care conditions for many years. Both are unacceptable.
The City’s Independent Consumer Advocate has this to say about cost of service, “The BIP methodology represents a more reasonable approach to allocating production demand costs than the 12CP or the A&E-4CP methods. The BIP is a method which more reasonably balances the interests of AE’s customer base by recognizing both reliability and economics. Furthermore, BIP recognizes the prevalence of meeting ERCOT loads…” (See Page 26).
In 2011, Austin Energy held a rate review, which included a Residential Rate Advisor. The Advisor’s report contains extensive justification for adopting the BIP cost of service model. Here is the statement in the Executive Summary: (See Page ES-1):
Cost Allocation Methodology
My Suggestion – Base-Load Intermediate Peaking – (BIP) method be applied, as it is consistent with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) deregulated market design and use of facilities.
Austin Energy Recommendation – Average and Excess Demand (AED) method applied, as it is commonly, but not uniformly, used in regulated markets.
Impact – The AED method approach leads to 20 percent higher rates for residential and small business customers, and 30 percent lower rates for large businesses.
A Positive Final Note
Here is an update on an aging model that I mentioned. Donna Rice is doing quite well, and she’s making a positive contribution to society. For many years, she has been working to promote a safer Internet for children. She heads an organization called Enough Is Enough.
On August 27, 2020 Austin Energy sent a memo to the City Council, announcing the results of a routine rate review. This statement appears in the memo, “The cost‐of‐service study indicates that Austin Energy’s current base rates produce an approximately $19 million revenue surplus.” (See Page 2, 3rd paragraph). The surplus could come in fiscal year 2021. But future uncertainties led them to question the surplus. Among those were the impact of the pandemic and the planned 2022 exit from the coal-burning Fayette Power Plant. However, Austin Energy has been unable to reach an agreement with LCRA to relinquish our share of that plant.
Here is the strange irony of the projected $19 million 2021 surplus. Austin Energy presented its current rate review to the City Council this past April. At that time, the utility suddenly decided that their financial picture was much worse. Indeed, there were revenue shortfalls in 2020 and 2021, because of the pandemic and the winter storm. But Austin Energy’s charts in the April presentation describe an alleged trend that does not yet exist.
The chart below shows costs outpacing revenues in 2020 and 2021. They attribute that to falling kWh sales of electricity. And they depict this as a proven trend that will hurt their revenues going forward. That reasoning is clearly faulty. Their own projections indicate the opposite trend, as shown in the same chart. You can see that from 2014 to 2019, there were revenue surpluses. Had it not been for the pandemic and the other anomalies, their projected surpluses would likely have continued into 2021.
We have every reason to believe that Austin Energy is seeing a historic revenue windfall this summer, because of the heatwave. San Antonio has already publicized their $75 million surplus. You can add to that the accounting errors discovered by the City’s Independent Consumer Advocate. And a boatload of other solid recommendations, produced from the hard work and sweat of the other rate case participants. (Thank you Paul Robbins, Lanetta Cooper, Cyrus Reed, Clarence Johnson and many other good folks)!
This blog will soon show even more examples of cost-saving opportunities and needed reforms at Austin Energy, for the City Council to consider. When the Hearings Examiner announces his recommendation early next month, I will repeat a better suggestion to the City Council. Study all of the good ideas from the rate case. Then, gather up all of the papers that recommended a rate increase, and gleefully toss them into the recycle bin.
On August 16th, President Biden signed the landmark climate and energy bill. It provides $60 billion for clean energy manufacturing, $9 billion for home energy efficiency rebates, and a decade of tax credits for homeowners who participate. But there is one huge problem. Some U.S. utilities are already losing money because of “too much energy efficiency” for their customers. New Mexico’s utility is fighting a brand new solar program, that was approved by their State Legislature.
