Tag Archives: Climate change

The Big Electric Utility And Climate Change Dilemma – And How To Solve It

By Bill Oakey, August 1, 2022

Electric Utilities Can’t Make a Profit

It’s simple economics. If homes and businesses get too energy efficient, the utilities can’t sell enough electricity. And yet, most offer home weatherization programs, and credits for rooftop solar panels. These utilities have whole divisions that do nothing but promote energy conservation, and they directly help customers achieve energy efficiency.

But now, many utilities find themselves facing a potential death spiral. Here in Austin, rapid growth requires expanding the utility services. City regulations do not require enough developer fees to cover all the costs associated with adding new customers. In addition, homes and businesses have become more energy efficient. As a result, Austin Energy has been losing money. They are not selling enough electricity throughout the year. Their solution is a hefty base rate increase. Austin Energy’s revenue bonds were downgraded to AA- in June. They told the Fitch bond rating service that additional rate increases, beyond this one, may be necessary.

The Utility Death Spiral Is Easily Explained

Austin Energy faces a daunting dilemma that they share with other utilities across the country. Rate increases as an ongoing business strategy will almost certainly backfire. They will push builders, homeowners and businesses to implement energy efficiency solutions at an accelerating pace. Businesses that sell solar panels have already stepped up their advertising. It’s easy to see that a whole series of rate increases, each followed by similar market responses, would drive the utility into a death spiral.

Within the next ten years, Austin residents and businesses will have a significantly lower demand for purchased power than they have today. We will always need electric utilities. As connected customers, we are assured of reliable service, assuming that the power grid holds up. But, future declines in electricity sales are inevitable. So, it is imperative for Austin Energy to find a new direction, and change their business model. Their very survival depends on it. If they don’t get it right, the City will face an additional, ominous revenue shortfall. Austin Energy’s transfer to the General Fund will have to be reduced.

If Utilities Try to Wage a Battle Against Technology, They Will Lose. And the Country’s Climate Change Efforts Will Suffer

I recently wrote a blog piece about an incredibly exciting climate change opportunity. CNN did a major study on the potential benefits of large-scale rooftop solar installations at big-box retail stores. Read that piece to get all the details.

But, the big dilemma comes back to bite us again. What if every Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, big warehouse and distribution center across the country put solar panels on their rooftops? What if Austin put one on their massively expanding convention center? Austin Energy and the other utilities would sell a lot less electricity. And yet, we’d be addressing climate change. Severe drought, intense hurricanes, wildfires, epic flooding and West Coast water shortages might finally begin to subside. Further mitigation will become possible, once battery storage technology gets more efficient and affordable.

Some Utilities Are Pushing Back Against Solar Panel Credits

The seriousness of the utility profit / climate change dilemma is laid out in a disturbing article from NBC News, published in May. Utilities in some states are reducing their solar energy buyback rates. Austin Energy’s solar buyback program could be weakened, as part of their new rate proposal. The Sierra Club and Public Citizen are intervening in the case, to protect solar-use customers. In Mississippi and other places, utilities are telling their State regulators that maximum buyback benefits are no longer economically viable for them. The most stunning example is California, where drought and wildfires are prevalent. A battle over huge reductions in solar buyback rates has been raging there since January. Governor Gavin Newsom should step in and defend solar credits.

Utilities Need to Embrace Declining Electricity Sales

The pushback by utilities against technologies that help their customers is a major threat to national climate change efforts. The outdated utility business models are as dangerous to the environment and the planet as fossil fuels and carbon emissions. To put it quite simply, gradually selling less electricity over time must become one of the utilities’ primary goals. How to make that happen, while keeping the utilities in stable financial condition is the challenge.

Maybe the U.S. Congress Can Help

Congress is poised to pass a historic climate change bill this week. Funding will be available for energy efficiency programs and infrastructure improvements on a large scale. I have requested an appointment with Congressman Lloyd Doggett, during the August recess. One of the topics I would like to discuss is the daunting dilemma that is described here. Maybe Congress could    facilitate a series of discussions among climate scientists, utility company executives, State regulators and business strategy experts. They could task them with studying the dilemma and finding ways to resolve it. Our utilities need to counteract the death spiral, before it’s too late.

