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 main provider of natural gas to the Austin area has a profoundly flawed climate policy, and is spending substantial funds on greenwashed conservation programs
BY PAUL ROBBINS, FRI., NOV. 26, 2021, AUSTIN CHRONICLE
It’s called greenwashing: selling products and services using false or exaggerated claims of environmental protection and sustainability.
All consumers, environmentally inclined or not, are exposed to false or misleading statements in the marketplace. However, most claims are not falsely linked to the survival of the planet, and most claims are not charged on a utility bill that consumers have no choice in paying.
For many years, Texas Gas Service (TGS), which serves 95% of residential natural gas customers in Austin as well as 16 other Central Texas cities, has skimmed millions of dollars from ratepayers for use on greenwashed conservation programs that save little energy. Some of this money is no more than glorified marketing.
In conservation programs, the general intent is to save resources such as natural gas, electricity, and water at the same or less cost than providing it. Sometimes this intent is overlooked. A low-income program, for example, is conducted as a social service. But in general, conservation is intended to save ratepayers money, while at the same time benefitting the environment and creating local employment.
Over the next three years, the gas company intends to spend as much as $5.5 million on frivolous conservation programs.
• TGS will give ratepayers as much as $325 to replace an existing gas clothes dryer with a new “efficient” gas clothes dryer. In most cases, the miniscule savings amounts to a payback of as long as 248 years. While the program is a failure at saving any appreciable amount of energy, it does allow the gas company to maintain its market share for this appliance with ratepayer money.
• TGS gives rebates for energy-saving “tankless” water heaters in homes. However, the profoundly high costs and maintenance requirements mean that most of units will never pay back over their lifetime. These may be appropriate for businesses that use large volumes of hot water, but not for most residences.
• The gas company will also provide rebates for efficient central furnaces. The expense is so high that they will never pay back their cost over the appliance’s life. This equipment is meant for severely cold climates in the northern United States and Canada. Installing them in Austin is a little like placing the world’s most efficient and expensive air conditioner in Alaska.
Conservation is not the only example of the company’s greenwashing. TGS has been under considerable pressure to reduce its carbon emissions. At the request of the Austin City Council, TGS commissioned a report detailing the merits and availability of Renewable Natural Gas from sources such as landfill and sewage plant emissions.
The report makes exaggerated claims about the availability of renewable gas sources, most of which will not be used anyway because of their jaw-dropping high costs. At its best, the report can only be considered good intentions. At its worst, it can be considered a greenwashing diversion to stall for time. More substantial action may be delayed in anticipation of questionable renewable gas pilot programs.
The Austin City Council, the gas company’s primary regulator, has the authority to cut off funding for these flawed conservation programs. It’s time to do something different.
Let’s take the wasted conservation money meant for greenwashed marketing and implement a plan to help the poor on their bill. Let’s take the money meant for things like dryers with a 248-year payback and fund pragmatic renewable energy research. Let’s take the wasted money and give some of it back to ratepayers who are already reeling from Texas Gas Service rate increases approved by Council (which have already gone up about 25% since 2019).
Funding for conservation and environmental programs needs to be spent carefully. Money, like fossil fuels, is a nonrenewable resource.
Paul Robbins is an environmental activist and consumer advocate who has worked on energy issues for over four decades. Since 1995, he has been the editor of the Austin Environmental Directory.
Note the readers: If you want to learn more about the technical and policy issues related to this subject, see the report: Greenwashing is Not a Solution.
Friday, August 20, 2021 by Jo Clifton, The Austin Monitor
Three members of the City Council Audit & Finance Committee want City Auditor Corrie Stokes to look into whether an Austin Energy program that offers bill relief to utility customers is helping the right people. According to a spokesperson for the utility, 34,008 customers are currently enrolled in the program. There were 35,540 last July, and 30,819 in July 2019. Austin Energy discounts bills for those customers by 10 to 15 percent.
Council members Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo and Mayor Steve Adler asked Stokes during Wednesday’s committee meeting to look into questions raised by consumer advocate Paul Robbins and members of the Water and Wastewater Commission.
Robbins, who appeared before the committee Wednesday, has consistently pointed out that some utility customers who receive reduced bills under the program live in large homes, with some owning additional real estate. One reason for this likely relates to the fact that people who enroll in Medicaid, the nutritional program known as SNAP, Supplemental Security Income, and several other federal programs are automatically enrolled in the utility’s CAP.
