Poor families qualify for appliances, heating systems; spending capped at $6,500 per house under weatherization program

February 1, 2010

By Mark Lisheron
Texas Watchdog

The federal Weatherization Assistance Program allows crews to spend as much as $6,500 to make low-income homes more energy-efficient.

The Department of Energy gave Texas $327 million to do this work, a sum with which the state Department of Housing and Community Affairs has estimated it will be able to weatherize between 38,000 and 56,000 homes. Through December, Texas had improved just 47 homes, though officials say
hundreds more were fixed up in January
.

Much of this work is administered through county and local agencies and nonprofits that are being asked to run much more ambitious weatherizing programs.

In Austin, Austin Energy has run a low-income weatherization program since the early 1980s that has spent up to $1,500 weatherizing each of about 500 homes a year. Travis County Health and Human Services spends about the same amount on each unit and has done about 125 homes a year.

Over the next two years, Austin Energy will spend $5.8 million on contractors who will do slightly less than the same number of homes a year – about 450 – but will be able to spend as much as $5,000 more on each unit. Travis County now has $4.5 million, $2.25 million to do about 400 homes in each of the next two years with the same spending cap.

This cap allows weatherizing crews not only to insulate, caulk and weather strip homes, but to replace old appliances like refrigerators and even air conditioning and heating systems with energy-efficient models. According to the federal rules, crews must be able to prove that for every dollar spent, a dollar of energy savings can be realized over the life of the improvement.

Who is eligible for the program? Families at or below 200% of the federal guideline for poverty. The families must have power bills of $1,000 a year or more. They must be spending at least 11 percent of their income on energy. The households must have small children, elderly or disabled occupants.

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This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a "fair use" of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use", you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Cooper, Folberg & Snead: Renewable energy plan is the right thing to do

January 29, 2010

OTHER TAKES:
Austin American-Statesman

Sometimes, advancing the common good is hard. It costs more time, more money, and requires sacrifice. But when it comes to adding more renewable energy sources to Austin’s publicly owned utility, doing the right thing is easy.

The set of recommendations developed by Austin Energy Staff and the Generation Resource Planning Task Force will lower our city’s carbon emissions, will cost no more than if we don’t adopt the plan, and will reduce the impacts of future energy cost increases on most ratepayers, including low income people.

This is the conclusion that The Interfaith Environmental Network of Austin has reached after studying the Austin Energy Staff Recommended Plan and the Generation Planning Task Force recommendations which call for adding more clean energy sources to Austin Energy’s portfolio. Answering a common call to environmental stewardship in our faith traditions, we believe that these recommendations hold real promise to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, to restrain future energy costs, and to reduce the burden of energy costs on our poorest citizens.

The recommended plans were developed after a two-year public process with broad public involvement. The plan will reduce Austin Energy’s carbon emissions to 20 percent below our 2005 emission levels and increase our renewable energy production from 11 percent to 36 percent over the next decade. It gives us an action plan and timeline for meeting the goals outlined in Austin’s Climate Protection Plan, and will provide clear marching orders to a new General Manager of Austin Energy.

More importantly, shifting to renewable energy is the ethically right thing to do for the common good of our planet and community.. The benefits of this plan will extend across the globe, protecting ecosystems, endangered species and the poorest subsistence farmers alike from the impact of climate change. Our faith traditions share the common affirmation that humanity has a sacred responsibility to care for the earth and all that is within it. Transitioning to renewable energy sources embraces this sacred responsibility.

One of our primary concerns with any future energy plan is how low-income families will be impacted. We applaud the recommendation to develop a program to bring energy conservation improvements to lower the electricity bills of the most vulnerable of the poor–residents of rental properties. This and other measures to protect the poor make the plan worthy of our support.

Surprisingly, for all of these benefits, the recommended plan will probably not cost more than continuing with our current generation plan.. No one can predict with certainty what the price for electricity generated by coal, natural gas, wind, biomass, nuclear, or solar will be ten years from now, but the trends are clear. Carbon fuel costs are rising, and renewable generation costs are falling. Energy experts at Pace Consulting concluded that the recommended plan will cost about the same as doing nothing new, and may cost less because it will lower our risk of unexpected price increases from regulatory changes or increases in carbon fuel costs.

Despite the benefits of this plan, some in our community appear to oppose it. Why?

For one, there seems to be confusion about the relationship between energy generation policy and the upcoming electricity rate case in 2012. But these two issues are completely separate. Austin Energy has not increased base electricity rates since 1994 and the Pace Consulting report makes it clear that our overall electricity rates will have to increase by about 25 percent by 2020 no matter how we choose to generate our energy. Future rate increases will be about the same regardless of whether we use clean or dirty sources to generate electricity – so why wouldn’t we choose to be a clean energy community?

To our knowledge no one has proposed another plan that does a better job of controlling electricity costs and risk, protecting the poor, and lowering carbon emissions. The absence of a better plan makes it appear that some heavy energy users, like the members of the CCARE Coalition, resist the adoption of this clean energy plan simply to keep costs low in the short-term, or perhaps to gain leverage in the future electricity rate case. In conversations with Austin City Council members we have learned that some have threatened to get the State Legislature to deregulate our public utility, despite the fact that Austin Energy provides some of the cheapest electricity rates in the state.