Three of California’s utilities have routinely raised rates because of declining sales. (See P. 9, Table 1.8). Thankfully, the state may delay a controversial plan to cut back solar credits by up to 80%, and impose a monthly fee on solar customers. This is framed as an income inequality issue. But it’s misguided, because of their devastating, climate-induced wildfires and extreme drought.
Austin Energy is planning both rate increases and solar credit cutbacks to cover declining revenues. They say that they are not selling enough electricity. And yet, reducing the usage of electricity generated from fossil fuels is critically necessary, in order to save the planet. Just this week, we learned some bad news about the Fayette Coal plant, which Austin Energy co-owns with another utility. It has made #10 on the list of the worst-polluting power plants in the country.
All utilities should have planned for the upward curve of 5%, 10%, 20%, etc. of customers living in highly efficient offices and dwellings. And they should have planned for the growth of customers expecting to sell excess energy back to the utilities. (Although at some future time, utilities may need less of that unused power).
Here in Texas, we live with the fear that our independent electric power grid will fail, throwing us into life-threatening blackouts. If that were to happen, the special interests who control the politically-run ERCOT grid management agency would reap millions of dollars in profits. The system is set up to reward oil and gas producers during weather emergencies. Utilities that purchase fuel to run some of their power plants are forced to pay exorbitant prices in the ERCOT-controlled market. The alleged rationale for this is to incentivize the utilities to build more power plants, to meet growing demand. And yet, State and Federal reviews, following 2011 Texas blackouts didn’t lead to either fixing the grid or construction of enough power plants. Texans remain at risk, even as our state continues to grow and prosper.
The special interests who made huge financial gains multiplied their profits through lucrative Wall Street investments. The then-chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission was caught on tape, promising to protect those profits. Meanwhile, San Antonio’s municipal utility went heavily into debt. Their customers will be paying back over $400 million through a special fee, for the next 25 years. Several electricity retailers were driven into bankruptcy. So, in order to help “fix the grid,” our legislators responded. They lowered the maximum allowable rate for ERCOT sales from $9,000 per megawatt hour to $5.000 – still highly outrageous.
Summer Heatwaves Pose an Even Bigger Risk
In May of last year, the New York Times ran a story with this headline – “A New, Deadly Risk for Cities in Summer: Power Failures During Heat Waves.” Consider this stunning paragraph from the article:
“Power failures have increased by more than 60 percent since 2015, even as climate change has made heat waves worse, according to the new research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Using computer models to study three large U.S. cities, the authors estimated that a combined blackout and heat wave would expose at least two-thirds of residents in those cities to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.”
A Major 2016 Report On U.S. Power Grids Deserves Attention
“The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future,” by Gretchen Bakke, Ph.D. is highly recommended reading. It’s an eye-opening examination of how the system works, and the various challenges that we face. Consider this paragraph from Page 3 of the introduction. Add 6 years to the 25 year ages quoted below, since 2016 was six years ago:
”More than 70 percent of the grid’s transmission lines and transformers are twenty-five years old; add nine years to that and you have the average age of an American power plant. According to the industry expert Peter Asmus, we rely on twice as many power plants as we actually need because of “the massive inefficiencies built into this system.” As a result, significant power outages are climbing year by year, from 15 in 2001 to 78 in 2007 to 307 in 2011.”
One fascinating takeaway from the report is that our power grids were not designed to efficiently transport modern clean energy, such as wind and solar. Rapidly emerging battery storage holds the promise of filling that gap. Check out this webpage from the investment banking firm, RBC Capital Markets. One of the biggest barriers is surmounting the thorny required regulatory processes.
Don’t Celebrate the New Federal Energy Benefits Too Soon
President Biden’s success on the climate and energy bill brings Texans some hope for ratepayer relief. However, Austin Energy may spoil the party, as we try to celebrate the newly-promised benefits. They have filed for a base rate increase. One local newspaper quoted them as stating, “Our rate design is not as efficient as the customers.” (See 6th paragraph). The new rate design would discourage conservation for both small and big users of electricity. And the utility told the Fitch bond rating service that “additional rate increases will be necessary” to improve cash flows. (“See Analytical Conclusion,” 2nd paragraph).
