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Archive for the ‘Utilities’ Category

PUC Executive Director Brian H. Lloyd submitted his resignation Wednesday, January 3, 2018, effective March 1st.

He framed his decision to leave as a personal, spiritual decision, and added that the March 1st date was intended to allow the PUC “sufficient time to deliberate” in considering applicants for his position.

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Austin City Council adopted a resolution yesterday to direct $500,000 of Austin Energy’s fiscal year 2018 budget to prove solar to “multi-family affordable housing, low-income residents, renters, and non-profits.”  Austin Energy staff agree that this goal is achievable and have committed to develop programs to serve these customers.  Per the resolution, staff will report back to Council in February on progress made toward achieving this goal.

Expanding access to solar for low-income residents is the next generation of distributed solar policy.   As solar prices have dropped significantly and solar financing has become widely available, solar adoption among middle-income residents has increased.  But it is still difficult for low-income residents and renters to take advantage of these opportunities in Austin.

There are several barriers to adopting solar with these groups of customers.  Renters lack control over the decision and landlords often see no reason to invest in solar to reduce bills for tenants.  Low-income residents are more likely to lack access to credit, or sufficient savings to buy solar.  And multi-family properties require different billing arrangements than single family homes.

Affordable housing developed by Foundation Communities has been the one big exception to this deficit of solar for low-income residents in Austin.  The non-profit boasts 720 kilowatts of solar across many of its Austin properties.  Most of these installations are used to supply energy for common areas, or are at properties where Foundation Communities pays all bills for its tenants.

Foundation Communities Homestead Oaks Apartments in south Austin is the one example where the organization uses solar to reduce the bills of each of its 140 tenants.  Unfortunately, Austin Energy’s billing policy required that each unit have its own, independent solar array.  Instead of one big solar installation on the roof, there are 140 installations, each with its own production meter.  This drove up the cost by 15-20%, resulting in a large area of wall being filled with meters, and made the job more complicated.  It’s not an attractive model.

What is the solution?  Shared solar – similar to virtual net metering that exists in many other states.  Austin Energy needs to update its billing system to allow Value of Solar production credits (Austin Energy’s alternative to net metering) from a single solar array to be divided among multiple customer accounts.  Austin Energy has committed to making this change by September 2018.

The Shared Solar billing solution is just the start.  Much more will be needed to make solar accessible to low-income residents and renters.  Austin Energy could offer a higher residential solar rebate for installations on affordable housing properties where solar is used to benefit the individual residences (such as at the Homestead property).  The utility already offers a somewhat higher solar incentive for nonprofits with commercial customer accounts, but these is currently no such offer for residential accounts for multifamily housing.

Another option would be to implement a program similar to CPS Energy’s Solar Host program.  This program allows residents to benefit from rooftop solar without making any investment.  The utility contracts with a solar developer who installs solar on customer rooftops.  The utility pays the solar developer a set rate per kilowatt-hour of energy produced, and each participating customer receives a bill credit for each kilowatt-hour produced on their roof.  Essentially, the customer is renting their roof space.  The bill credits aren’t as high as if the customer owned the solar installation, but it requires no investment on their part, making solar accessible to low-income customers.

Implementing an on-bill repayment program could expand access to solar for renters.  This would tie a solar loan to a particular customer meter, as opposed to the customer themselves.   When one tenant moves out and another moves in, both the repayment of the loan and the bill credits from solar production transfer to the new tenant.  Ideally, such a program would ensure that average annual bill credits exceed annual loan repayment, meaning that a customer’s energy bill would not increase.

Buying down the community solar rate for low-income customers would also help renters.  Austin Energy is considering donating solar installations to affordable housing properties.  That’s how the Guadalupe-Saldana Net Zero Subdivision was able to incorporate solar.  Public Citizen fully supports this, but recognizes that this solution will always be limited by available funding.

The Austin City Council resolution was sponsored by Council Member Greg Casar and co-sponsored by Council Members Leslie Pool, Delia Garza, and Pio Renteria.  They were joined in support by Council Members Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter and Ora Houston, Mayor Pro Tem Tovo, and Mayor Steve Adler.  Public Citizen applauds City Council and Austin Energy for embracing this next step in local solar development in Austin and looks forward to engaging with staff and other stakeholders to make this effort a success.

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Janis and Evan Bookout speaking in support of renewable energy to protect the climate (Photo courtesy of Al Braden, www.albradenphoto.com)

Yesterday morning, Austinites took time out of their day to show up at City Hall and let the Austin City Council know that we expect real leadership when it comes to adopting an updated Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan.  Many joined us in a call for carbon-free by 2030, and 75% renewable energy by 2027 goals.  The other common theme we are supporting is the need for additional programs to make the benefits of distributed solar accessible to low-income residents, renters and those in multifamily housing.

Join us at the public hearing on August 10 to call for a rapid transition to clean, renewable energy, while improving equity.

