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Paul Robbins is an Austin-based environmental activist and consumer advocate.  Though best known for his work on the Austin Environmental Directory (a sourcebook of green products, services, organizations, and issues in Central Texas), he has worked on a number of other projects as well.  This Web site has started to compile them.

The site is still under construction, so please excuse while it it being organized.

June 2018 Customer Assistance Program Update

June 18, 2018

To Austin Energy:

I have been waiting since October of last year for data to show how well the repairs for the automatic enrollment system of the Customer Assistance Program have worked.  I have now analyzed the information from May of this year, and there is some good news.

It would appear that about 91% of the 554 CAP homes that I found to have exceeded an improvement value of $250,000 in January of 2017 have been removed from the CAP roles.   This was the threshold for determining if customers in these homes needed to be income qualified.

Another 1% had decreased property improvement values from the appraisal districts in the last year, so they were also justified in being allowed to continue participation.

However, about 2% of participants live in homes that exceed $250,000 in improvement values and cannot be justified unless they were income qualified.  I have asked for the list of income-qualified individuals under Open Records to see if their participation is indeed valid.

The larger problem, though, is those customers who owned two or more properties.  About 35, or 6%, were in this category.  One of these customers had almost $15 million in property assets in 2016.  If all of these 35 homes received discounts for electricity, water, and drainage, it would amount to about $23,000 in misspent money.

What is most frustrating is that I gave Austin Energy my dataset that identified these homes, so it would have been a simple matter to check the current participation roles against them.  This part of the repair is obviously not working and needs to be attended to immediately.

It should not be up to one skinny activist to continue to do this kind of quality control inspection as a volunteer, and AE staff needs to develop the in-house trouble-shooting ability to prevent this from reoccurring.

Other CAP Concerns

While I congratulate your staff for running a better system, on a higher level, I have fundamental concerns about CAP that go way beyond the accuracy of auto-enrollment.

  1. The $250,000 threshold is artificial and allows some wealthy homes to continue to participate in CAP. 

Take, for example, this 2,800 square-foot house in Northwest Austin that receives CAP (3604 Alta Court).  In 2017, it was valued by the Travis County Appraisal District at $861,000.  The improvement value was only $118,500.  Were some tragedy to befall this home, there is no way it could be rebuilt for this paltry amount of money.  The improvement value used by the Appraisal District is not an accurate benchmark for determining the wealth of a household, and there is no way we can justify giving money meant to the poor to this home and others like it.

  1. Income Qualification is a better system and will probably save money that can be used to help the poor.

Auto-enrollment is an expensive system to run.  Income qualifying participants is generally more accurate at screening for need, and there would probably be monetary savings from this system that would allow more money to be spent for low-income customers.

For example, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has only about 20% more customers than Austin Energy.  However, in 2015, SMUD had 2.6 times the number of participants in its low-income discount program as Austin Energy had in the same year.  Its screening method is income verification of each participant that applies.

SMUD has 3 to 4 staff people responsible for verifying participants on a rotation of once every 2 years.  By inference, this staff cost in Austin would only be about $200-300,000 a year.  Contrast this to the cost of administering Austin Energy’s automatic enrollment process of about $1.3 million annually.

There are a number of ways that SMUD participants can apply, but one effective method is for utility staff to simply ask new customers if they want to receive the discount when they apply for service over the phone.

  1. Limiting CAP discounts on electric consumption is a fairer way to distribute money while encouraging energy conservation.

CAP gives a 10% discount no matter how much electricity is consumed. This works against the conservation-based rate structure that the utility has intentionally implemented.

It also works against fairness to CAP participants who are careful with their bills. Consider: A consumer using 1,000 kwh a month would receive an estimated $174 in electricity discounts in 2017, while a high consumer using 3,500 kwh a month would receive an estimated $720 in the same year.  It is not equitable to give energy-wasting customers more than 4 times the discount as energy-conserving customers.

In 2015, the average Austin Energy customer used 894 kwh a month in the entire year, and 1,171 kwh a month during the 4 summer months.  The average customer never exceeded 1,500 kwh, and so never exceeded the 3rd tier of Austin Energy’s 5-tier system of electric rates.

In 2015, $2.2 million, or 21% of total Austin Energy CAP discounts, went to the 4th and 5th tiers of use.  If the money were redistributed to give higher discounts to customers in the first 3 tiers of use, it would be more equitable, while at the same time encouraging conservation.  Distributing this money equitably among all CAP participants would raise the average discount of about $250 in 2015 by about $60 per year.

