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Advocates convince Council to put off Austin Energy smart meter contract

Tuesday, July 2, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Thursday unanimously voted to postpone a $60 million contract restructuring between Austin Energy and the firm that handles meter services for the utility. The agreement will be back on Council’s August 8 agenda.


The move came on a motion from Council Member Kathie Tovo, who cited comments from three consumer advocates as a reason for her concerns. “I am going to suggest that there really are some good questions…that I think would benefit from further explanation and discussion,” she said.


Council Member Laura Morrison suggested that utility staff did not provide Council members and the public with complete information about the deal. “The backup information – I had not a clue what (this is),” she said. “The questions that we are getting from the community, it’s clear that we just needed some real basic information about what this even was. So I think it makes to take a…reboot.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, seemingly ever at odds with Morrison and Tovo, backed the postponement. However, he told his colleagues that he did not believe that it was necessary. “I’m going to support the motion to postpone also, although I see absolutely no reason to do it,” he said. “I think (this is) definitely a step forward, an improvement, and (it will) help us reach our goals faster with regard to the smart grid.”


At issue is a new 10-year deal with Landis + Gyr that would offer the utility better services and software in exchange for a contract extension. If approved, the deal would replace an existing contract that would not otherwise expire until 2017.


Tovo wondered what the benefit of the new deal would be. David Wood, AE Vice President of Electric Service Delivery, told her that, though there would be no observable difference on day one of the new deal, it was still an important change.


“We have a very comprehensive Smart Grid strategy…this is an integral piece (to it),” he said. “We’ll be able to provide quicker restoration to customers that are out. We’ll be able to provide better demand response services to our customers. There are a lot of activities right now at ERCOT that this system will enable us to actually participate in…down to the residential level.


“There are a lot of things in the air right now, and this system really will enable us to fully participate in those things,” Wood continued.


Tovo’s concerns reflect those of consumer advocates Lanetta Cooper, Carol Biedrzycki, and Barbara Day. Tovo appointed Biedrzycki to the city’s Resource Management Commission last week. Day is a former Tovo appointee to the Electric Utility Commission. She resigned in July 2012.


Each worried about the cost-effectiveness of the agreement, and the overall strategy of the utility regarding smart meter expansion. “Our metering proposals have to be cost effective,” Biedryzcki said. “You have to have a cost-benefit analysis and you have to have evidence that this is going to produce a return for the consumer.”


Biedryczki also wondered about the specifics of the contract, and where the $60 million would be invested.


There was also some concern from Tovo about whether the utility had teamed effectively with the Austin Water Utility on the matter of smart meters. Austin Energy Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Mele told Council members that the utility did indeed have a smart meter strategy. She offered to bring the matter before Council, perhaps in December.


As to whether Austin Energy had coordinated with the Austin Water Utility in regard to the smart meter deal, Mele said that she could not speak for the Water Utility.


Council members called for a memo that might detail answers to these questions before the August vote.

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