William Moriarty, who chairs the city’s Water and Wastewater Commission, told the committee his panel was concerned that people who are not really eligible are getting benefits. Moriarty told the Austin Monitor that the commission had questioned Austin Energy staff about Robbins’ findings. Their response, he said, was that “it’s a very minimal problem. Paul suggested it could be 10 to 20 percent.”
In the past, Moriarty said, there were only 7,000 recipients, but over the years, the number of customers using the program has increased by a factor of five. He noted that the Water and Wastewater Commission was accustomed to looking at what other cities have done and learning from their successes and mistakes. He suggested that Austin Energy should follow their example and consider how other utilities handle customer assistance when making changes to its program.
Robbins and Moriarty say that customers who are able to pay their bills without help are taking advantage of the program and taking money away from others who truly need the assistance.
According to Moriarty, no one on the commission is questioning the purpose of the program, but they believe that if the program is not working properly, “that kind of damages the whole thing.” He said if even one person is benefiting from the program who should not be, “I thought one was too many.”
Stokes will work with the three Council sponsors to come up with a scope of work for auditors to start looking at the program. After the report, Council as a whole may request a full audit be done next year.
Texas Gas Service, as well as other utilities throughout Texas that provide natural gas to consumers and businesses, is asking the Texas Railroad Commission to allow it to put a surcharge on customers’ bills in order to pay for natural gas used during Winter Storm Uri. TGS filed its application with the commission to recover costs of the storm on July 30.
Consumer advocate Paul Robbins, who has studied documents filed with the commission, has concluded that the gas companies are seeking an order that will allow them to add about $5 a month to customers’ bills for 10 years. Larry Graham, manager of regulatory affairs for TGS, declined to offer an estimate of the cost to consumers.
According to an analysis by Bloomberg News, because of Texas’ unregulated market, natural gas producers – as opposed to companies that sell gas to consumers – made $11 billion in just five days during the unprecedented winter storm.
Although TGS and the other gas companies that provide gas to consumers each filed a separate request for a hearing on their securitization case, all the cases have been consolidated. More than 50 cities throughout the state have joined a coalition to intervene in the case before the commission. Central Texas cities that have joined the Texas Cities Alliance include West Lake Hills, Taylor, Goliad and Killeen.
While Austin is not on the list, city officials confirmed late Monday that Austin has joined in intervening on the matter. Thomas Brocato, the lead attorney representing the alliance of cities, told the Austin Monitor that other cities still have time to join the coalition.
Graham insists that the matter before the Railroad Commission is not a “rate case,” but a proceeding to allow securitization financing. As he explained, under Texas House Bill 1520 the gas companies will be able to extend the period of time during which they can recover costs associated with Winter Storm Uri.
According to documents filed with the commission, charges for natural gas during the winter storm left TGS with about $290 million in debt. Robbins said all told, the companies that provide gas service directly to consumers have more than $3.6 billion in fuel debt that they want to securitize.
Graham said, “The price at that moment in time went berserk … it happened to every gas utility in the state of Texas. Our company had to take a big loan out to pay the bill.”
As Graham explained, under the legislation signed by the governor in June, the commission will decide the amount to be recovered by each gas utility. After the commission determines the amount each company can finance, it will issue a financing order directing the Texas Public Finance Authority “to issue customer rate relief bonds.” The commission has 90 days to issue the financing order and the state financing authority has 180 days to issue the bonds.
Graham said via email, “Securitization is expected to provide a lower monthly cost compared to recovery over nine months through the existing cost of gas clause tariffs in Texas Gas Service’s service areas.” In other words, customers’ bills would be much higher if the gas company attempted to recover its costs through existing agreements.
Graham concluded, “We empathize with our customers’ concerns about higher bills and want to assure them that we are working on their behalf. As a fully regulated utility, our current tariffs would have us recover the amount over only a nine-month period. We believe that securitization is the best option for helping our customers by extending the period to recover the extraordinary costs from Winter Storm Uri. Additionally, as a distribution company, we do not profit on the cost of gas.”
The Texas Legislature has taken no action to ensure that the same scenario will not recur.
By Paul Robbins, Austin American Statesman
August 7, 2021
Gov. Greg Abbott signed two laws on June 2 to fortify the Texas power system. He proclaimed then that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.” On what planet?
In the land of laws and sausage (two things you never want to see made), the Legislature was tasked to find solutions to the Texas-size electric system collapse that occurred in February. Lawmakers passed some measures but left too much unfinished for anyone to feel comfortable.
