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June 5th, 2013:

Dan Wallach: Energy Pricing 2013

Note: The following is a guest post by my friend Dan Wallach

For the past two years, I’ve written a guest blog post here about electrical rates. Let’s do it again, shall we?

Last year, I switched from a variable rate to a fixed rate electrical plan, to avoid the occasional shocking price hikes that came with variable plans. This year, with my one-year lock-in ending, I decided it was time to look again, so once again, it was back to PowerToChoose.com. To help you sort through the offers, it helps to understand how much electricity you use every month. For those of you with a smart meter on the side of your house, you can get yourself an account at SmartMeterTexas.com. You type in some stuff from your power bill and you’re good to go. Here’s what it said for my monthly power usage over the past year:

WallachGraph1

What you see shouldn’t be too surprising: when it’s hot in the summer, our electric bills go way up to run the A/C. In the rest of the year, we’re using less. (You’ll see the July 2012 bar got cut into two half-bars. This is probably a side effect of when I switched my electrical service from one company to another last year.)

You’ll notice that, for most of the year, we’re running comfortably under 1000 kWh/month. Well, most of the electricity plans available to us have a $10/month surcharge if you go below 1000 kWh. (You have to read those electric fact labels carefully.) What’s the right way to go shopping then? Turns out, there’s a link at PowerToChoose that will let you download all the terms of every electric plan in one giant CSV file that you can load into Excel. I took that data, stripped out everything except the plans offered in Houston through CenterPoint Energy, and then sorted by the 500 kWh/month predicted cost. Estimated prices range from $48/month to $89.70/month.

Cutting to the chase, who’s got the best deal? If you want a fixed rate 12 month term, the winner turns out to be TXU’s “Energy Saver’s Edge 12”. Summer Energy is slightly cheaper with a 6 month term, but then you have to do it all again in 6 month. If you want a “100% green” power source, the winner is TriEagle Energy’s “Green Eagle 12”. At least, that’s who would have the best deal for me, given my electric usage. Just for fun, here’s a frequency distribution chart of these prices, focused on what you’d pay for 500 kWh/month, which is the more relevant number for me.

WallachGraph2

The y-axis tells you how many plans would cost you each given price (within a bucket size of $1.50). I’ve plotted frequency charts for only the fixed-price plans, and I’ve separated out the renewable ones (typically “100% renewable”) from the others. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this except to say that there are a whole lot of uncompetitively priced plans out there, and the gap between “100% renewable” and other plans has largely disappeared from the market, unless you’re looking for strictly the lowest priced plans out there.

At least in my case, the TXU cheapo plan looks like the way to go. Even then, if you read their fine print, I’d get assessed a fee if I ever went below 500 kWh/month, but since that hasn’t happened at all in the past year, I’m not going to worry about. I always find it perverse when I have a disincentive to make my house more power efficient. Say I replaced a bunch of our power-hungry halogen bulbs with LED bulbs. I might drop below 500 kWh/month in the winter and end up spending more money. That’s fantastic.

But wait! I downloaded all of this data on May 30 and that’s when I told TXU to switch me. Somehow, their computer switched me from the “TXU Energy Saver’s Edge 12” plan to the “TXU Energy e-Saver 12”. Sounds similar, right? In fact, the 500 kWh/month estimated cost for the new plan is $74/month versus the $54/month that I was expecting. Talk about bait and switch! My guess is that TXU rolled out new plans on June 1 and silently moved me from the original, competitively priced plan to the new, embarrassingly uncompetitive plan. It’s a good thing I had all the original data saved when I called, and then had to talk to a supervisor, and so forth. After 41 minutes of “we’re terribly sorry for the inconvenience” and peppy hold music, all I know is that they’re “investigating” and will get back to me in a few days.

Incidentally, Summer Energy, my current electrical provider, is June 3rd’s winner, with an estimated $50/month for 500 kWh/month of usage with a one year lock-in, so long as you use the proper promo code. TriEagle’s “Green Eagle 12” continues to be the cheapest “100% renewable” plan at $56/month. Part of me wants to just dump TXU ($54/month, if everything goes my way) and instead go with one of these others. The other part of me is just curious to see what TXU will do next. Behold the power of electricity deregulation!