This process started last November with the creation of the Electric Utility Commission Resource Planning Working Group (which was partially appointed by Austin Energy).  But after months of meetings, the working group recommendations (which have been endorsed by Austin Energy) fall well short of leadership on either climate protection or energy equity.  The recommendations call for only 65% renewable energy by 2027, limited or no increases for energy efficiency, local solar and energy storage goals, and no solid commitments to improve access to distributed solar.

Thankfully, the Austin City Council is the board of directors for Austin Energy, so we all get a chance to weigh in with our elected officials to call for a plan that represents Austin values – doing right by our planet and our neighbors

That’s what the public hearing is for, so please mark your calendar.

At least 32 U.S. cities have committed to a 100 percent renewable energy goal and 5 have already achieved this goal.  If Austin is to claim leadership on combating climate change, a commitment to 100% carbon-free energy is needed.  This, of course, implies that all of Austin Energy’s fossil fuel generators would need to be retired.  That would include the natural gas-fired power plants at Decker Creek and Sand Hill, both located on the east side of Austin.  This would improve air quality in the city and end our utility’s contribution to fracking, which is responsible for groundwater contamination, air pollution (including methane – a powerful greenhouse gas), earthquakes and destroyed roads in Texas and other states.  With all of these harmful side effects of energy production, it is those with the fewest options and opportunities – those with the least among us – who are hardest hit.  It’s on all of us – as Austinites – to stop contributing to these negative outcomes as quickly as possible.

Daniel Llanes, of PODER – People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, speaking in support of a transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy to protect the climate; and for greater and more diverse public input (Photo courtesy of Al Braden, www.albradenphoto.com)

As we transition to clean energy, we can and should ensure that the benefits flow to everyone in our community.  As the price of solar energy has increased, more residents and businesses are going solar to reduce their bills and their impact on the environment. There is now financing available for those who can’t pay up front, making solar accessible to middle-income residents.  That’s good news, but solar has still been out of reach for those with poor credit, renters and those living in multifamily housing (either apartments or condominiums).  Making solar accessible for these populations is challenging, but utilities, governments and non-profits around the country are digging in to find solutions.  San Antonio’s CPS Energy already has a successful solar program, called Solar Host, which is accessible to low-income residents.  What we want is for Austin Energy to take on these challenges and embrace new solutions.  Local solar goals should be expanded and incentive budgets maintained to make solar an option for Austinites at all income levels and in all types of housing.

If these ideas speak to your values, please come to the public hearing on August 10 to speak your mind.

Goals are only useful if they are high enough to spur innovation and action beyond what is already happening.  We want Austin to be ambitious in taking on climate change and equity.

Here’s what we’re asking for (3rd column):

 

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Mayor Adler speaking about the Austin Energy rate case settlement on Aug 25, 2016. Council Members Casar and Pool also spoke at the press conference focused on environmental aspects of the rate case. Photo by Dave Cortez.

As of yesterday afternoon, Austin Energy’s rate case officially concluded with a unanimous vote of the City Council.  The result – lower bills for everyone and commitments to address two key environmental objectives.  The utility agreed to develop a financial, legal and technical plan that will allow its portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project to retire at the end of 2022.  And the utility agreed to address the need for compensating commercial customers with solar installations for the energy they produce.  These commitments provide a path forward to transition away from burning coal and toward renewable energy.

The 2022 retirement date for Austin Energy’s portion of Fayette was established in the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025, but a detailed implementation plan is still lacking.  The agreement that Public Citizen and Sierra Club struck with Austin Energy as part of the rate case gives the utility until June 2017 to present a plan to the City Council.  And in the meantime, $5 million will be earmarked in Austin Energy Contingency Reserve as part of the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget to be used for repaying debt associated with Fayette.  What to do about the debt is expected to be a significant focus of the research Austin Energy will conduct between now and next June.  Austin Energy’s portion of Fayette is responsible for about 25% of Austin’s community-wide greenhouse gas emissions and about 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions, making retiring the plant a top priority for meeting Austin’s climate goals.  Additionally, the economics of producing power from coal are looking worse all the time, so retiring the plant will ultimately benefit ratepayers, as well as the environment.

The exact details of how to compensate commercial customers with solar will also be decided in the coming months, but a commitment to address this current policy shortfall was part of the rate case agreement.  We will continue to advocate for expansion of the Value of Solar (VoS) tariff to commercial customers.  The VoS, which was pioneered by Austin Energy and first implemented in 2012, is used to calculate bill credits for residential customers with solar.  This formula-based method allows for a transparent examination of the benefits that local solar provides and is structured to be cost-neutral to the utility.  Currently, the VoS doesn’t apply to commercial customers, nor are most commercial customers eligible for net metering (a method of one for one crediting energy produced for energy used).  As incentives continue to be phased out, it becomes even more critical that Austin Energy have good long-term policies in place to fairly compensate customers.  The rate case agreement ensures that the issue of compensating commercial customers for energy produced will be addressed as part of the FY 2018 budget.