Power Plant Resilience: The largest reason for grid failure was that many power plants were not properly weatherized to withstand severe low temperatures. One of the laws Abbott signed now requires this, but there is no official date for when the weatherization must be done. The rules implementing these weatherization requirements will not even be finalized until November.
It will also take time and money — by one estimate, $430 million — for weatherization to be completed. The Texas Competitive Power Advocates, which represents power plant owners, is currently haggling with the Public Utility Commission over who should pay for the weatherization, consumers or power plant owners. The group has even stated some power plants may not stay online unless they receive consumer funding.
The only upside is that it is unlikely that a winter storm of the magnitude that occurred in February will reoccur again next year. But if a similar disaster strikes, there is no assurance that Texas will be ready.
Apparently, many Austinites feel the same way. There has been a run on emergency natural gas generators. A public record search revealed that there have been permits for 164 such installations pulled in the first half of 2021, compared to 44 in all of 2020. Almost all of these permits were in wealthy areas of the city.
Building Efficiency: Another thing that Texas sorely needs to reform is its laggard programs for energy efficiency. A friend of mine survived the winter storm in a newly-built, energy-efficient home without a fireplace. Despite three days without heat, the temperature never went below 47 degrees. While uncomfortable, it was survivable, at least compared to Texans who had icicles on their ceilings.
A 2017 benchmark study by the Electric Power Research Institute estimated that in 2020, Texans would only achieve 11% of their total potential savings from energy efficiency, while 38 states and Washington, DC had higher rates of achievement.
Sadly, building efficiency has become a partisan issue because it is advocated by people who want to lower carbon emissions. But I am having a hard time accepting that freezing to death is part of the Republican platform.
Maximum Charges: The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid, allows huge electric charges during periods of extreme demand in order to incentivize the building of costly new power plants. These charges can be as high as $2 to $9 per kilowatt-hour, compared to 2 cents to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour during average times.
Unfortunately, neither the Public Utility Commission nor the Legislature has eliminated or decoupled these extreme charges from emergencies such as disastrous weather events. If another severe winter storm were to happen next year, price gouging could happenagain.
Repricing: The record-breaking cold spell last February is only surpassed by the record-breaking price gouging that occurred in the energy markets. Estimates of this pillage range widely, but easily approached $16 billion and may be over $46 billion. The Legislature could have ordered a repricing of the market for some or all of these costs, but ultimately did nothing.
Texans who froze last winter deserve more than sound bites to address one of the worst emergencies in the state’s history, and the record-shocking economic fallout that followed. Fixing these problems should be the main priority of the next specially called legislative session.
Robbins is an Austin-based environmental activist and consumer advocate who has worked on energy issues for over four decades.
Is imagining a “progressive” natural gas utility even possible?
Or are these fossil-fuel marketing companies locked into a fossilized business model?
Below is a recent news story about huge gas utility rate hikes in Austin, but it is followed by a summary articulating a better way.
The Austin Monitor, Friday, April 23, 2021 by Jo Clifton
The three companies that supply natural gas to Austin residential and commercial customers are each seeking a rate increase under the Gas Reliability Infrastructure Program, or GRIP. City Council acted on April 8 and again on Thursday to temporarily suspend implementation of those increases. However, the increases are likely to take effect after a short period of review because of the way the utility law is written.
Texas Gas Service, which serves the majority of Austin customers, is seeking an interim rate increase of about $10.7 million from customers in the sprawling area between Bayou Vista and Beaumont to Austin.
CenterPoint Energy is seeking an additional $44.7 million in its South Texas Division, and Atmos Energy Corporation is seeking an interim rate increase of more than $111 million, according to documentation filed with the city. All three companies are requesting rate increases under the GRIP statute to reimburse themselves for money spent in 2020, mostly to replace old pipe, according to Larry Graham, manager of regulatory affairs for Texas Gas Service.
Each company has filed documentation to show why they should be allowed to charge more within 45 days of their filing. The amounts are based on their 2020 expenditures and are technically subject to City Council approval.
However, as Rondella Hawkins, the city’s telecommunications and regulatory affairs officer, explains, GRIP is not a typical rate increase. She told the Austin Monitor via email that a Texas Supreme Court ruling concluded that the GRIP statute provides only for “a ministerial review of the utility’s findings to ensure compliance” with state law and Railroad Commission rules. She pointed out that the rate increases allowed under GRIP will be subject to review during their next comprehensive rate review.