Critics of this proposed change will say it discriminates against households with more people in them.  While seeming logical on its surface, more careful investigation shows that energy consumption and cost do not increase proportionately with more people.  The 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration in the Southern U.S. shows the increase in energy use between a 3-person household and a 6-person household is only 18%.  The energy use per square foot between a 3-person household and a 6-person household is almost identical.

  1. CAP has an enormous surplus and no plans are being made to spend it.

In the last 5 years, CAP has received about $8.5 million in revenues above what it has spent on assistance to the poor.  This money is not even garnering interest that could increase its value to low-income residents.

While some of this money may be needed for an official reserve fund, several million dollars could easily be spent to improve or expand assistance.  A direct installation program for low-cost, high payback items such as LEDs and pipe wraps could be started in low-income neighborhoods, yielding a rate of return greater than the investment.  Another alternative for this surplus would be to increase the CAP discount.

Either idea will help more people than the current policy of accruing money in a non-interest bearing account.

In summation, I urge you not only to make proposed changes that will eliminate owners of multiple properties from receiving CAP funds, but go further and thoroughly repair the program so that millions of more dollars are either available or are more fairly distributed.

Sincerely,

Paul Robbins

Energy in the News: Leading the next wave of renewable energy

Robbins: Austin should lead the way for next wave of renewable energy

Paul Robbins – Special to the Austin American-Statesman, Sunday, May 13, 2018

Wind power and solar cells may seem like best friends to environmentalists, but in a very real sense, they are “fair weather friends.”

Most Austinites remember waking up to the bitterly cold morning of Jan. 17, when temperatures plummeted to 18 degrees. Austin’s utility hit a new winter demand record. When this occurred, Austin’s wind power operated at only 22 percent of its rated capacity, and its solar cells operated at only 1.5 percent of capacity.

Defenders of fossil fuels never fail to fault wind and solar cells as intermittent and not “dispatchable,” that is, these power sources cannot be turned on or off on demand. The many cities, states and countries trying to increase consumption of renewable energy confront this problem.

The city of Georgetown, just north of Austin, purchases 100 percent of its electricity from wind and solar cells. But it can only do this on paper. Its dispatchable balancing power came from the Texas grid known as ERCOT, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. In 2017, ERCOT received only 18 percent of its electricity from wind and solar.

RELATED: How Georgetown’s GOP mayor became a hero to climate change evangelists

Denmark, a clean energy champion, got 46 percent of its electricity from wind and solar cells in 2017. But the tiny country trades electricity every minute of the year with its neighbors in Germany, Norway and Sweden. The region collectively generates only 18 percent of its electricity from intermittent renewable power.

Some academics suggest that intermittent wind and solar can be woven together from different regions to form virtual dispatchability, with little or no conventional power needed. When one region is not producing power, another will. However, there is no place in the world where this has been done at scale. Even if it could be done, long distance transmission lines are expensive.

Some clean energy advocates believe electric batteries will create dispatchability. But at this point in time, they are not economic for daily storage in the mainstream United States. They are only economic for niche markets.

Austin has been a leader in clean energy for decades. We need to take the next step and develop dispatchable renewable options available for Texas.

Concentrating Solar Power, which has existed since the 1980s, uses mirrors or lenses to focus high-temperature heat to the top of a tower or the center of a trough to boil water or refrigerant to generate electricity. Just six-tenths of 1 percent of the land in Texas could provide all of its total 2017 electric consumption. Its onsite heat storage is relatively inexpensive compared to electric batteries.

ALSO READ: Austin’s energy goals laudable but counter to laws of physics

Compressed Air Energy Storage uses intermittent or low-cost power to produce compressed air in geologic formations like old gas wells. When stored energy is needed, the air is heated in a combustion turbine, which operates at greater efficiency due to increased pressure. This process still needs natural gas, albeit greatly reduced amounts of it. In the future, waste heat from the compression process itself might replace gas altogether.

Thermal Energy Storage uses intermittent or low-cost power to produce ice, cold water, or hot water in tanks inside or near buildings for later use. It is cost effective today for many large buildings and grocery stores. Austin has barely scratched the surface of its potential.

Concentrating Solar Power and Compressed Air Energy Storage have not been built in Texas. The first plants will be more expensive because they have not reached economies of scale. To mitigate costs, Austin should become the charter member of a partnership with other Texas cities and utilities to share the expense. Austin could also use funding from the utility’s GreenChoice program, which allows customers to voluntarily pay more to support renewable energy.

Thermal Storage could be mandated and incentivized for new large buildings and grocery stores when appropriate.

Real leaders in clean energy today are confronting dispatchability. If Austin wants to continue to lead in this field, we need to rise to this challenge.