We are pleased that the Austin City Council also chose to make adjustments to the residential rates that weren’t detailed in the agreement between Austin Energy and the other parties in the rate case.  Austin Energy had proposed changes that would have raised rates for those who use the least electricity, while reducing them for those who use the most.  We advised the Council that such a change would be contrary to established goals for reducing energy use and would unfairly burden those who had invested in energy efficiency.  In the end, Council agreed and new rates were adopted that will result in reduced bills for all residential customers (rate reductions for commercial customers were already ensured).  The new rate go into effect at the start of January 2017.

Public Citizen’s Texas office worked in partnership with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter for the past seven months to ensure that environmental priorities were reflected in Austin Energy’s rates and financial planning.  Thanks to the many Austinites, including city council members who supported our efforts.

 

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A rate case is fundamentally about determining how much money an electric utility needs to collect from ratepayers to pay for expenses (and make some return on investment), how those expenses will be divided among the different customer classes (residential, commercial, industrial), and how customers in those different rate classes will be billed.  It’s probably obvious that these decisions can impact affordability and equity among customers.  Rate cases can also have significant environmental impacts though.

The Austin Energy rate case is an opportunity to make changes that can allow the utility to transition away from fossil fuels and towards greater reliance on clean energy solutions, including solar energy at homes and businesses, energy efficiency, energy storage and demand response (temporarily reducing usage when energy demand and prices spike).  What the utility spends money on, what programs are offered, and how rates are designed have profound impacts on climate change, air quality, water pollution, water use, land use – all of which impact society in a variety of ways, including public health and vulnerability to natural disasters.  So, it might sound boring at first, but if you care about the environment or social equity, you should care about how your electric utility is doing business.

What we’re advocating for:

  • 2009-08-21-fayette

    Fayette Power Project

    Budget to allow Austin Energy’s portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project to retire.  It is responsible for 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions (and over 28% of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors).  It’s also a major source of other air pollution that causes and worsens respiratory diseases (sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides – which contributes to ground level ozone formation) and cause neurological disorders mercury.  And it requires over 5 billion gallons of water to operate.  The latest adopted plan for Austin Energy calls for the retirement of the utility’s portion of Fayette by 2023, and Austin Energy staff say its remaining debt associated with the plant must be paid off before it can be retired.  The plan calls for that money to be collected in a dedicated fund through annual budgeting, but that isn’t happening, putting the retirement plan at risk.  Please use our action page to email City Council about budgeting to retire Fayette.

  • Maintain residential rates that encourage energy conservation and allow thrifty customers to keep their bills low.  Austin Energy has proposed to increase electric rates for those who use the least energy and reduce them for those who use the most.  For those trying to reduce their electric usage for environmental reasons or because their household budgets are strained, Austin Energy’s proposal will increase bills.  Austin Energy’s proposal will also make it more difficult to project from year to year how higher much summer rates will be from winter rates.  Both of these changes would reduce the incentive to conserve energy and invest in energy efficiency upgrade.  And these changes were proposed despite a study that Austin Energy commissioned that said that the existing rate structure is succeeding in encouraging conservation.  These proposed changes to how residential customers are billed would be a step backwards.
  • LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation - Meridian Solar

    LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation – Meridian Solar

    Adopt a policy to fairly compensate businesses for energy they produce from solar energy systems.  The City Council has adopted goals solar energy on homes and businesses, but Austin Energy’s current policy doesn’t include any way for most commercial customers to receive compensation for the energy they provide to the utility.  Incentives have temporarily filled that gap, but they are coming to an end.  The value of solar (VoS) rate is used to provide bill credits to residential customers, based on the calculated value of local distributed solar energy.  The same method should be used to compensate commercial customers.  Making this policy change will help grow solar adoption, while shifting away from incentives.

  • Ensure that enough money is collected to fully fund energy efficiency, solar energy and demand response programs.  Helping customers reduce their electric bills by making energy efficiency improvement or install solar energy systems doesn’t just benefit those customers who participate in those programs, it benefits all customers by allowing the utility to avoid purchasing expensive power that would drive all of our bills up.  The Energy Efficiency Services fee is used to collect money for this purpose.  With more people moving to Austin all the time, Austin Energy needs to ensure that budgets are set to match the need for local energy improvements.

Public Citizen and Sierra Club jointly participated in the Austin Energy rate case over the past several months, in an effort to push the utility to make environmentally sound decisions about both spending and billing customers.  That was just a warm-up for the real decision-making process though.  Because Austin Energy is owned by the city of Austin, the Austin City Council will make the final decisions about the rate case.  That’s where you come in.  City Council members, including Mayor Adler, need to hear from Austin Energy customers.  There will be a public hearing on Thursday, August 25th at 4:00 p.m. at City Hall.  Meet at 3:00 p.m. for a rally to support fair rates that meet Austin’s environmental goals.