Consumer advocate Paul Robbins protested at both the April 8 Council meeting and Thursday’s meeting, telling Council if the increase for Texas Gas Service is approved, the amount received by the company will have increased 25 percent since 2019.
Graham said Robbins “makes conjectures that are unfounded, and his math is wrong and his conclusions are wrong.”
According to its filing, TGS proposes to increase the customer charge from the current $16 a month to $18.38 a month. Commercial customers, who now pay $53.33 a month, will see an increase of $10.06 to $63.39.
Graham said his company has the vast majority of customers in the Austin area, while Atmos has around 10,000 and CenterPoint fewer than 1,000.
Documentation provided by Atmos Energy shows the current residential customer charge is $26.45 per month. With a rate increase of $4.55, that monthly charge goes to $31.
CenterPoint currently charges $22.59 per month and proposes an increase of $2.33, for a new rate of $24.92.
Contrary to what Hawkins said, Robbins says Council should “give the Resource Management Commission or another city commission the ability to review all aspects of the gas utility. The increased oversight will over time create a better chance for fairer rates.” In addition, Robbins suggests that Council adopt a resolution indicating that it wants to ask for bids from competing utilities “when the gas company’s franchise begins renegotiation two years from now.”
A Gas Company That Cares About Consumers and the Environment
Progressive Gas Rates: Currently, Texas Gas Service (TGS) has a regressive rate structure, where the more you pay, the less you pay per unit. A progressive gas company should use progressive rate structures, where the more you use, the more you pay per unit. These new rates can be accomplished with low monthly service charges and tiered rates for consumption.
The lower a monthly service charge is, the more money that will be charged from actual consumption. This encourages conservation, while at the same time helping the poor, who generally use less energy.
In 2020, I reviewed the rates of the largest gas companies in the U.S.; 26 out of 32 regional or state tariffs reviewed had a monthly service charge lower than TGS-Austin. Some were only lower by a small amount, but 7 were less than half of the TGS-Austin charge.
In 2020, the TGS monthly charge was twice as high as CPS Energy in San Antonio. Given the similarity in climate, this seems a good benchmark for Austin to follow.
Another thing that a progressive gas company would do is charge a higher price for higher blocks of use, or tiers. Both Austin Energy and Austin Water have 5 tiers, where each block of higher consumption is charged more per unit than the last. TGS, by contrast, has flat rates, where each unit of energy costs the same.
Large gas companies that have progressive tier charges include: SoCalGas, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Southwest Gas in California; Southwest Gas in Arizona (for low-income ratepayers); and Spire Energy in Missouri (in summer months).
Low-Income Bill Assistance: It is common for gas utilities in the states of California, New York, and Massachusetts to have monthly discounts or lower gas rates for low-income customers. Our neighbors at CPS Energy in San Antonio also have low-income discounts for gas service. Austin utilities (electric, water, drainage) have discounts and emergency assistance amounting to about $30 million a year. However, TGS-Austin will only be spending about $100,000 this year.
Capital Recovery Fees: Connecting new customers in a growing city costs a considerable amount of money. Who pays for it, the new customer, or existing customers? At Austin Energy and Austin Water, new customers are charged full hook-up costs. At TGS, it may be as low as 10%. After Austin’s electric and water utilities began collecting full costs, both of them lowered their rates.
Clean Energy Research: While electric utilities are using wind and solar cells and retiring coal plants to lower their carbon emissions, natural gas utilities currently have little chance to reduce carbon emissions other than energy efficiency and more efficient gas mains.
Currently, most renewable gas sources are profoundly expensive. However, some gas progressive companies are investing in research and development for a cleaner, safer utility.
SoCalGas, which serves much of Southern California, spent over $16 million in 2020 on Research and Development. About 80% of this money was related to clean energy and energy efficiency. The remainder was related to efficient operations that lower bills, including better prevention of gas leaks common in everyday operation. In 2020, there were 386 active projects.
Most R&D funds are leveraged with other partners at about a 7 to 1 ratio. These partners include the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the California Energy Commission, and the Gas Technology Institute.
Good Management of Energy-Efficiency Programs: Energy conservation is usually a good thing for ratepayers and the environment. However, a considerable amount of TGS-Austin conservation funds are spent for equipment that will cost more than the gas it is saving. To some extent, these conservation funds are being used as a glorified marketing program.