The current rate proposal also calls for weakening the methodology used to calculate the Value of Solar buyback credits for residential solar customers. Public Citizen has published their objections. (See third paragraph from the bottom). And, buried deep within the Appendices of Austin Energy’s rate filing brief, comes the threat of cutbacks to the Value of Solar credits for businesses. (See Appendix E. Sec. 2.1.1., Pg. 408). It says, “Some staff expressed concern over Austin Energy’s Value of Solar (VOS) pricing scheme, stating the current VOS structure is unsustainable, if commercial customers continue to adopt on-site solar and reduce their peak demand charges.” This disturbing signal runs counter to the City’s adopted climate change goals.
After a Summer From Hell, Bid the Rate Increase a Fond Farewell!
But, hanging over all of this like a dark shroud, is that looming question – How will the utilities cope with the big revenue losses that will accompany the promises of customer financial relief and a greener planet? With advancing technology, eventually hundreds, and then thousands of customers might be able to generate more electricity than they need. Or at least, a significant percentage of what they need. At that point, the size and role of centralized utilities will change forever. Maybe utilities should be allowed to enter some non-traditional markets, not directly related to utilities.
The Future Is Coming Faster Than You Think
I will close with a parting thought for you regular folks, reading this in your living rooms. Picture yourself relaxing in an easy chair, with a cold beer on a blazing hot summer afternoon. You have solar panels on your roof, and a backup storage battery. You flip on the TV and see a special announcement. Your city is going into rolling blackouts within 24 hours.
Well, what if you could reach for your phone? Suppose somebody invented an app, just for this occasion? The app lets you select which rooms in your home to give priority for backup power, when the blackouts come. Are you thinking that this is somebody’s visionary dream for 10 years into the future?
Well, it’s not. There are several options available for you to do it right now. Not everyone will be able to afford these options right away. But check out this sample ad, and this one, along with another one for a phone app. Then, go back to that cold beer that I distracted you from. And don’t forget to pay your electric bill!
Blog Writer’s Note: I am a retired accountant and longtime Austin affordability advocate. As a former member of the City’s Electric Utility Commission, I have been involved with electric rate cases for the past 39 years.
Austin Energy and every other major electric utility in America should rethink what their primary mission is. Achieving that mission will require a new model that is contrary to every other business model out there. Here are just a few of the required elements of that upside down, but critically important model:
1. The primary goal is to provide a product that everyone needs. The utility must deliver it with guaranteed reliability.
2. The next most important goal is to convince the customers to stop buying as much electricity from the utility. This will be true until fossil fuels are eliminated from the system. This goal is important, because the survival of our planet depends on it.
3. The number of utility employees who spend 40 hours per week trying to make that second goal happen will probably grow. They will offer rebates to customers, and provide services to help them become more energy efficient, and less dependent on the utility.
4. The number of employees who spend 40 hours per week doing other operating functions will gradually shrink.
5. From the first year that a utility started operating, the number of full time employees has always continued to grow. Now, they will have to learn to grow backwards. Some of the workers will see their career paths change, as they transition to other jobs elsewhere.
6. If a utility is located in a rapidly growing city, the challenge will be much greater. The cost of providing electricity to new customers is expensive. The need to sell less of it every year will complicate the utility’s financial stability.
7. The country is moving away from fossil fuels in electric power generation. That process needs to accelerate, if we hope to combat climate change. Utilities need to establish clear strategies and achievable timeframes, for ending their usage of fossil fuel power plants.
8. Today, some percentage of fossil fuel power generation is still needed, to ensure electric service reliability. Especially during extreme weather events. But, eventually, clean energy and battery storage will replace fossil fuels. Utilities need to aggressively pursue clear pathways to get to that point, as quickly as possible.
