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Where are Austin Energy’s generation metrics?

Thursday, July 19, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

For three years, the Electric Utility Commission has not received an annual performance report from Austin Energy. Concerned about the lack of the familiar financial and operational reporting format, Commissioner Michael Osborne has repeatedly discussed its merits and requested its return at commission meetings.

At the July 16 meeting, he finally received an answer as to where the traditional report had gone.

“We have about 90 percent of that information online,” explained Heather Bailey, the chief of staff at Austin Energy. She pointed to the Austin Energy website as well as the city’s Open Data Portal where data are now stored and regularly updated, instead of being compiled into a formal report.

The only problem she found, she said, is that “it’s not all easy to find.”

Osborne agreed. “I did spend some time on the data portal today. … It’s really very cumbersome to work with, and I was very unsatisfied with it,” he said.

He noted that not only is Austin Energy producing new annual performance reports, but all reports prior to 2015 had been removed from the website and could no longer be referenced. (They have since been replaced online.)

Bailey acknowledged the cumbersome nature of accessing the data but stated that Austin Energy has no intention of bringing back an annual performance report. Instead, the utility is working to make the database more user-friendly so that customers can search through the silos of data themselves. Compiling the annual performance report, she explained to the commission, demands too much time and too many resources to make it a viable option.

Commissioner Karen Hadden suggested that instead of asking multiple staff members to participate in the compilation of the report, “doesn’t it make sense to have one staff person to have the time and energy to pull that together?” She said that for a trained staff person it would be a straightforward request because “you know where all this information is.”

Both she and Osborne agreed that by leaving customers to access raw data, Austin Energy is eroding its accountability by obfuscating financial and operational details behind uninterpreted data sets.

“That’s like being thrown out in the dark without a flashlight,” said Osborne. He further argued that Austin Energy seems to be hiding its generation data specifically. He said that its last report to City Council did not include generation data or mention of the Fayette coal plant.

“It looks like we’re trying to hide the fact that we’re running that coal plant more than we used to,” he said.

Commissioner Stefan Wray, however, did a quick search and found the generation data among the 91 Austin Energy data sets.

Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent agreed that delving into the data is a task that is not for the faint of heart, but, she stated: “We want to move this forward, we want to make it better. We’re not trying to be difficult.”

Commissioner Cary Ferchill said that in the digital age, it makes sense to bring reporting online. “I’m very sympathetic to the idea that we want to have this on the website,” he said.

Still, Hadden persisted. “I would ask you to seriously consider doing the original form of the performance reports,” she said, clarifying that “original form” referred to before the 2014-15 report. That year, she explained, the annual report was reduced by a third.

“What I’m seeing is not better, it’s less,” said Osborne.

Sargent and Bailey said that they would take the request for the return of the annual performance report under consideration and in the meantime work to make the online data easier to find. In an effort to compromise, the commission asked staff members to return next month with a more cohesive and comprehensible format to access data to discuss its value to the commissioners as they work to do their job.

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