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Austin Energy seeks change in rebate approvals

Thursday, October 31, 2019 by Jo Clifton

City Council authorized Austin Energy to pay $4.45 million for multifamily and commercial customer rebates during the current fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.

But the utility may not be able to provide all the rebates authorized because some property owners find the lengthy time frame for getting approval from two commissions and Council to be overly burdensome.

Debbie Kimberly, Austin Energy vice president for customer energy solutions, explained to Council during its work session Tuesday that contractors are frustrated because they are losing customers during the months-long process.

For a commercial customer, the average length of time from when they apply for the program until they are paid their rebate is seven months, and for a multifamily customer, the average time is six months, Kimberly said.

So the utility is proposing to provide the information on its rebates to the Electric Utility Commission and the Resource Management Commission as well as Council, but will award the rebates without getting approvals on individual rebates from the commissions and Council.

Kimberly said contractors would be able to get more customers for programs such as lighting, insulation and energy-efficient heating and air conditioning for multifamily and commercial properties, saving energy and lowering electric bills. She quoted Moore McDonough with 360 Energy Savers, who told the Resource Management Commission that eliminating several months from the process “would be a godsend.”

Austin Energy is not allowed to spend more than $61,000 on an individual rebate without Council approval. Contracts that fall outside that category make up roughly 70 percent of the rebate program’s budget.

“We haven’t been able to spend our budget for the last couple of years,” Kimberly said, pointing out that multifamily properties change hands frequently. “And they don’t want to wait six months for Council to approve the rebate,” so many multifamily property owners drop out or simply decline to apply. “This past year we’ve only spent about 60 percent of our multifamily budget because of those long timelines.”

Kimberly said when utility customers have the benefit of energy efficiency programs, they can save from the tens to the hundreds of dollars each year.

“We’re trying to do what the Council has challenged us to do – spend the budget, reach the most disadvantaged communities,” she told Council.

The EUC approved the change on an 8-0 vote and the Resource Management Commission approved it on a 6-1 vote.

But Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who pulled the item for discussion at Tuesday’s work session, said she would likely vote against the proposal. She told her colleagues she did not like the precedent of allowing Austin Energy to move forward with rebates without going through the process.

Garza said changing the process would give Council less oversight and less information about the rebate program. She pointed out that Council Member Alison Alter’s staff had found one multifamily property that would not have been eligible for a rebate at the time it was proposed.

Kimberly told the Austin Monitor that the previous owner of the property had failed code inspections and the new owner had not gotten all the repairs done soon enough to allow the property to qualify for rebates. She said the property owner waited two years to apply again and was then eligible.

Kimberly told Garza the utility does not plan to reduce the information it provides to Council. “We actually intend to increase the information,” she said.

AE is currently working on 16 active multifamily projects and has 51 leads on other projects. “But a lot of these property owners are out of state and when they see a six-month timeline they won’t pursue it. They’ll drop out,” she said.

Garza said she was interested in more information, in particular on the rebates provided by district. Kimberly said AE had that information on its website and would be happy to provide it to each Council member.

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Kimberly said she is hoping to reach more of the disadvantaged populations living in large apartment complexes by cutting the timeline from the current six months to three or even two months.

Alter suggested that the utility provide information on a dashboard to show how much of the rebate money has been spent each month. Garza said she would present an amendment to do just that to the proposed resolution. Mayor Steve Adler agreed that was a good idea.

Photo by U.S. Dept. of Energy.

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