Meeting Report: Austin Energy’s Transparency Problem, pt. 2

Austin’s Electric Utility Commission (a.k.a. the EUC) conducted its first hearing Monday night regarding complaints about Austin Energy’s transparency policies. The hearing was an exciting progression of comments from traditionally fragmented and even competing segments of the Austin community. 

Here are some paraphrased quotes from the hearing:

Mike Sloan (clean energy advocate, citizen)
Mike gave a great, 7 minute, PPT to kick off the hearing.* A few excerpts:
  > 1983 last time Austinites voted on major expenditures
  > 1996 transparency problems began (see image above)
  > 2005 renewal of Austin Energy’s "limited disclosure" policy (no sunset)
  > Today, city council delegates the responsibility of interpreting and determining Austin Energy’s info to Austin Energy (AE)
   > Recently, AE has made a number of investments that appear too expensive (purchased way above market value)
   > Recommends
      –  Better transparency = a better utility


Carol B, (low income advocate, texas rose)
   > Appreciates current situation and good efforts at AE, but thinks we can do better
   > "Transparency puts a downward pressure on costs" (bills)
   > Primary concern is affordability
   > Recommends:
      – AE be transparent about where costs are coming from; provide at least as much info as other utilities regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission


Dr. Tony Capraro, (affordable carbon reduction advocate, citizen)
   > What info should be available? What shouldn’t be available?
   > Innovative companies share info to promote new idea growth / competitive edge
   > More info that can be shared, the less suspect the unknown feels to outsiders
   > Is AE too tight on "competitive matters?"
      – Austin is blessed with people who donate their time to reviewing community impact info
   > Recommends:
      – The EUC consider the positive sides of accessibility to information


Roger Wood, (big employer advocate, ccare)
   > re: AE’s BioMass power purchase agreement — the decision was made without proper time and information regarding costs, to allow for public input
   > As a general rule, believes citizens should always know (on major purchases):
       – what is AE’s plan?
       – what does AE think costs will be?
       – subsequently, how is the investment performing?
   > Currently, customers are kept in the dark
       – Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires public disclosure via a 200 to 300 pg annual report (per utility). AE 2009 annual report shows 5 pgs.
    > Protocol/Consistency/Sloppiness… from May 2009 to Nov 2010, Roger sat on the task force to review AE’s electricity generation plan (for this decade). The task force was given info that was supposed to be protected, yet is still has been unable to get info that’s not supposed to be protected.
    > Recommends:
       – the EUC go thru the Competitive Matters Resolution and review each item, line by line, to remedy today’s problems


Andy Wilson, (environmental advocate, public citizen)
    > Information is like oxygen
    > We cannot make rational decisions without proper info
    > We need to think about a future perfect state … Andy imagines a utility that makes info access effortless, e.g. – an iPhone type apps that someday notifies you, "lower your thermostat 2 degress right now to save $x & xCO2"
    > Customers can make all decisions as long as info is given
    > Recommends
       – We should protect customer privacy, but otherwise AE’s presumption should always be full disclosure rather than nondisclosure


Paul Robbins, (environmental advocate, citizen)
    > We need a total revamp; secrecy has become a catch all guard, for secrecy sake
    > Today, the public’s right to challenge the institution is constricted in many ways …
        – in the 80’s, citizens used publicly available data to demonstrate the faster payback of various green programs
        – today, citizens can’t get that data
    > Austin Energy has not been in a competitive retail market since 1897, when it began
    > In 2000, Paul was able to publish an Energy History for Austin in his magazine; can’t get the info to do that today
    > Recommends:
       – Consumption of specific buildings, made public
       – Aggregate data by class / by month, made public
       – Expired contracts more than 1 year old, made public
       – Cost of power by power type, made public
       – Customer lists (for those who have authorized sharing their info) in green choice program, made public


And then the EUC commissioners responded:

Philip Schmandt
, EUC chairman (lawyer)
    > Believes Transparency is good
    > Encourages AE staff to consider the intangible benefits
    > Concerned that some transparency might lead vendors to higher price negotiation with AE in the future (increase prices)

Bernie Bernfield, (mortgage specialist)
    > Sees Transparency as a valuable tool for community engagement

Steve Smaha, (software & clean tech specialist)
    > Can’t think of anything that should be kept confidential which isn’t kept confidential in deregulated markets
    > AE should leverage the power of smart people / crowd sourcing … we need as much info as possible with as many of the brightest brains as possible contributing
Dr. Michael Webber (uber academic in clean tech & energy)
    > 2nds Steve’s comments
    > Suggests that, opposite of Philip’s concern, Transparency is theoretically a valuable tool to lower costs; Capitalist theory says that once competing vendors see AE’s costs in a particular area, they will try to bid below the stated # to get AE’s business (lowering prices)

Steve Taylor, (corporate communcations & clean tech specialist)
  > 2nds all the above

Shudde Fath, (legendary woman, austin electricity expert)
     > did not speak


Image shown created by Mike Sloan.
*For a copy of Mike’s PPT presentation, send me an email.
Get involved in some related discussions via: bang the table!
Your comments appreciated.


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