A BETTER DIRECTION: Negotiations on the TGS-Austin franchise – its license to operate – will begin in the near future. Austin should seek bids from competing gas utilities that will better reflect our community values.
This year, the average City of Austin utility customer who receives electric, water and drainage bills will pay roughly $30 to fund discounts for low-income ratepayers. In some cases, this Customer Assistance Program (CAP) can prevent a household from choosing between food or utilities in these pandemic-ravaged times. Austin Energy and Austin Water expect to put a total $17.5 million toward these discounts this year.
Most Austinites might be proud to live in such a compassionate city. But some of these funds go to people who don’t need the help, or they fail to promote the energy savings that Austin residents should expect.
In December 2014, the Austin American-Statesman ran a front-page story reporting an analysis I conducted of CAP recipients. It revealed some of the CAP discounts intended for the poor were inadvertently routed to people who lived in expensive homes or owned more than one property.
CAP was automatically providing utility bill discounts to people who participated in certain social service programs,such Supplemental Security Income or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, assuming this was a proxy for a low-income household. No one checked to see whether these customers lived in a larger or wealthier home. An affluent family could still end up on the list if, for example, they have a foster child on CHIP, or an elderly parent in the home receiving SSI.
Consumer advocate requests audit of AE’s Customer Assistance Program
BY LINA FISHER, THE AUSTIN CHRONICLE, FRI., JAN. 29, 2021
One of the homes Robbins has identified as receiving discounts through Austin Energy’s Customer Assistance Program, which is intended to assist low-income customers (note the private tennis court) (Courtesy of Paul Robbins)
Last Thursday, Paul Robbins, a longtime local consumer advocate and environmental activist, filed a complaint with the Office of the City Auditor over Austin Energy‘s $18 million Customer Assistance Program (CAP) discounts – designed to help lower-income customers with utility bills but in practice being offered to owners of some very expensive properties.
Paul Robbins’ chief question for the auditor is how Austin Energy determines customers are income-restricted, given their apparent wealth in real estate assets.
In his six years of digging into the CAP system, Robbins has identified many more loopholes and inefficiencies, which he outlines in his complaint with OCA. Chief among them is that CAP eligibility is unlinked to AE’s progressive residential electric rate structure, which has five tiers; the high-usage customers (for example, the large mansions Robbins calls out in his report) pay more than the lower tiers. Ideally, Robbins says, “This does two things: It incentivizes conservation and simultaneously helps the poor, who use less energy on an average basis. But some people on CAP do use electricity in these higher tiers.” His complaint cites data from 2015 in which 21% of customers with CAP discounts were fourth- and fifth-tier energy users.
In the report, Robbins details the multiple instances in which AE has refused to provide information, or provided it after much delay, over the past six years. That’s why he’s taken this step: “They can stay up nights trying to figure out ways to keep public information from me, but they can’t do that to the auditor.”
Clarification: The estate in this photo above is indeed owned by a customer receiving CAP, but the CAP discount is going to another home owned by the same customer.
The Austin Monitor, January 20, 2021, by Jo Clifton
Consumer advocate Paul Robbins, who has argued for years that Austin Energy is wasting money and inadequately screening participants in its Customer Assistance Program, is asking City Auditor Corrie Stokes to audit the program for wasted expenditures.
The program, which serves low-income customers of Austin’s electric, water and drainage utilities, provided more than $15.3 million in discounts for electricity, water, wastewater and drainage in Fiscal Year 2020. Approximately 35,000 customers per month receive these discounts and the average discount is about $437 a year, according to Austin Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Herber.
Herber told the Austin Monitor via email that “CAP enrollment fluctuates monthly. The discount is a percentage off the total bill and/or monthly charges; it’s not just about which services a customer has, but also about consumption.”
Robbins has prepared a lengthy document demonstrating that a number of customers enrolled in CAP either lived in expensive homes or owned more than one property. In his complaint, Robbins provides photographs of expensive properties belonging to Austin utility customers participating in the program.
He says, “The program is intended to assist customers at or below 200 percent of the poverty level, but most CAP customers who are automatically enrolled are not screened for income.” The automatic enrollment is a result of the utility enrolling households with a member who receives benefits through one of seven social service programs, such as food stamps.
According to Robbins’ research, Austin has the loosest restrictions for enrollment in CAP among the top 10 public utilities in the U.S. Eight of those utilities, from the Jacksonville Electric Authority to Seattle City Light, require income verification, he says.
