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Friday, December 4, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Committee backs low-income energy savings ideas

Low-income Austin Energy customers may receive some additional help in lowering their bills in coming years, based on a recommendation that a City Council committee made on Thursday.

The Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, which consists of the full Council but does not take official action, recommended directing city staff at a future Council meeting to draft an implementation plan for more than half of the ideas put forward by a volunteer task force dealing with issues faced by low-income utility customers.

The measure passed on an 8-0 vote, with Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Leslie Pool and Ellen Troxclair absent.

The Low-Income Consumer Advisory Task Force recommendations that the committee moved forward to Council were those that were also supported by a minority group within the task force as well as Austin Energy staff.

“The goals that Austin Energy is not considering are the minimum energy savings goal of 1 percent (of total energy sales annually) and also having a separate demand savings goal … targeting low-income programs,” said Carol Biedrzycki, chair of the task force.

“While I’m happy that we have so many gold stars, these two to me are the key changes that need to be made in order to move toward more equitable programs,” Biedrzycki continued. The “gold stars” she referred to are task force ideas with which Austin Energy agreed.

Debbie Kimberly, Austin Energy’s vice president of customer energy solutions, broke down the task force’s report into 32 recommendations and said that the utility supports “roughly 60 percent” of them.

Kimberly said that Austin Energy already practices about 22 percent of the recommendations, plans to implement 15 percent and is reviewing another 22 percent. The rest, she said, did not garner support from staff because they “create inequities between customer classes” and impede the utility’s ability to achieve energy efficiency, demand response and affordability goals.

Mike Wong and Chris Strand, both members of the task force, said in their “minority report” that they also support about 60 percent of the recommendations.

The committee passed two other resolutions, suggesting that Council direct staff to both report back with an action plan on the items Kimberly said the utility is planning or reviewing and to make sure that the Electric Utility Commission and Resource Management Commission get to provide feedback on the report, particularly on the “not recommended” items.

Council Member Don Zimmerman did not support these additional resolutions.

The recommendations that Austin Energy has implemented, according to Kimberly, include reporting data analytics for its program goals online, providing air-conditioning window units for the “medically vulnerable,” providing free energy audits and advocating for energy codes and standards.

In the current fiscal year and the following one, Kimberly said, Austin Energy plans to roll over unspent Low-Income Weatherization Program funds into future fiscal years, develop best practices for improving cost efficiencies for customers living in multifamily residences and use a “societal cost test” on program results to capture benefits beyond those related to energy.

Kimberly said that Austin Energy is reviewing recommendations – “some of which are very close to launch” – including implementation of the Property Assessed Clean Energy program, which allows customers to apply for loans for energy efficiency improvements that they can pay back over time, and looking into grants for low-income customers.

In their report, Wong and Strand recommended “a pilot direct installation program for low-cost, quick-payback measures such as LEDs, low-flow showerheads, pipe wraps and door sweeps” for low-income customers.

“At Seattle City Light, a program of this kind had a payback of about 1 year. In contrast, a survey created by Austin Energy showed its free weatherization program has a payback of 59 years,” wrote Wong and Strand. “It should be noted that when this direct installation program was proposed to the Task Force, the Chair refused (to) allow it to be discussed.”

Paul Robbins, a longtime consumer advocate who criticized the management of the Low-Income Weatherization Program, also recommended direct installations to the committee.

Kimberly said that Austin Energy is in the process of establishing just such a pilot program.

The task force report also recommended providing customers with on-bill loans, which would “allow for repayment for energy efficiency retrofits on a customer’s monthly utility bill.”

Kimberly said that Austin Energy supports that idea for the future, but for now it will make energy efficiency improvement loans available for anybody with a credit score of 600 or above rather than the current 700 or above. Implementing on-bill loans, she said, “will take some time.”

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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.

Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee: The Austin City Council committee on Austin Energy was created in May 2013 to provide oversight of the city's electric utility. It's creation was marked by political maneuvering that ultimately resulted in a committee comprised of every member of the Austin City Council.

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