Robbins is an environmental activist, consumer advocate, and editor of the Austin Environmental Directory .

 

Nuclear Power: Entertainment? Or Propaganda?

On April 29, the CBS Series “Madam Secretary” aired an episode advocating for the increased use of nuclear power to stop global warming.  I sent this letter in response.

Readers who agree are encouraged to send a letter of their own to the Network’s address listed just below.

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To: cbsaudienceent@cbs.com

To the Producers/Writers of Madam Secretary,

I viewed your episode “Thin Ice” on April 29 regarding energy policy and nuclear power.  My intelligence was insulted at the simplistic way you portrayed atomic power as a bridge-fuel to stop global warming.

Some of my basic protests are detailed below.  Overall, for a program that claims to be nuanced and policy driven, you surely failed based on your own standards.

Renewable Energy Potential Misstated 

Your script stated: “You need, like 12 billion solar roofs just to match the projected growth in energy consumption by 2050.”

Solar cell potential in the U.S. alone is 283,600 Terawatt Hours (Twh).  Rooftop PVs is a mere 800 Twh of this total.  There is also 82,100 Twh of potential wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower.

(See Anthony Lopez, et al, U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS-Based Analysis, NREL/TP-6A20-51946, July 2012, Table ES-1, p. iv. Concentrating Solar Power potential is not detailed above because it might be redundant with PV potential, but there is 116,100 Twh of CSP potential, and its energy can be stored with existing technology.)

This is just the potential in the United States.  

This 365,700 Twh of renewable electricity potential compares to a little over 4,000 Twh of total electricity produced in the entire U.S. and less than 25,000 Twh of total electricity in the entire world in 2016.

(See BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017.)

There are some nuances.

  • Electric generation was 38% total U.S. energy used in 2017.  (See Energy Information Administration, Energy consumption by sector.)  Though some auto use will eventually switch from oil to electricity, it is unclear how much future fuel switching will actually occur.
  • A lot of the potential PV and wind will need storage to be usable, though Concentrating Solar Power, geothermal, biopower, and hydropower are dispatchable already.

Despite all this context, you still have given blatantly misleading information to your audience about the potential of renewables.

Most Energy Consumption Is Not For Electricity

About 62% of the energy use in the U.S. and internationally is not related to electricity.

(U.S. Statistics [2017] from Energy Information Administration, Energy consumption by sector.)

(International Statistics [2015] from International Energy Agency Energy Balance)

How is nuclear power going to prevent carbon emissions from this portion of the world’s energy use?

As stated above, a certain but undetermined percentage of autos can be converted to electricity.  But you are not going to see nuclear reactors or the electricity they provide in most planes, most ships, and industrial manufacturing process heat any time in the near future.

Nuclear Power provided only 13% of the world’s total electricity, and less than 5% of world’s total energy in 2015.

(International Statistics [2015] from International Energy Agency Energy Balance)

Unlike renewable energy, nuclear power production has actually decreased in the last decade.

(See BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017.)

Chernobyl Glossed Over 

Your script stated: People only died at Chernobyl because they didn’t have a containment dome.

To discount the largest disaster created by an electric plant in the world’s history as an anomaly is almost callous.  Chernobyl was built without containment to reduce costs.  Do you really think that poor countries that build nuclear plants will not find a way to cut corners?

Though the range of estimates of direct deaths and premature deaths from the accident is controversial, more conservative figures put it in the thousands or tens of thousands.  At least one estimate put it at over a million.

(See Ho, Mae Wan Chernobyl Deaths Top a Million Based on Real EvidenceScience in Society, May 24, 2012.)

About 1,600 square miles of land surrounding the former plant are quarantined due to radioactivity.

Though the full costs for medical expenses, evacuation of victims, and loss of land and economic activity will probably never be known, there are estimates of hundreds of billions of dollars.

(See Samet, Jonathon, and Joann Seo,The Financial Costs of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster, Green Cross Switzerland, 2016.)

The cost to entomb the reactor to protect the environment from further radiation exposure was over $2 billion Euros (about $2.5 billion U.S. dollars).  This does not include operation and maintenance of the containment structure for the next century.  Nor does it include the loss of the reactor and its replacement power.

Fukushima Entirely Ignored

The environmental and financial impacts of Fukushima are still unresolved.  The fact that you did not even acknowledge the accident shows blatant bias.

No excuses such as lack of containment can be made here,  This was a GE Mark 1 reactor with containment as part of the design.

After the disaster, Japan’s electricity actually turned more carbon intensive.  Almost all the country’s reactors were shut down for several years due to safety concerns.  Between 2010 and 2015, oil use for electric generation increased 20%, coal 13%, and gas 23%.  Nuclear generation decreased 97%.  Ultimately, electricity consumption fell by 20%.