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The hunt is on. The City of Austin is searching for a new general manager for Austin Energy. It should take this opportunity to find a visionary leader who can prepare our city-owned utility to remain prosperous as the electricity market changes.

This is a transformational time for electric utilities. The business model that served utilities so well throughout the 20th century – buy or produce energy at large, centralized facilities and profit by selling that energy to customers – won’t keep utilities afloat throughout the 21st century.

As solar prices continue to drop, more and more customers will choose to use solar at their homes and businesses, reducing the amount of energy that utilities, including Austin Energy, can sell. Declining battery prices will only add to the effect and will give customers an affordable off-grid option. And as energy prices and limits on carbon emissions increase, energy efficiency improvements will become even more attractive, further reducing the need for centrally produced energy.

The next leader of Austin Energy needs to recognize this new reality and be fully committed to reform Austin Energy’s business model to enable the utility to not only survive these changes, but to flourish in new energy markets they transform and develop. In addition to prioritizing a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy, she should be committed to innovating to incorporate energy efficiency, distributed energy (including solar), energy storage, and demand response into the utility’s business model. Austin Energy must find ways to provide and profit from a wide range of energy services that are compatible with a carbon-free future.

The new Austin Energy general manager will need to be someone who is capable of gaining the respect of the workforce and harnessing their collective abilities to provide excellent customer service, even as the definition of those services is changing. And she will need to ensure that all staff have the necessary technical skills to meet the utility’s needs and avoid costly mistakes, such as the billing system fiasco.

Navigating these changes while keeping the utility prosperous will require excellent financial acumen and experience setting transparent operating and capital budgets. Austin Energy is an important source of revenue for the city, so a strong commitment to public power will be critical. The general manager will need the knowledge and political savvy to continually convince the Texas Legislature that the utility is acting in the best interests of its customers in order to stave off deregulation.

The needed utility transformation will only occur with the blessing of the Austin City Council and the support of the community, so the next general manager must be willing and able to work collaboratively and respectfully with all parties, including public interest groups, citizen commissions, chambers of commerce, and research organizations. Concise, timely, and honest communication with the City Council and the public will be required.

The next Austin Energy general manager must have the ability to bring together diverse community interest groups and contentious parties to garner support for needed changes. As Austin continues to struggle with affordability, she must have experience and empathy in working with low and moderate income customers and be committed to reducing electric bills for this group with energy efficiency and distributed solar programs.

We’re looking for a talented, visionary leader who is committed to working for the public good. If that’s you, please apply.

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2015-10-15 Austin City CouncilThe Austin City Council voted today to approve an additional 100 to 150 megawatts of solar energy projects for Austin Energy for 2016 and directed Austin Energy to bring another 150 megawatts online by 2019. Together with the projects approved on October 1, Council has given the go-ahead for between 400 and 450 megawatts of new solar energy to be completed by the end of 2016.

At prices reported around 3.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, these solar energy projects are some of the cheapest ever reported. The prices will be fixed for contract periods of between 15 and 25 years.

This is a huge win for Austin Energy customers and the environment. It comes thanks to the dedicated efforts of many Austin residents and collaboration with our partners at the SEED Coalition, Climate Buddies, Texas Drought Project, Clean Water Action, the Faith Energy Action Team and many others.  We no longer have to choose between clean energy and saving money. The Council has made a decision that will keep bills low for years to come.

“When Warren Buffett received record-low solar prices, he proclaimed the victory to the world. Austin Energy received bid that are just as competitive, making this a golden opportunity,” said Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition. “Mayor Adler and the City Council have taken a financially sound path.”

Austin Energy’s solar purchases also represent a significant step toward achieving the climate protection goals adopted by the City Council, which include achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the entire Austin community by no later than 2050 and eliminating all carbon dioxide emissions from Austin Energy controlled sources by 2030.

“Our best scientists are sounding dire warnings about the imminent possibility that climate change will accelerate in the next few years. We need to do everything possible to head of the possibility of runaway climate change,” said Jere Lock of the Texas Drought Project. “Action taken by City Council today are a step in the right direction.”

“400 megawatts of solar will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 620,000 metric tons, which is over 11% of all emissions from Austin Energy. That is significant,” ” said Joep Meijer of Climate Buddies. “Solar will also allow Austin Energy to use its expensive gas plants less, saving customers money and reduce local air pollution.”

Although it runs less than 5% of the time, Austin Energy’s natural gas-fired Decker Creek Power Station is a significant source of location air pollution in Austin and is located right next to neighborhoods and schools in East Austin.  Because it is so old and inefficient, that plant is only turned on when high demand for electricity drives up prices.  The solar farms approved by the City Council will produce large amounts of energy when electricity demand is high on hot afternoons, so this offers Austin Energy an opportunity to retire the Decker plant.  In addition to being a major source of air pollution, the plant loses money most years, according to Austin Energy’s own data.