A First Step Toward the Solution

We only need to look at the frightening condition of the Colorado River to “get it” about climate change. A recent Washington Post report highlights the West Coast lakes that are drying up. The Austin City Council should stop Austin Energy’s rate increase proposal dead in in its tracks. And they should insist on maximum solar panel credits. The revenue windfall from the historic summer heatwave will buy some valuable time. With innovative planning and a fresh new approach, our city could shine a light on the rest of the nation. We should turn the daunting dilemma into an exciting opportunity for positive change.

A note about the author of this blog: I am a longtime affordability activist, with nearly 40 years of experience observing and participating in electronic utility rate cases.

How Austin Can Lead The Way On Climate Change

 By Bill Oakey – May 10, 2022

CNN recently published an article that provides a climate change and affordability solution that is perfect for Austin. Big-box stores are starting to install solar panels on their rooftops and portions of their giant parking lots. IKEA has already taken an early lead in this endeavor, with 54 solar installations, covering 90% of their stores nationwide. The cost savings and climate change benefits that could be achieved if more stores did this are enormous. Check out these points, summarizing CNN’s findings:

1. From September to December 2020, IKEA cut its energy purchases by 84% and slashed its energy costs by 57% at their Baltimore store. Meanwhile, the cars in their parking lot stayed cooler in the shade provided by the solar panels.

2. A report from the nonprofit Environment America estimates that solar panels could cut the electricity needed by big-box stores and shopping centers by 50%.

3. The same report found that if big-box stores nationwide installed solar panels, it would generate enough electricity to power 8 million average homes. The climate change impact would be equivalent to pulling 11.3 million gas-powered cars off the road.

4. The average Walmart has 180,000 square feet of rooftop. That’s equal to 3 football fields of space. It’s enough for solar panels to generate the electricity needed to power 200 homes.

Three Words Come to Mind for Austin – Let’s Do It!

 This initiative will require a coordinated effort from both public and private sector officials. There are some hurdles and strategic planning efforts that will come into play. In Austin, we may have permitting and other regulatory requirements. These could be reviewed and possibly adjusted to encourage the installations. The CNN study found that some big box stores have roofs that may need repairs or modifications to accommodate solar panels. The City Council should consider appointing a task force to engage the stakeholders, evaluate the situation and make recommendations on how best to move forward.

IKEA installed solar panels at its Round Rock store in 2012. Just imagine how much the technology has improved since then. What are we waiting for?

Austin Energy Would Need to Rethink Its Future Plans

A sudden large-scale shift to solar panels would impact Austin Energy’s ability to sell enough electricity to keep their operations financially viable. But, more solar installations are coming online already, some of which include entire residential subdivisions. Some serious discussions need to be held, regardless of this proposal. Part of Austin Energy’s reason for their pending rate increase is related to lower sales to customers in new, energy-efficient homes.

Here Are Some Things That Our City Officials Can Do

1. Explore whether Austin Energy can legally sell power directly to other utilities, and / or offer it for sale on the Texas power grid.

2. Do a detailed study on the impact of scaling up rooftop solar installations, and chart a path to gradually accommodate it. This can include reducing power generation from other sources, and rethinking Austin Energy’s future power generation plans. Another critical aspect would be evaluating the optimal mix of base load vs. peaking power capacity. This will ensure that we always have enough power to meet the demand during periods without a lot of sunshine.

3. Reach out to other major cities and large utilities, to determine best practices for a smooth transition toward large-scale solar installations.

4. Explore options to use available Federal funds for expanding solar infrastructure. Contact members of our Congressional delegation to seek assistance under both existing and potential new legislation.

5. This opportunity is hiding in plain sight – Put a solar installation on the roof of our massively expanded Austin Convention Center (!)

Let’s Not Forget About Rapidly Evolving Battery Storage Technology

This is the icing on the cake. Elon Musk and others are already manufacturing and selling new models of home and industrial battery installations to store solar power. These are following the path of solar panels, in rapidly becoming more affordable and of higher quality. City, State and Federal officials should review the excellent 2018 U.T. Honors Program thesis by my good friend, Maddie Bratcher. The title is “Gridlock on the Power Grid: How Battery Storage Technology Reveals Challenges to the Lone Star State.”

The future is now for both large-scale solar and battery storage. To quote an old fashioned saying, the train is roaring down the track. Austin needs to either hop on that train, or get out of the way. My advice is to move to the front of the train and lead the way!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

1. “Up On the Roof” – The Drifters
2. “Walk Right In” – The Rooftop Singers
3. “Bring Me Sunshine” – Willie Nelson
4. “Here Comes the Sun” – The Beatles
5. “Walking In the Sunshine” – Roger Miller