9. For the foreseeable future, electric utilities will send generated and stored clean energy across power lines to their customers. So, their businesses will not fade away anytime soon. But, in that environment, they will be competing against themselves. Because private businesses will provide those same technologies to a growing number of customers. It is anybody’s guess as to what sort of balance will evolve between those competing interests.
10. Setting the rates that customers pay for diminishing quantities of electricity will become one of the biggest challenges. The rate design should not discourage conservation. It should not incentivize, either directly or indirectly, the increased sales of electricity generated from fossil fuels.
Can Austin Energy Meet These Challenges?
Earlier this year, they moved into a modern, $150 million headquarters in the Mueller neighborhood. The $30 million proceeds from the sale of their old building on Barton Springs Road was not included in the calculations during the electric rate hearings. The City Council has the opportunity to utilize at least part of those funds to mitigate the proposed rate increase.
Within the walls of that elaborate new building, Austin Energy needs to reassess their future plans. They won’t be outgrowing this new building, like they did with the Town Lake Center. Instead, they will eventually be able to share space with other tenants. Someday, perhaps, it could even become a museum. Future tourists could visit it to learn what it was like, back in the days when electric utilities were run by centralized authorities.
But, in the next few months, Austin Energy and the City Council have some tough decisions to make. Moving backwards in business thinking is not the established norm. Try to imagine how you would react if an old fashioned door to door salesman rang your doorbell. The person looked at you with an engaging smile. And these words came out of their mouth…
“Hello. I’m here representing a local business. You are one of our best long time customers. Today, I have a special offer. I’m here to help you stop buying so much of our product. It is costing you too much money. With our new program, you’ll be able to buy much less of our product. In fact, we will pay you a bonus each month, if you can make more of our product on your own than what you need.”
That is not the way that normal businesses operate. And yet, electric utilities will have to find a way to survive financially in that upside down, backwards kind of environment. Big changes are coming pretty fast. It would be futile to fight the transition by raising rates too much, and cutting back the solar buyback credits.
A very small rate increase may become necessary in the short term. It might even be worthwhile to consider variable rates that fluctuate, according to weather extremes. Or, perhaps summer windfall revenues could be held in reserve, to be used during future periods when milder weather drives down electricity sales.
The Ball Is In the City Council’s Court
One thing appears certain. Austin Energy is on the wrong road right now. The City Council must protect an asset that transfers $125 million annually to the City’s General Fund. In the coming years, that amount will probably gradually shrink.
I implore the City Council to think of 2022 as the most important turning point in Austin Energy’s history. They should take advantage of the wealth of expertise that lies within the rate hearing’s filing briefs from all sides. The City Council should do more than just read the materials. They should engage with the diverse group of participants, Austin Energy and the public. Business as usual would be the easiest way out. But, Austin deserves so much better.
It’s funny how things can come full circle. Sometimes you embark on a journey that winds in confusing directions. Then you find yourself back at the beginning. Something deadpan simple slaps you in the face. And you go, “Oh my gosh, it was right there all along! How did I miss it?”
Flashback to April 5th, Earlier This Year
Austin Energy presented its Base Rate Review to the Utility Oversight Committee. This is the Mayor and the entire City Council. Tap or click each picture to enlarge it. Then hit the Back arrow in your browser, to return to this page.
Justification for a Base Rate Increase
On the first chart, you will notice that revenues exceeded costs in every year, except 2020 and 2021. The chart is intended to show a trend – that Austin Energy is losing money in the current timeframe.
But, put down your mask if you are holding one. Remember what started in 2020 – the pandemic. Businesses were closed that year. People stayed home. All those offices, stores, restaurants, theaters and hotels used a lot less electricity. Then came 2021. The pandemic lingered, although people started going out later that year. But don’t forget the big winter storm. Industrial customers were ordered to power down before the storm. They were not allowed to come fully back up, until days after the storm. Electricity was cut off for most of the City during the storm. Then, we had a milder than normal summer. So, there is no extreme trend that extends into this year and next year. No reasonable assumption that steep future revenue declines will persist.
