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Controversial pilot energy programs don’t make it far

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 by Jack Craver

Austin Energy planned to run three pilot programs this year aimed at finding new ways for the city’s ratepayers to pay for electricity, but so far those programs haven’t gained much traction.

One of the programs was designed to test the employment of “time of use” rates. Under this system, customers would pay more for electricity used during peak hours and less during times when demand is lower. The pilot, which is voluntary, started on Jan. 1 and so far has no participants, according to an April 7 memo to City Council from Austin Energy Interim General Manager Mark Dombroski.

Another pilot program, this one aimed at getting owners of electric cars to charge their vehicles during off-peak hours, is not scheduled to start until May 2, but it has yet to attract any participants, either.

It’s unclear how many people have expressed interest in a third program that is also scheduled to begin on May 2, which will allow participants to prepay for a certain quantity of electricity each month. A spokesman for Austin Energy said that the utility is currently doing outreach and has not signed up any participants so far.

“That’s why we do pilot programs,” Dombroski said to members of the Electric Utility Commission on Monday, reasoning that running test programs allows the utility to find out what appeals to its customers.

Commissioner Carol Biedrzycki appeared relieved that the programs had not elicited much interest. Biedrzycki – the executive director of Texas ROSE, a nonprofit group that supports the interests of residential ratepayers – had put discussion of the pilots on the commission agenda. She was concerned that the pilots themselves could end up harming their participants and that the policy goals they represented could be detrimental for low-income Austinites in the long term.

Biedrzycki was particularly concerned about the prepaid rates, which she said would lead to low-income customers having their electricity shut off after exceeding their prepaid usage. It would exacerbate the trend of vulnerable populations, including the elderly, forgoing air conditioning during hot weather, she said.

Furthermore, Biedrzycki was concerned that customers who sign up for the pilot could be charged $250 for withdrawing from the program early.

“If someone enters the pilot program and they find they’re paying more for electricity, they should be able to drop out of it anytime they want to,” she told the Austin Monitor.

Finally, the commissioner was bothered that the pilot programs had not been presented to either the Electric Utility Commission or the Resource Management Commission, the two panels that often review energy-related proposals before they head to Council. As a result, as Biedrzycki explained in testimony before the Council Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee last month, she was unaware that the programs had been included in the budget approved by Council last year.

In response, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she had also been unaware that she and her colleagues had voted to approve the programs.

But seeing that the pilots, which expire in September, will very possibly affect nobody, Biedrzycki said she is content to let the issue go. “There doesn’t seem to be much future in them,” she said Tuesday.

Austin Energy declined a request by the Monitor to interview Dombroski about the pilots and the policies they envisioned. Spokesman Peter McCrady said that the upcoming rate review would include such discussions.

“At this time, we feel it is best to let the established process around the rate review guide the discussion on how Austin Energy charges for electricity,” he said.

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