(International Statistics [2015] from International Energy Agency Energy Balance – Japan)

The clean up cost, officially estimated at about $188 billion (2016 US  $), could rise to as much as $626 Billion.

SImilar to Chernobyl, there is an exclusion zone (143 square miles) that is considered too contaminated for humans to live in.

Fukushima also has direct links to the deaths and injuries of Americans.  About 400 military personnel serving aboard the USS Reagan on a humanitarian mission to aid the victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunami disaster are suing TEPCO, the utility that owns the Fukushima reactors, for health problems they believe were caused by radiation that they were not made aware of at the time of exposure.  At least 9 of the exposed people have died since their exposure, and at least 70 of the plaintiffs are ill.

See:

Gunter, Linda, Injustice at Sea: the Irradiated Sailors of the USS Reagan, Counterpunch, March 7, 2018.

Levine, Gregg, 7 Years on, Sailors Exposed to Fukushima Radiation Seek Their Day in Court, The Nation, March 9, 2018.

Bruno, Bianca, Judge: Sailors’ Fukushima Radiation Case Doesn’t Belong in US, Courthouse News Service, January 5, 2018.

Exorbitant Cost

The Secretary might lose her zeal for nuclear power’s carbon-reduction abilities when she gets the bill.

In the U.S., two reactors under construction (at VC Summer in South Carolina) were just cancelled, despite generous federal subsidies, because their costs more than doubled.  Two others, also subsidized, (Vogtle in Georgia) will be completed, but have also experienced similar price increases.

A Finnish plant currently under construction, Oikiluoto-3, has experienced close to a 300% increase in its original estimate.

Even China, which has the world’s most aggressive nuclear building program, cheap labor, and an authoritarian government, has experienced an approximate 64% overrun at one of its first new plants.

Health Effects of U.S. Nuclear Power

Your script stated: Do you know how many Americans have died from nuclear power since World War II?!  Zero!  And that includes Three-Mile Island!

There actually have been several direct deaths that occurred at U.S. nuclear plants.  They are a small number compared to some other occupations, but your script exaggerated.

Much more importantly though, your script left out the long-term illnesses that have very likely led to death caused by Three-Mile Island and other nuclear plants.

See:

Williamson, David, “Study suggests Three-Mile Island radiation may have injured people living near the reactor,” University of North Carolina,News, February 24, 1997.

Residents near TMI that were downwind at the time of the accident had lung cancer and leukemia rates 2 to 10 times higher than those upwind.

Sholtis, Brett, “Three Mile Island nuke accident linked to thyroid cancer,” USA Today, Updated 6:15 p.m. ET June 1, 2017.

Preliminary link proven between TMI accident and increased thyroid cancer in residents near the plant. 

Fairlie, Ian, “Nuclear power stations cause childhood leukemia – and here’s the proof,Ecologist, August 23, 2014.

37% increase in childhood leukemia for children living in proximity to European nuclear power plants.

Mangano, Joseph, et al, “Childhood Cancer Incidence Proximate to U.S. Nuclear Power Plants,” Archives of Environmental Health, Pages 74-82, August 7, 2010.

Excess cancer risk of children living within 30 miles of nuclear plants in Eastern U.S. is 12 to 20%.

Emery, Gene, “Possible Leukemia, Nuclear Plant Link Studied,” Reuters, October 19, 1989.

Huge increase in childhood leukemia documented near Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts.

And what about uranium miners?  Do they count?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) “Research on long-term exposure Uranium Miners,” Worker Health Study Summaries, 2000.

Lung disease 2 to 24 times than expected; deaths of white miners 50% higher than expected.

Alleged Climate Science Support

Your script stated: Most climate scientists see nuclear as the key transition technology until renewables become more efficient.

To be fair, it would be difficult for a TV program to footnote all its statements on the air (at least in real time).  However, my Internet search could not locate any survey or poll that you describe.

There are climate scientists that now endorse nuclear power. And I was able to locate a Pew Research survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2014 showing a small survey of scientists that supported more nuclear power plants.  But this is of all scientists, not just climate experts.

I have several other criticisms that I may save for another letter, but I have to leave you with what I think Secretary Elizabeth McCord would say if she got to read my letter.

If her children had written your program’s script, she would have lectured them “Do your homework!”

Sincerely,

Paul Robbins

Presentation on Dispatchable Renewable Energy

Solar cell and wind generation are great for the environment, but they are limited in their reach.  They are intermittent, and cannot be dispatched on demand when they are needed.