The Chart That Nails the Big Challenge
It amplifies the message from their Vice President of Finance, “Our rate design is not as efficient as our customers.” Think what that means. It’s a clear signal that their business model has not kept pace with their own conservation goals. A whole division of Austin Energy assists homeowners and businesses with weatherization and transition to solar panels. Within 10 or 15 years, solar panels and storage batteries will proliferate exponentially. How does the utility plan to meet that inevitable challenge? Especially now that the President has signed the historic climate change and energy bill?
Many other U.S. utilities are following the same two-pronged approach – raise base rates, and reduce solar buyback credits to customers. But that will only backfire. It’s hilarious to watch a cat try to chase its tail. Chasing revenue declines with rate increases is just as futile, but without the humor. Customers will adopt solar faster than ever, and the next rate increase will guarantee the same reaction. Here is the chart:
One more note on this chart before moving on. New customers do add to infrastructure costs. But consumer advocates recommend that Austin Energy adopt the more comprehensive capital recovery fees for developers, that Austin Water uses. The City should streamline and reduce developer permitting fees, to offset this change.
Higher Rates for Small Users, and Lower Rates for the Biggest Users
This final chart shows the unfairness and climate change unworthiness of Austin Energy’s rate proposal. Raising rates for struggling apartment renters, especially during record inflation and sky-high summer bills seems unfair. Summers will probably trend hotter in the future. Giving favorable rates to folks in large, expensive homes makes little sense. These rate design changes would discourage conservation at both ends of the usage spectrum.
What this chart proves is that our current rate design has worked exactly as intended. It has driven down the usage of electricity, and pushed Austin closer to carbon-free electric generation. It’s time for the City Council to work with Austin Energy and other experts to seek solutions. We need a new business model that is financially viable, and maintains our admirable progress on climate change goals. Here is the chart:
Read This Poem, and Use the Email Links to Contact the City Council
I’m not accusing them of evil duplicity It’s true they’re not selling as much electricity But somewhere deep down into their soul They should have realized, hey that’s our goal
Climate change affects every part of the nation And we’re trying to fight it with energy conservation Take pity on us when we try to conserve A rate increase is not what we deserve!
This happened a while back with Austin Water We’re stuck like chickens on their way to slaughter But this time we’re all going to unite And stand up for what we know is right!
Thank goodness we own our municipal utility Or this could end with nothing but futility Our elected leaders down at City Hall Have the power to fix this, for once and for all
We’re been through a summer that’s hotter than hell So they can bid the rate increase a fond farewell Just like I suggested back in late July Those windfall revenues will help them get by
One More Good Laugh – Cat Chasing Its Tail
Use These One-Click Links to Email Every City Council Member:
Ask them to do 3 things – Keep our current, successful rate design. Improve our Value of Solar buyback program, instead of weakening it. Accept my recommendation to use the windfall revenues from the historic summer heatwave to cancel the rate increase.
On July 22nd on the KXAN-TV News, I made a public call for the City to ditch Austin Energy’s rate increase. At that time, my idea faced long odds of succeeding. But as a retired accountant and former member of Austin’s citizen Electric Utility Commission, I vowed to stay in the battle until we can raise the flag of victory.
News From San Antonio Sparks an Exciting Ray of Hope!
Late last week, financial officials in San Antonio announced a huge, $75 million budget surplus, thanks to windfall revenues from soaring summer electric bills. Just as I figured, Austin now has a wonderful opportunity to quell the anxieties of our ratepayers. In San Antonio, one option being considered is to offer one-time refunds, in the form of credits to customers’ October bills. Here in Austin, we should be able to call off or postpone the entire rate increase.