We believe that the Austin City Council has an opportunity to show enlightened leadership on this issue. We pray that our City Council will approve the Austin Energy Generation Plan and the Task Force recommendations as the most responsible way to serve the common good of our community and to care for God’s creation.

======

Allen Cooper, Friends Meeting of Austin (Quakers)and IEN Steering Committee Member

Rabbi Steven Folberg, Senior Rabbi, Congregation Beth Israel and IEN Steering Committee Member

Rev. Lou Snead, Pastor, Faith Presbyterian Church and IEN Steering Committee Member

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This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a "fair use" of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use", you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Energy plan comes to City Council as Legislature plans review

Proposal to add more renewable energy to be presented Thursday, though final vote could take weeks.

January 22, 2010

By Marty Toohey
Austin American-Statesman

The City Council will hear a proposal next week to begin weaning Austin off coal and onto greener sources of energy, restarting a two-year civic debate amid signs that any decision Austin leaders make will be closely scrutinized by state lawmakers.

The "Generation and CO2 plan" will not get a final vote for weeks, possibly months, council members say. But Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s office is planning a town-hall-style public forum in late February, with a final vote perhaps a month later.

The plan, from Austin Energy, calls for the city to replace some of the electricity generated by a coal plant in Fayette County with power from sources that produce less pollution. The sources would be mostly wind, but also some solar and wood waste. Austin would end up increasing its portfolio of renewable energy from 11 percent now to 30 percent by 2020. Austin Energy is also planning to invest heavily in measures that would allow the city to use its electricity more efficiently.

Council members reached Friday were generally supportive of the plan, but some said they are trying to balance factors such as costs, environmental obligations and the possibility of intervention by the Texas Legislature.

The proposal follows nearly two years of public discussions about where Austin should get its electricity in the future – and to what degree Austin should attempt to address global warming, which many scientists say is exacerbated by large-scale coal burning

The proposal has passed through several advisory boards and commissions, which backed the plan. The sometimes-intense public discussions faded to a whisper over the holidays.

But in a measure of how sensitive the topic is, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst directed the Senate’s Business and Commerce Committee this month to begin examining the cost and sources of electricity generated by city-owned utilities, including Austin Energy. The directive included the possibility of setting a "justifiable" cost for electricity and requiring a vote of a utility’s customers to go beyond it. Such directives are generally used to shape legislation in upcoming sessions. The next session will be in 2011.

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, the commerce committee chairman, said the directive came because although much of Texas’ electric market was deregulated in the late 1990s, the Legislature has done little to examine how well the city-owned utilities that were allowed to maintain their monopolies are serving their constituents.

By contrast, he said, the Legislature in recent sessions has looked into the operations of privately owned utilities, as well as cooperatives such as the Pedernales Electric Cooperative. "It’s my intent to look at the municipal system as a whole," including such cities as San Antonio and College Station, Fraser said. "It’s really nothing more than a continuation of what we’ve been looking at."

Roger Duncan, general manager of Austin Energy, has said that the energy-generation proposal would raise bills and that the utility could have suggested cheaper alternatives. But doing so, he said, would either sacrifice some environmental benefits or expose the system to blackout risks.

Austin Energy calculated the plan would raise bills about 22 percent over the next decade, although Duncan said it’s difficult to predict how much the cost of coal and other fossil fuels will rise or what innovations will happen with renewable energy. The average residential electricity bill in Austin is now about $98 a month.

Environmental activists have been pushing city officials to adopt the plan, saying the city should consider adding even more renewable energy and cutting Austin’s ties with the Fayette coal plant entirely.

A coalition of large businesses, hospitals and the Catholic diocese counter that Austin Energy should not be pursuing that much renewable energy when it is already planning to raise rates in the coming years for other reasons, including higher construction and maintenance costs. They say the City Council should delay a vote until the city knows more about what its new rates will be and whether the federal government will begin taxing or limiting the use of coal.

Despite the disagreement, two city advisory commissions and a specially appointed task force recommended adopting Austin Energy’s proposal with minor variations. Opinions varied widely enough, however, that the nine-member task force wound up issuing three minority reports.

Council Member Bill Spelman said he is comfortable with Austin Energy’s proposal and plans to vote for it.

"It answers the major questions and strikes the right balance of price, carbon reduction and safety" in case coal or natural-gas prices skyrocket, Spelman said. "But realistically, most of the measures this calls for won’t happen for at least three years, so I’m in no hurry to adopt it."

Council Member Randi Shade said she still has questions and couldn’t say when she’d be ready to vote. Council Member Sheryl Cole said the same.

Mark Nathan, Leffingwell’s chief of staff, said the mayor is planning a forum in late February so a panel of experts can answer council members’ questions. Nathan said the forum will give the public another opportunity to understand the proposal before a final vote on it. City leaders have not decided whether the forum will be open to public comment.

"It’s very complex," Nathan said. "This is a concept of interest to a lot of people … and we want to take a moment to ensure everyone knows what it is and what it means."

mtoohey(at)statesman.com; 445-3673

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a "fair use" of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use", you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
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