On April 17, 2018, a presentation (now recorded) was made to the City of Austin’s Resource Management Commission on the need for dispatchable renewable generation as well as solar cells and wind.

View it at this link.

One of my ideas is to convert GreenChoice from funding wind to funding Concentrating Solar Power.  Wind is now close to parity with conventional fuel charges in Austin, and converting GC to solar could allow Austin to start buying dispatchable renewables at little or no cost to the typical Austin consumer.

Energy in the News: 100% Clean Energy in the Real World

Clashing Over How to Boost Clean Energy
Jack Craver, Reporter, Energy Industry, Energy Central             Posted on April 9, 2018

Paul Robbins has become something of an institution in Austin as a full-time, volunteer watchdog of the city’s municipally-owned utility, Austin Energy. Recently I wrote about how he forced AE to make changes to its discount program for low-income customers. This week I’d like to focus on another fight he has waged, often putting him at odds with fellow environmentalists.

Robbins, who calls himself an “environmental and consumer advocate,” got engaged in politics in the 1970’s as part of the anti-nuclear movement. But he scoffs at the demands made of Austin Energy by many of the city’s environmentalists, saying that their campaign for 100% renewable energy in the near future is unrealistic.

…So what Robbins suggest? He wants AE to start seriously considering ways to ramp up dispatchable renewable power.

Energy in the News: Austin Energy to reform its discounts to low-income customers

How one man got Austin Energy to reform its discounts to low-income customers

Jack Craver, Reporter, Energy Industry, Energy Central            March 21, 2018

Paul Robbins has been a thorn in the side of Austin Energy for decades. The longtime environmentalist and consumer advocate comes to City Council meetings regularly to bemoan bad decisions by the municipally-owned utility.

One of his most prominent crusades has been against wasted money in the utility’s Consumer Assistance Program, which is supposed to offer discounts to low-income ratepayers. Robbins, however, has long contended that many of the program’s beneficiaries aren’t low-income at all. He has done this by highlighting expensive homes –– some exceeding $1 million –– that are enlisted in the program.

In presentations to City Council, Robbins displayed photos of the magnificent homes that some of the program beneficiaries live in.

Energy in the News: Council rejects appeal of gas conservation fees    

This story is about misspending of public funds meant for energy efficiency.  If environmentalists do not advocate spending this money wisely, the public will lose trust in us.

Council rejects appeal of gas conservation fees                Wednesday, February 7, 2018 by Jo Clifton, The Austin Monitor

 City Council on Thursday rejected an appeal from environmental and consumer activist Paul Robbins to overturn a staff decision to accept Texas Gas Service’s 2018 conservation adjustment clause rate. The conservation adjustment clause rate is the extra money consumers pay for the utility to fund its conservation programs, such as rebates for appliances and attic insulation.

In addition to Troxclair, Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Ann Kitchen and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo seemed interested in following up on the questions Robbins raised in his appeal.

Flannigan thanked Robbins. “You know, sometimes – I’m going to say this with love because I’ve been described this way too. Sometimes a passionate nutjob is what you need. And I’ve been that guy from time to time myself, and so thank you for sticking with it and hopefully we’ll have a more substantive conversation next year.”

Photo by Lisafern (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Environmental Directory: Radio Interview on 2017 Edition

The 2017 Austin Environmental Directory is Now Available 11-16-2017

The 2017 Austin Environmental Directory is now available. It is meant as a user-friendly guide to readers for learning about environmental issues, for identifying and purchasing environmental products, and for becoming involved in environmental organizations. The print version is distributed free to the Austin area. The Directory is also on the Internet atwww. environmentaldirectory.info/.

Our Guest on Shades of Green was the editor Paul Robbins, a long-time environmental advocate in Austin, Texas since 1977.

Energy in the News: Utility Fixing Customer Assistance Program

Monday, September 25, 2017 by Jo Clifton, The Austin Monitor 

Last week, after City Council adopted the Fiscal Year 2017-18 budget, longtime Austin environmental advocate and Austin Energy critic Paul Robbins had something to celebrate. Robbins had been asking Council to reform Austin Energy’s Customer Assistance Program since 2014 and the new budget includes direction to do just that.

…Robbins discovered that several hundred customers on the program, called CAP, had pricey real estate holdings and were not necessarily the low-income people the program was intended to serve.

…Under the new rules adopted by Council, customers will be removed from the program if their home is valued at $250,000 or more and the household income is greater than 200 percent of the federal poverty level guidelines. In addition, CAP customers who own two or more properties within Austin Energy’s service territory and whose income is greater than 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines will be considered ineligible.