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Consumer advocate angry about elimination of hearing

Thursday, November 4, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Paul Robbins, a longtime advocate for energy conservation and a critic of various utility providers, including Texas Gas Service, had been planning for months to testify before City Council in a Nov. 18 hearing on the company’s conservation program. So he was shocked and angry when he received an emailed memo Tuesday night informing him that there would be no Council hearing on the matter. Further, he learned that Council would not have input on approval of the gas company’s program.

Instead, city staff would be administratively approving the Conservation Adjustment Clause Tariff. The memo Robbins received was a copy of a memo sent to the mayor and Council by the city’s telecommunications and regulatory affairs officer, Rondella Hawkins. She concluded that staffers were currently “reviewing the 2022-2024 program budget filing to determine whether it complies with all elements of the (conservation adjustment) tariff,” and that she would determine whether Texas Gas Service’s proposal would be accepted by the deadline, Nov. 30.

Robbins pointed out in his email to Council that he filed for intervenor status related to the conservation program on Sept. 1. “I was told by city staff in four separate emails to expect a November hearing and vote,” he wrote. “I have spent weeks preparing testimony and facts for City Council in anticipation of this meeting.”

“Last night, at 6:30 p.m., I received a staff memo saying that the rate would be passed without a hearing or vote of Council …. This is manipulative to the extreme. City Council is the primary regulator of gas rates in Austin. Contrary to city staff’s opinion, the legislative intent of the Conservation Adjustment Clause was not to usurp City Council’s regulatory authority in perpetuity. Moreover, it was intentionally misleading to tell me numerous times that this hearing and vote would occur and then change it at the proverbial last minute, with little time left for Council to post it yourselves.”

He then asked Council to post the rate hearing itself, concluding, “Rates levied without Council oversight are improper, and the disrespectful way that staff has treated this issue is not only bad form, but intentionally manipulative.”

Hawkins told the Austin Monitor via email, “Staff began preparing an item for the Nov. 18 Council agenda, but was then informed that Council approval was not in fact required since there is no increase to the conservation adjustment rate that will fund the three-year fixed budget of the 2022-’24 TGS Energy-Efficiency Program. Council action would be required only if there was a rate increase to the customer surcharge.”

Robbins responded, “This is a three-year rate that can be changed every year. The gas company can raise the fee next year, but since this three-year rate will already be approved, there will be no way to appeal it! Moreover, much of the rate is unjustified to begin with because it is greenwashed conservation money being used for things like marketing.”

In response to a question from the Monitor, Larry Graham, manager of regulatory affairs for Texas Gas Service, said he believes that staff has the authority to approve the conservation program. However, Graham insisted he did not know that the Nov. 18 hearing had been called off until Tuesday, the same day Robbins found out.

According to Hawkins’ memo, TGS is proposing to reduce the monthly residential rate for the conservation program, from $1.19 per month to $0.74 per month. In addition, TGS is reducing the rebate for less efficient tankless water heaters from $650 to $400 and offering a $650 rebate for a higher efficiency tankless heater. The company is also reducing its rebate on lower efficiency water heaters and offering a higher rebate for higher efficiency tankless water heaters in new homes. The company is eliminating the annual furnace tune-up rebate.

None of this is satisfactory to Robbins, who appeared before the Council Audit & Finance Committee last week, criticizing various aspects of the proposed conservation program.

Robbins told the committee that the Austin Sierra Club had endorsed the idea of “repurposing money from poorly performing conservation programs run by Texas Gas Service to more productive activities. Texas Gas Service’s proposed conservation budget will waste about $1.8 million a year for the next three years,” he said, “for a total of $5.5 million in money that could be spent for other programs. Tankless water heaters make up over half of this misspending. Their costs are quite high, they require maintenance, which can reduce or eliminate energy savings, and their lifetime may be exaggerated.”

He added, “Some people claim that tankless units last 50 percent longer than normal storage tank units, but when I looked at actual receipts from this year I found at least 116 tankless rebates issued by the gas company are to replace existing tankless water heaters. How can you claim there are energy savings when you are replacing an energy-saving tankless unit with another tankless unit?” In addition, Robbins said those 116 new units “created little or no savings, while they cost ratepayers $89,000 in imprudent expenditures.”

The gas dryer rebate has a payback of 248 years for an appliance that lasts 13 years on average, he said. Central furnace savings will not pay back in southern climates, Robbins said, adding that the economics of those furnaces were designed for northern parts of the country that are “four to five times colder.”

“So I’m proposing, Council, let’s take this $5.5 million and spend it on assisting the poor, for research and development on alternative renewable gas technology, or reducing bills, or split that money up and do all three,” he concluded.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

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