After Robbins complained about some customers who may have been ineligible, Austin Energy enacted some reforms requiring customers with a certain level of real estate assets to be income qualified. However, Robbins says the utility is ignoring customers who do not live in expensive homes or own more than one property.
In order to find out whether the utility was doing a good job in its efforts to qualify applicants by income, Robbins studied records of CAP enrollment for Austin Water discount participants in October 2020. He said he discovered the following:
- 123 participants who were receiving the discount owned homes worth more than $250,000 or owned two or more properties, or both. In one case, he said, the customer was receiving discounts at two different properties.
- 28 of those customers owned two or more properties and 50 customers had properties with values of more than $500,000
- Five of the customers lived in homes larger than 5,000 square feet, while 28 lived in homes larger than 3,000 square feet
- 18 of the customers had expensive additions to their homes, such as pools, large decks and terraces
Jerry Galvan, an Austin Energy VP, said via email, “We are proud of our Customer Assistance Program and we continue to assess our programs to maintain integrity while removing barriers to entry, all with the goal of making utilities more affordable to those who qualify for assistance.”
Robbins also complains that the utility is “spending some of its funding on discounts to customers consuming lavish quantities of energy, and on funding on a program that is much less effective at saving money than direct discount programs.” He says while he has tried to work with Austin Energy in the past, he now finds the staff “complacent and unwilling to make further changes. I am reluctantly forced to turn to your (Stokes’) office to investigate this continued misallocation of limited funds meant to assist the poor.”
Robbins said the total CAP funding for all three utilities would be more than $18 million in the current fiscal year. “If even 10 percent of CAP funds are being given to the wrong people, it could amount to almost $2 million in wasted funds that could be rerouted to customers with legitimate needs if income qualification were to completely replace automatic enrollment,” he said.
Austin Energy’s residential electric rate structure is intentionally designed to charge more for greater amounts of consumption, in an effort to encourage energy conservation. However, as Robbins pointed out, CAP customers receive a 10 percent discount on consumption regardless of how much energy they consume. As he noted, the discount was raised to 15 percent in the last year because of the pandemic. That will continue through at least the end of September 2021, according to Herber.
Of the top 10 public utilities in the United States, Austin is one of only two utilities that offer discounts for unlimited consumption, Robbins said. Five of the programs offer a flat discount and three offer no utility-funded program. He noted that there has been an argument defending discounts for high consumption on the assumption that households with larger numbers of people use a lot more energy. But Robbins points to a residential energy consumption survey showing that “a three-person household in the southern U.S. used only 17 percent less than a household with six or more people.”
He concludes that “CAP discounts are structured in a way that discourages energy conservation, while at the same time depriving customers with lower consumption from receiving larger discounts.”
In addition, Robbins also complains that Austin Energy is using CAP funds on the utility’s free weatherization program without adequately determining whether the recipients are qualified under the rules of the Customer Assistance Program.
Finally, Robbins reports that during his six-year-long effort to monitor CAP, Austin Energy has exhibited “a lack of transparency and responsiveness,” that has made it more difficult for “a responsible consumer advocate to get accurate information.”
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City Council voted unanimously Thursday to reject new rates proposed by Texas Gas Service. The vote came as no surprise. The decision had strong support from a group of environmental and consumer advocates who wrote a letter to Council last week urging them to reject the new rates, which would have brought in more than $15.6 million in additional revenue for the company.
Paul Robbins, one of the signees of the letter, told Council Thursday that his group proposed that the gas company lower rates, provide more assistance to low-income customers and encourage conservation and renewable energy.
The case will now be appealed to the Texas Railroad Commission, which has final say over the rates. Current rates will remain in effect until the commission makes a decision.
Even though it seems an especially difficult time to be asking for a rate increase, Larry Graham, who represents TGS, has pointed out that no one in the U.S. knew about Covid-19 when the new rates were proposed in December.
Rondella Hawkins, telecommunications and regulatory affairs officer for the city of Austin, told Council at Thursday’s hearing that TGS is seeking not only to raise rates for Austinites but to consolidate the Central Texas region with the Gulf Coast region before the Railroad Commission. That would result in fewer trips before regulatory authorities. Graham told the Austin Monitor that Texas is the only state that allows cities to set rates.
Austin was part of the coalition of cities looking at the rate request and hiring experts to advise them. Those experts concluded that the rate request was unreasonable. In their ordinance rejecting the gas company’s request, the city is asking for compensation for paying those experts. Thomas Brocato of Lloyd Gosselink Rochelle & Townsend is advising the city.