The City’s Independent Consumer Advocate Personally Agrees
While clarifying this as a personal opinion, rather than an official statement from his team’s rate filing brief, Clarence Johnson gave me permission to share this quote from an email to me: “I agree with your position that the rate increase could be postponed until post test year actual data becomes available. My reasoning is simply this: ICA’s review indicated that the proposed rate increase should have been $6 M, which is much smaller than the (Austin Energy’s) original request or rebuttal request.”
It’s All About the Rate Design, With Winners and Losers
Above all else, we must oppose Austin Energy’s radical rate design change. What I did not know until recently is that the out-of-city ratepayers would walk away with the big grand prize. The vast majority of those customers live in large to very large, expensive homes. The current rate design keeps those customers paying into the highest rate tiers on the five-tier scale. This provides a conservation incentive. On average, outside city customers use 86% more electricity than inside city customers. (See pg. 43). Under Austin Energy’s new plan, those people would see generous discounts on their bills. (See pp. 42-44). All while struggling Austin apartment renters and low to moderate income folks would bear the brunt of the rate increase. So much for affordability and narrowing the economic divide!
Past history shows us another, somewhat political motive for gifting the non-city ratepayers with lower bills. Even though they enjoy Austin’s amenities, these folks don’t pay City taxes. And whenever they object to our electric rates, they appeal them to the Texas Public Utility Commission, or even to the Legislature. Austin Energy’s new rate design might just keep them quiet and happy. What a sad situation!
Austin Energy Versus “Too Much Customer Efficiency”
The new rate plan would create a seismic shift in Austin Energy’s pricing structure. Raising the monthly residential customer charge from $10.00 to $25.00 would reset annual base revenues unrelated to electricity sales to over $140 million. ($25.00 X 467,291 customers X 12 months). This shift would be a short-sighted, self-defeating approach – to address sales declines that are due to solar panels and other efficiency options that homeowners and businesses are adopting at a rapidly accelerating pace.
The utility’s future plans call for enlarging that shift, in addition to reducing solar buyback credits. (See “Looming Penalties for Solar Users” here). That’s a pretty bleak picture. Especially in light of the big climate and energy bill that the President will sign this week. And AISD’s upcoming bond election, that would provide solar rooftops and other energy efficiency upgrades for the schools.
Here are four major factors that support postponing or canceling Austin’s rate increase:
1. The Independent Consumer Advocate (ICA) in the rate case reviewed Austin Energy’s books, and found two accounting errors, totaling $12.5 million. Austin Energy accepted those reductions, bringing the revenue deficiency down, from $48.2 million to $35.7 million. (See pp. 1-2).
2. The ICA cites several instances where Austin Energy used future cost assumptions. Some of those do not meet the requirement for being known and measurable. And using future costs, combined with past test year revenues violates the matching rule in standard rate-making procedures. After adjusting out those costs and the accounting errors, the ICA concluded that the revenue deficiency should be only $6.5 million. (See pp. 5-8).
3. The City should raise more utility revenue by increasing the Contributions in Aid of Construction (CIAC) fees, charged to developers for connecting new customers. It should be revised to the same standards used for Austin Water’s capital recovery fees. (See pg. 9).
4. The City Council should follow San Antonio’s example. A comparison of budgeted to actual base rate revenues from October 2021 through this summer will reveal a large surplus. That, in combination with the other factors shown above, should send the rate increase to the scrap heap. (Oops…to the recycle bin)!
I would encourage the City to bring in outside experts and consult with all the participants in the rate case. Austin Energy needs a fresh new start, with full transparency and lots of public engagement. We, the people are its owners. Our elected City Council is the board of directors. Let’s remake this valuable asset into a utility that always honors equity and fairness. And one that is innovative and forward-looking, with respect to the changing customer-efficiency landscape.
Heartfelt thanks to my good friends and the Independent Consumer Advocate, who traveled the long and winding road to their final filing briefs in the rate case!