The increased use of solar energy will also protect and preserve Texas’s limited water resources.

“Austin’s decision to go big on solar is great news for our state’s water resources. Unlike solar, gas and coal plants require massive amounts of water to operate,” said David Foster of Clean Water Action. The extraction of natural gas through fracking has been proven to contaminate groundwater, and coal plants create millions of pounds of toxic coal ash each year, much of which finds its way into our water.”

The Austin City Council have made a great decision that brings Austin Energy closer to meeting the goal of eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from its power plants by 2030.  This process took eight months to complete and required two different Council resolutions before proposals were voted on in October.  Both of those resolutions were sponsored by Council Member Delia Garza and co-sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Leslie Pool, Greg Casar and Ann Kitchen.  The solar contracts approved today were also supported by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Sheri Gallo and Ora Houston.  Please send the Austin City Council members who voted “yes” an email to thank them for embracing solar energy.

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The Austin City Council voted 9-2 today to authorize Austin Energy to enter into contracts for up to 300 megawatts (MW) of new solar energy.  This decision comes as a result of the generation planning process that began in February 2014 and has included numerous studies, briefings, public hearings, and recommendations from citizen advisory groups and Austin Energy.  Those voting in support were Mayor Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Tovo and Council Members Garza, Pool, Casar, Kitchen, Gallo, Renteria and Houston.Go Green to Save Some Green - Affordable Solar for AustinAs consumer advocates, we cheer this wise decision by the Austin City Council because these solar contracts will provide energy at affordable rates for all Austin Energy customers.  While the utility will pay slightly more for this energy in the first few years than it would if it just purchased energy from the market, that dynamic will be short-lived and these solar contracts will offer more affordable rates than market purchases for most of the contract periods.  Solar contracts can be for up to 25 years and are at a fixed price of less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, offering an excellent opportunity to keep prices low and predictable for customers.

This addition of solar energy will bring the city and its electric utility closer to achieving the climate protection goals that Council has adopted.  Those goals are to achieve net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or earlier, if possible and to make all Austin Energy-controlled electric generating assets carbon-free by 2030.  The later goal will require retirement of the utility’s coal-fired Fayette Power Project and the natural gas-fired generators at the Decker Creek Power Station (Austin’s single largest source of air pollution) and the Sand Hill Energy Center.  In order to protect customers against fluctuating prices in the electricity market, Austin Energy will need new carbon-free energy sources to replace those coal and natural gas-fired power plants.  These new solar contracts will help enable that transition.

Even before Austin Energy begins retirement of its fossil fuel fleet, these new solar farms will displace dirty energy from the Texas electric grid.  Because they have no fuel cost, solar farms will take the place of the most inefficient (and most polluting) natural gas plants that currently provide Texas electric consumers with energy when demand is high in the afternoons and early evenings.  By placing solar installations in sunny west Texas, the utility (and its customers) will benefit from high energy production that will continue even as solar intensity is starting to decline in central Texas.

Austin Energy and other utilities have been able to obtain exceptionally low prices for solar contracts recently because solar companies are eager to complete projects before the impending decline of the federal solar investment tax credit from 30% to 10% for commercial projects at the end of 2016.  Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that development of new utility-scale solar projects will decline from a high of over 11 gigawatts (GW) in 2016 to just over 3 GW in 2017.  Installations are projected to slowly increase after 2017, but Bloomberg doesn’t project a return to the boom levels we are seeing now and will continue to see through 2016.

2015-09-15 Bloomberg - Utility-scale solar build forecast with and without ITC extension

This boom is exciting, but it means that some proposed projects won’t be able to be completed by the end of 2016.  Several companies, including First Solar are running out of capacity to produce enough solar panels to keep up with demand.  That’s great for solar manufacturers to have, but it means that utilities wanting to benefit from low prices need to get contracts signed right away.

The Austin City Council also voted today to postpone authorization for up to another 350 MW of solar energy until October 15 to give Austin Energy staff additional time to negotiate more favorable prices on those contracts.  Although the prices for those contracts are already competitive, they are closer to 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour and can likely be negotiated to closer to the first batch of contracts that was authorized today.  That will result in additional savings in the years to come.  Just as no savvy consumer walks on to a car lot and pays sticker price, utilities can and should use proposed energy prices as a starting point for negotiations.  We applaud the City Council for acting on the most affordable contracts now and for employing this strategy to get the best possible deals on the second batch of solar contracts.