Brocato noted that the commission will have until Aug. 4 to make a final decision on the rates. Graham is expecting considerably more negotiation with the cities before the Railroad Commission. He should also expect to see more of Robbins. Robbins tried to intervene in the case before the Railroad Commission, but the administrative law judge handling the case denied that request, Robbins told the Monitor. However, he said Thursday now that the case is going back to the commission, he will likely try to intervene again.
Robbins and other environmentalists have pointed out that while TGS charges a monthly fee of $18.81, CPS Energy in San Antonio charges only $9.55. Robbins has also proposed a higher rate for customers who use the most gas. He and other advocates have also proposed that TGS set up a surcharge on customer bills, similar to what Austin Energy has, to lower bills for low-income customers.
Council Member Kathie Tovo added a direction to Brocato and city staff to emphasize the fact that Council supports the recommendations Robbins and the other advocates made in their letter to Council.
Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 6, 2020
AUSTIN, TX- Nine local or state environmental and consumer groups have called in unison for the Austin City Council to reject a record 22% rate increase for Texas Gas Service set to be voted on at this Thursday’s Council meeting. This increase will cause economic stress while the region and country are in a tailspin recession. These groups are collectively asking for long-term reforms that will create lower rates, assist low-income ratepayers, and encourage energy conservation and renewable energy.
The signers included representatives of:
- The Austin Tenants Council;
- Clean Water Action;
- Public Citizen of Texas;
- Local and state chapters of the Sierra Club;
- Solar Austin;
- Texas Campaign for the Environment;
- Climate Action Now;
“The Sierra Club is opposed to this proposed gas rate hike,” said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. “The proposal would impact Austin ratepayers without encouraging them to conserve their gas use, would not protect limited-income Austinites and would not work toward a day when we could look at alternatives to fracked gas.”
In a letter sent to the Austin Council, advocates asked for more than a rejection of unjustified rate increases during a time of high unemployment. They requested the following actions.
Increase Low-Income Assistance – This year, City of Austin will provide about $62 million in low-income assistance and rate relief. In 2019, Texas Gas Service provided only $78,000 to indigent ratepayers, and 40% of this came from charity. Advocates are asking Council for $500,000, in addition to charitable contributions.
Restructure Residential Rates – Texas Gas Service has regressive Residential rates: the more you use the less you pay per unit. Austin electric and water utilities do the opposite. Their progressive rates charge less to customers who use less. This encourages conservation, and helps lower-income customers who generally use less because they have less disposable income.
Fund Renewable Energy Research – Austin Energy plans to be carbon-free by 2035. Texas Gas Service has no plans at all to adopt renewable energy. Advocates ask that a surcharge be levied to fund research of technologies that replace fossil fuels.
Charge Full Capital Recovery Fees – Austin Energy and Austin Water both require full compensation from developers and builders for new hook-ups. Existing customers do not subsidize new customers. This has led to rate decreases. The gas company, however, spent almost $90 million on new customers in the last 4 years, and most of it is being paid by existing ratepayers.
“This jaw-dropping 22% rate increase is being made at a time when other Austin utilities are lowering their rates to help customers survive the pandemic recession,” complained Paul Robbins, an advocate working on energy issues for decades. “Austin electric and water utilities will provide about $26 million in low-income customer assistance this year, and another $35 million in general rate relief. Texas Gas Service wants to raise Residential rates almost $18 million, yet the company has no substantial assistance program to help the poor.”
“The Texas Gas rate structure needs to be changed to encourage and reward energy conservation,” said Kaiba White of Public Citizen. “Austin is making great progress in transitioning to renewable energy for electricity production, but there’s no real strategy to reduce the use of methane gas use in buildings. Given the devastating impact of methane on the climate, this needs to be a priority.”
TO: Rondella Hawkins, Officer, Telecommunications & Regulatory Affairs, City of Austin
Thomas Brocato, Lloyd Gosselink Rochelle & Townsend, P.C.
FROM: Paul Robbins, Intervener in Texas Gas Service Rate Case GUD 10928
DATE: March 27, 2020
SUBJECT: Testimony for Austin Rate Case
Dear Rondella and Thomas,
You have asked that I submit testimony by 5 PM on March 27. I am sending what I can. It is unfortunate the TGS has not fully complied with my information requests, so this testimony may be supplemented later when I have more information.
