Wednesday, November 20, 2013 by Bill McCann

Austin Energy plans major push on energy app

Austin Energy is getting ready to take a big leap forward in a program aimed at encouraging customers to save energy and money by signing up to get free updates of their electricity use, including email and text alerts when consumption approaches a more expensive rate tier.

 

The city’s electric utility soft-started the program for residential customers last month and is preparing to step up marketing of the residential program in early 2014 as well as extend it to commercial and industrial customers by mid-year.

 

The expanded program is expected to provide a useful energy management tool for customers, including small commercial customers, whose bills jump significantly when their electricity usage increases enough to put them into a higher cost category, Austin Energy officials say. Sign-up is strictly voluntary. The information is secure and is not retained in the system, they emphasize.

 

The new tool allows customers to stay informed so that they can act to keep electricity costs down, while individual customer actions multiplied thousands of times will help reduce power demands on the utility system, said Debbie Kimberly, Austin Energy vice president of Customer Energy Solutions.

 

“The goal is reduced energy consumption, reduced demand and increased customer satisfaction,” Kimberly told In Fact Daily.

 

To carry out the program, the utility is scheduled to seek approval from the City Council on Thursday to purchase the software tool to carry out the expanded effort. Austin Energy staff is requesting approval for a three-year, $1.06 million contract with SmarteBuilding, an Austin technology firm, with the option of extending it up to another three years, for a total cost of $2.12 million.

 

Currently, residential customers can sign up to receive energy usage information and alerts if they are enrolled in the city utilities customer portal for paying bills. The address is www.austinenergyapp.com. 

 

The web-enabled application gives a user daily and monthly power consumption information in dollars and cents, offers energy-saving tips, and enables customers to set alerts for when power usage approaches the next rate tier.  

 

Austin Energy initiated the program on a low-key basis in mid-October to test it out and make refinements, Kimberly said. To date, about 450 residential customers have signed up, largely through word-of-mouth, she said.

 

“We started out small in scale, but our plans are to start featuring it more as we get into the spring to sign up as many as possible before we get into the summer higher usage,” Kimberly said.

 

The new tool can be particularly useful for customers because of the electric rate design approved by the City Council last year, Kimberly said. For example, residential electric rates now contain five pricing tiers in which the more power that customers use the higher the cost per kilowatt hour. Also, smaller commercial customers pay an added demand charge if they go above 10 kilowatts of usage.

 

“The best way to get people to conserve is to send a price signal,” she said. “The new tool is one way to better engage customers by providing information on a near real-time basis.”

 

Another potential benefit of the program is related to implementation of part of the city’s Energy Conservation Audit and Disclosure Ordinance (ECAD), according to Kimberly.

 

Under the ordinance, commercial building operators served by Austin Energy must calculate an energy rating for their building, using a rating tool offered by the U.S. Department of Energy, and report the information annually to the city. The rating system goes from 1 to 100, the higher the better, and allows building operators to compare their energy use to similar facilities. Operators must report the rating, but they are not required to take measures to improve the rating. That part is voluntary.

 

Buildings of 75,000 square feet or more have had to report annually since June 1, 2012, and those of 30,000 square feet or more started reporting by last June. Those with 10,000 square feet or more, representing a significant portion of the city’s commercial stock, must begin filing the information by next June.  

 

Austin Energy has heard concerns from some building owners about obtaining the data they need to calculate the rating, Kimberly said, adding that the new tool should help make it easier for building operators to comply with the ordinance in the future.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

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