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The Austin City Council will vote this Thursday (September 17) on a resolution to push Austin Energy one step closer to signing contracts for up to 600 megawatts of solar energy.  About 8,000 megawatts worth of proposals have been submitted, some at the lowest solar prices ever seen.

solar panels - photo from ShutterstockThese are exciting times for solar energy – in Texas and around the world.  Solar energy is finally cost competitive with fossil fuel-based energy.  Utilities that have shown little or no interest in “going green” or being socially responsible are investing in solar.  Luminant, Texas’ largest electric generating company, has traditionally invested in coal, but just last week, the company announced its first solar purchase.  And in Georgetown, Texas the electric utility has signed contracts for wind and solar energy that it will have a 100% renewable energy portfolio by 2017.  In the words of Georgetown Mayor Ross:

No, environmental zealots have not taken over our city council, and we’re not trying to make a statement about fracking or climate change. Our move to wind and solar is chiefly a business decision based on cost and price stability.

It is in this setting that the Austin Council will make its decision.  Despite the record low prices, Austin Energy has pushed back against contracting for the 600 megawatts of solar that the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025 calls for.  The plan set a goal of 600 megawatts by 2025, but also states that the utility should contract for up to that amount by 2017, if available and affordable.   Clearly it’s available.

The Electric Utility Commission (EUC), whose job it is to oversee Austin Energy, evaluated the impact on rates of contracting for 600 megawatts of solar.  The Commission found that it would reduce rates in all but the first couple years and recommended that Austin Energy present its best plan for achieving an additional 600 MW of solar by the end of 2017.  So, contracting for 600 megawatts of solar is also affordable.

Austin Energy executives have argued that prices could fall further, but how much they will fall and how fast are unknowns.  The 30% federal solar investment tax credit declines to 10% at the end of 2016, so we can count on a price bump after that.  As solar prices continue to decline, they will eventually make up for that lost tax credit, but will that be in 18 months, as Austin Energy claims, or longer.  Solar companies are especially eager to get contracts right now, so that they can build up their portfolios before the tax credit is reduced.  Austin Energy ratepayers could be the beneficiaries of that eagerness, if the Austin City Council decides to take action.  If solar is even cheaper in 2018, Austin Energy can contract for more then.  Either way, this 600 megawatts of solar, which would supply about 12% of the energy the utility sells, would be an affordable source of energy during times when electricity use, and therefor prices, are highest.

Affordable solar prices should make it easy for the Council to support a big solar buy, especially given that converting to renewable energy is a key strategy in achieving the city’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, or earlier.  Climate change is happening now.  For any entity (such as the City of Austin) that claims that addressing the problem of climate change is a priority, passing up opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emission while also saving money isn’t an acceptable option.

If you live in Austin and would like to help get this resolution passed, please sign up to attend the City Council meeting on Thursday (September 17).

We are asking everyone to wear green to make it easy for the Council members to see how many clean energy supporters are there.  We’ll be there starting at 5:30, and will have stickers and talking points for everyone.  Parking is free with validation in the garage under City Hall.

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UPDATE

The Texas electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is experiencing extremely high electricity demand. Operating reserves dropped below the target threshold of 2,300 megawatts.  This is bad news for consumers on a couple of levels.  The ERCOT system has hit several new demand records in recent weeks, most recently reaching 69,783 MW on Monday. During high-demand periods voluntary conservation can help ERCOT reduce the potential for additional measures, such as rotating outages, to ensure reliability throughout the ERCOT grid, but high demand also means the spot market price of electricity recently has risen to two to ten times the average price.  For consumers who have fixed rate plans, you won’t see a financial impact other than from your increased use of electricity.  For those who don’t you could see significant price increases this time of year.

ERCOT is asking electric consumers to limit or reduce electric use where possible during the 3-7 p.m. peak demand hours Thursday.

Although ERCOT has set new peak demand records without needing to issue a conservation alert during the past week, the high temperatures statewide continue to drive high levels of electricity use.

Consumers can help ensure the system is able to continue serving today’s power needs by taking the following steps to help support system reliability during peak demand:

  • Turn thermostat up 2-3 degrees during the peak hours of 3 to 7 p.m.
  • Set programmable thermostats to higher temperatures when no one is home.
  • If home, use fans to feel 4-6 degrees cooler.
  • Schedule pool pumps to run in the early morning or overnight hours; shut off between 4 to 6 p.m.
  • Limit use of large appliances (dishwasher, washer, dryer, etc.) to morning or after 7 p.m.
  • If you cook indoors from 3 to 7 p.m., use a microwave or slow cooker.
  • Close blinds and drapes during late afternoon.

According to the Texas Energy Report, wind generation during peak electric demand today, hovered around 800 megawatts (MW) around 4:30 p.m., and continued moving upwards, according to the ERCOT, while both coal- and natural gas-fired generating units experienced generation outages.  In fact, the system had to import power from the eastern United States.

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Republished from the Texas Tribune –
http://www.texastribune.org/2015/08/12/report-deregulated-electric-utilities-narrowing-pr/.