- Residential Rate Structure
I propose that the monthly Residential service charge of $18.81 be drastically lowered to what CPS Energy (San Antonio) charges, which is $9.55.
I propose a second-tier be created for the top 7% of customers. This will be 15% higher than average, with the increased revenue being used to lower rates for the other 93% of customers.
1.1 Monthly Service Fees
I have contended for many years that the rate structure of TGS is regressive. The more a customer uses, the less they pay per unit of energy consumed. This discourages energy efficiency, and adversely affects lower-income customers, who use less energy because they have less discretionary income.
I have conducted a benchmark analysis of the larger gas utilities in the U.S. as measured by the “2018 Ranking of Companies By Residential Sales Customers” from the American Gas Association. I reviewed the top 10 utilities, which represent over 23 million Residential customers with a gross revenue of over $13 billion.
Some of these utilities operate in multiple states, and regions within states. The tariffs usually differ. Still, Texas Gas Service’s Central Texas service charge is on the high end.
26 out of 32 regional or state tariffs for the top 10 national gas utilities that serve Residential customers that I reviewed had a monthly service charge lower than TGS-Austin. Some were only lower by a small amount, but 7 were less than half the TGS-Austin charge.
Another benchmark is comparing TGS to itself. TGS-Austin is even higher than the company’s other Texas regions. The monthly charges of the 5 other TGS-Texas regions range from $12.42 to $18.69.
Still another benchmark is comparing the gas company to Austin’s electric, water, and wastewater utilities, which charge a substantially smaller customer charge in relation to their base revenue requirements. If TGS-Austin emulated Austin Energy for example, it would only charge a $3.14 monthly fee.
TGS is almost twice as high as CPS Energy, which charges a monthly service charge of $9.55. Given its similarity in climate, this seems a good benchmark for Austin to follow.
Substantially lowering the monthly fee will substantially flatten the regressive rate structure that is in place. Revenue from this reduction can be made up by a weather-normalized volume-fee increase.
Some may be curious as to how such a rate affects low-income customers. During discovery, I requested that TGS send consumption information by zip code. I took this information and correlated it with 2017 ACS Census (1-Year) estimates of Median Household Income. Below are the results. The highest quartile of income uses substantially more (68%) than the lowest quartile.
1.2 Second Tier
Information provided by TGS during this rate case shows the number of customers consuming various volumes of fuel. There were only 7% of customers that consumed over 587 ccf. This was 64% above average. However, these 7% of customers used 15% of total volume.
Austin Energy and Austin Water have steeply tiered progressive rates, where the more customers use, the more they pay per unit. Even though several Austin City Council Members stated publicly that they were interested in a progressive rate structure for TGS in November of 2018, the gas company has ignored the issue.
Some people have suggested that tiered rates be studied further before they are implemented. However, since it may be 5 years until the next rate case, I propose a 15% increase on these higher-volume customers, which would be used to lower the bills for the balance of TGS customers. A more sophisticated tier system can be proposed in the next rate case.
- Customer Assistance Program
I propose that TGS-Austin implement a surcharge sufficient to establish a low-income assistance program that, combined with gas company contributions, would raise $500,000 revenue. TGS should match revenue with the funding that comes from ratepayers. This money should be given to income-qualified customers.
In FY 2019, Austin Energy spent $9.6 million on customer assistance; Austin Water spent about $5.4 million, and the Austin drainage utility spend about $600,000. Yet last year, the gas company spent only $78,000, and half of this was from charitable contributions of individuals.
Putting a surcharge on the bill of all gas sales to create a $500,000 year program (in addition to charitable contributions) will increase the average residential bill by no more than 1/6 of 1%.
- Renewable Energy Surcharge Fund
I propose that TGS-Austin implement a surcharge sufficient to establish a fund for research of fuel, hydrocarbons, and process heat derived from renewable energy that can substitute for natural gas.
Austin Energy’s latest Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan has a goal of being 93% carbon free by 2030 and completely carbon free by 2035.
TGS has no plan at all to adopt renewable energy, and few if any currently economic technologies to do so. A surcharge on all gas sales (similar to the one proposed for Customer Assistance Program for TGS-Austin described above) could collect $300,000 of renewable energy research at credible laboratories will set a precedent for the country.
Decisions on spending would be directed by the City of Austin, quite possibly its Climate Program, with input from TGS if the company desires it.
Though this surcharge should occur with or without gas company matching contributions, it would be in the company’s self interest to ensure its long-term future.