Deregulated Electricity a Mixed Bag for Consumers
by Jim Malewitz
Aug. 12, 2015

More than a decade ago, Texas lawmakers set the state’s power market free. Longstanding rules limiting who sold electricity to whom — and how much they charged for it — were cast aside so private companies could chase customers, competing for business in a free-market bonanza that would supposedly push down prices for consumers across the state.

So did it work?

graphic by: Texas Coalition for Affordable Power

graphic by: Texas Coalition for Affordable Power

Texans who take the time to sort through the options are finding decent deals in the state’s deregulated electricity market, a new report says. But the average customer in deregulated Texas — about 85 percent of the state — continues to pay far more for electricity than folks served by monopoly utilities in cities like Austin and San Antonio, according to the most recent data available.

In a report released Wednesday, the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, which advocates for cities and other local governments, analyzed U.S. Energy Information Administration data on residential prices stretching back to 2002, the first year most Texans were allowed to choose their electricity provider under deregulation.

In 2012 and 2013, the analysis showed, Texans in deregulated areas for the first time paid lower electric bills on average than most Americans.

But from 2002 to 2013, the average household in deregulated areas paid a total of about $4,800 more than residents of cities — like Austin and San Antonio — served by just one municipal utility, or those served by electric cooperatives, the analysis said.

Though pricing data for 2014 and 2015 was not available, the report said, Texans are increasingly finding individual deals on the deregulated market that are cheaper than what regulated utilities offer.

“Texans living in deregulated areas have paid too much for electricity — and the lost savings has been substantial,” Jay Doegey, the coalition’s executive director, said in a statement. “But the deregulated market is improving, and the good news is that if you shop carefully, you can find good deals. These relatively low-cost deals are more common than they were in previous years.”

Nationally, Texas was the 18th cheapest state to power homes between 2002 and 2013, the analysis said. Residents in just nine states saw cheaper prices than Texans in regulated areas during that period. Twenty-six states averaged cheaper prices than Texans in the competitive market.

Why the discrepancy? The coalition and other consumer groups suggest that continued inefficiencies, customer confusion and relatively high prices from legacy electricity providers could be to blame.

A spike in natural gas prices shortly after deregulation, followed by steep decline could have also helped shape the trend, since competitive providers locked into high-cost gas contracts and took years to recover. The coalition acknowledges that factor, but says that it doesn’t account for the trend by itself.

John Fainter, president and CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, bristles at any suggestion that monopoly utilities offer Texans better deals, but agrees that the competitive market is rapidly evolving and consumers are getting used to it. A state website called Power to Choose allows consumers to compare companies’ prices and complaint history.

“There’s a lot more efficiency. People are better able to manage their electric use,” Fainter said. “The [retail electric providers] are developing more products to take advantage of.”

Wednesday’s report also showed that the steadiest increase in most Texas utility bills isn’t the cost of electricity, it’s the fees charged to deliver it.

Customers can choose whom to buy power from, but monopoly power transmission companies still have to deliver it to homes and businesses. Between 2003 and 2015, the rates of two of Texas’ biggest power line companies — which are regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Texas — rose far higher than inflation, making up an increasing share of consumers’ bills.

CenterPoint, which serves the Houston area, charges nearly $43.94 on the average monthly bill (for those using 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity), compared to $24.61 in 2003.

Oncor, which serves the Dallas-Fort Worth area, increased charges to $38.59 from $23.01 during the same period.

One dollar today in 2002 has the buying power of $1.30 today.

Texas rapidly grew during that time frame, Fainter pointed out, embarking on many huge transmission projects, including building new power lines to carry renewable energy and installing millions of “smart meters” to track energy use in hopes of boosting efficiency.

“All of that has to be paid for,” he said.

 

 

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The Austin City Council’s vote last night to adopt the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025 brought to an end a year’s worth of work by numerous advocates and engaged members of the public.

While the result was disappointing, I find myself being immensely grateful for the many people who took time out of their schedules to stand up in support of the strongest renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy storage goals and in opposition to Austin Energy’s continued use of polluting fossil fuels.

Many of the people who we worked side-by-side with over the past year have spent years trying to improve Austin’s energy policies and their past work has been critical in getting us as far as we are now. Others who hadn’t been very involved in energy policy also got engaged. Some had to put in a lot of effort just to get educated on the complex facts that surround energy policy. What united us all was a common belief that not only is a transition to clean, renewable energy sources possible, but that it is the only responsible course of action.

We joined forces with people and organizations who are concerned about climate change, health impacts of air pollution and water pollution, water use, affordability, and equity. It is clear that when the costs of the many negative impacts of using fossil fuels – including the mining of coal, fracking for gas, and then burning those products – are taken into consideration, clean energy alternatives are by far the better deal. Even without those important costly externalities included in the equation, wind power, solar power, energy efficiency and demand response (strategically reducing energy use at key times) are now all more affordable than energy from a new gas plant.

For all those reasons, we made incredible progress with the policies that the Austin City Council adopted in the Affordable Energy Resolution on August 28. Unfortunately, as a result of losing a big piece of its political cover, Council passed a plan last night (December 11) that rolled back some of those gains and opened the door for Austin Energy to build a big new gas plant.

There’s a lot of misleading information going around, so let’s take a look at the numbers.

2014-12-12 Austin Energy Policies Comparison Table (Aug Resolution vs Dec Gen Plan 2014)

It was because of the many dedicated people that we worked with over the past year that we were able to achieve what we did in August and because of your help over the past few weeks and yesterday that we were able to preserves as much of those achievements as we did in the new Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025.  Thank you to everyone who contributed time and effort to this important endeavor.  We’ll need your help to keep things moving in the right direction in 2015.

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The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) released a report yesterday titled “ERCOT Analysis of the Impacts of the Clean Power Plan” regarding the costs, benefits, and concerns of Texas’ compliance with Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan, put forth by the EPA on June 2, 2014, would set new national carbon pollution standards, in an effort to combat the effects of climate change and air pollution. ERCOT, which operates the electric grid of Texas and manages the deregulated market for 75 percent of the state, concluded that there are reliability concerns and high costs associated with the changes necessary for the electric grid infrastructure and the shift to alternative low-carbon energy sources.

Environmental advocacy organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, and Public Citizen have begun commenting on this report, which they claim overstates the costs of compliance while understating the benefits of solar and energy efficiency. Not only does ERCOT’s report fail to take into account the affordability of solar energy and energy efficiency, it also neglects the steps that electric utility companies have already taken towards clean energy. Various electric utilities in Texas have been retiring inefficient coal plants and gas units in favor of adopting solar and wind energy projects. ERCOT’s own monthly interconnection report shows that more than 30,000 MW of solar and wind projects are in development stages. Texas’ energy storage and demand response capacities are also missing in the report. These two resources provide real-time reactive power when there is turbulence in wind and solar inputs, which would maintain a reliable power grid as Texas transitions to renewable energies.

The Clean Power Plan is a crucial step in reducing climate pollution and our dependency on dirty coal and other fossil fuels. The benefits of clean and affordable energy in Texas cannot be overstated. ERCOT should take the time to reevaluate the role of renewable energies in Texas’ future.

Download our presentation on our view of the plan here update New ERCOT Cost Estimates 

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2014-09-29 Austin Mayoral Candiate Forum on AE Issues - YouTubeOn Monday, we concluded our series of Austin City Council and mayoral candidate forums.  Over the course of two and a half weeks, we heard a variety of views on Austin Energy issues from an astounding 54 candidates.  On top of that, 49 candidates submitted responses to our questionnaire on Austin Energy issues.

Many of our Austin supporters joined us in person for the forums, but for those of you who weren’t able to make it out to your district forum or the mayoral forum, we have posted all of the videos on a special Austin Elections page of our blog. Or you can view them directly on the Public Citizen’s Texas Office YouTube channel.

If you care about climate change, shutting down polluting power plants, expanding the use of solar energy, energy efficiency, preserving our water, or keeping electric bills affordable for low-income customers, you’ll want to check out the Austin Council candidate forum videos for your district and the mayoral race.  Get the information you need to make an educated vote on November 4.

Public Citizen didn’t host these forums on our own.  We were joined in this effort by the SEED Coalition (Sustainable Energy and Economic Development), Sierra Club, Solar Austin, Texas ROSE (Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy), Clean Water Action, Austin Climate Action Network, Texas Drought Project, First Unitarian Universalist Green Sanctuary Ministry, and the Wildflower Unitarian Universalist Church.  Many thanks to everyone who helped with the forums, especially former Austin Mayor Will Wynn for moderating the mayoral forum, Progress Texas deputy director Phillip Martin for moderating the districts 6 and 10 forum, and Treehouse for donating their space for the districts 5 & 8 forum.

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Former Austin Mayor Will Wynn will host a candidate forum for the current Austin mayoral candidates tonight.

The focus of the forum is Austin Energy issues.  Questions will cover topics including climate change, solar energy, affordability, and the retirement the city’s portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project.

When: Tonight (Monday, September 29), from 7:15 to 9:30 p.m (program from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m.)

Where: First Unitarian Universalist Church (4700 Grover Ave., 78756)

Like almost all of the City Council races this year, the mayoral race features long list of candidates.  6 have committed to participate in tonight’s forum.  They are:

  • Mike Martinez (Current Council Member)
  • Sheryl Cole (Current Mayor Pro Tem)
  • Steve Adler
  • Randall Stephens
  • Todd Phelps
  • David Orshalick

While there are many forums in Austin this election season, this is the only one to focus on the city’s largest asset, Austin Energy.  Find out what the candidates have in mind for Austin’s energy future.

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