(Note to readers: I’ll post an update here in a comment when I finally resolve this mess.)

Redistricting hearings schedule

Attend one if you can.

Senate and House committees tapped to work on redistricting during the special session Tuesday released times, locations and dates for field hearings around the state.

The Senate will hold two field hearings, one in Corpus Christi and one in Houston.

  • – Friday, 5 p.m. at Texas A&M University, HRI Conference Center, 6300 Ocean Drive, Corpus Christi.
  • – Saturday, 11 a.m.  at the University of Houston, Michael J. Cemo Hall, 4800 Calhoun Road, Houston
  • – The Senate will wrap up hearings with one last session in Austin on June 12.

The House will hold three of its own, one each in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.

  • – Thursday, 2 p.m., DART Headquarters, Board Room, 1401 Pacific Ave., Dallas
  • – Monday, 2 p.m., VIA Metro Center, Terry Eskridge Community Room, 1021 San Pedro Ave, San Antonio
  • – June 12, 2 p.m. – University of Houston, Michael J. Cemo Hall, Room 100 D, 4800 Calhoun Rd., Houston

It’s probably too late by the time you read this, but Sen. Sylvia Garcia is holding a community breakfast briefing on redistricting today from 8 to 9 at her East Aldine district office – 5333 Aldine Mail Route Road, Houston, TX 77093. For more information about the hearings, see Texas Redistricting.

It’s a short time frame for hearings, but it’s more than we expected going into this special session. It’s unclear at this point if the Lege can get maps approved in the time they will have. And even if they do, as this AP story reminds us, we’re still nowhere close to a resolution.

The two Republican committee chairmen responsible for redistricting, Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo and Rep. Drew Darby of San Angelo, have promised to consider amendments and even alternative maps, if they’ll make the 2012 maps “more legal.” They have scheduled hearings next week to consider all alternatives.

Considering any changes, though, could blow up the special session. Two federal courts heard hundreds of hours of testimony and reviewed thousands of pages of documents to determine that the Legislature’s original maps were unconstitutional. Introducing all of that evidence to argue for changing the 2012 maps could take months and a special session is limited to 30 days.

Perry was also very specific in his call, saying he only wanted lawmakers to adopt the existing maps. And even if the Legislature and Perry were to agree on new maps, there is nothing to stop additional lawsuits or court reviews.

The three judges in San Antonio did not give any indication of whether they thought the adoption of new maps, either drawn by them or created by lawmakers from scratch, would end the lawsuit. But when ordering Texas to use the 2012 maps, the court explicitly said the maps were “not a final ruling on the merits of any claims” of discrimination.

Quite likely, whatever the Legislature does in the next three weeks, the product will become just another tool in the ongoing fight over Texas’ political maps. If past decades are any indication, redistricting will be settled in 2017. Just three years before the next census in 2020, after which the whole process will begin again.

Indeed, the 1996 and 2006 elections included newly-drawn Congressional districts, the result of SCOTUS finally settling the legislation that followed those redistrictings. We could have different maps for each of the first three cycles.

Less is more, local legislative edition

Harris County and the city of Houston generally play more defense than offense when the Legislature is in session, so as a rule the fewer bills that get passed that affect them, the better.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

County and city lobbyists said their efforts to scuttle unfunded mandates and bills that would have handcuffed local governments’ powers largely had succeeded.

On a broader level, however, Mayor Annise Parker and County Judge Ed Emmett were disappointed that some of their top priorities stalled.

“When we go to Austin, our goal is generally to play defense to keep things from happening that would have major consequences for Houston taxpayers, but we also try to promote a limited city agenda,” Parker said. “We made progress on some small pieces of legislation. Would I characterize it as a horrible session? No. A horrible session is when they do something really stupid to you, and there were some really stupid bills that we jumped on.”

Most notably, bills to cap local government revenues did not succeed, said the Texas Municipal League’s Bennett Sandlin and Texas Association of Counties’ Lonnie Hunt.

“Our mantra, more or less, is local control,” Hunt said.

[…]

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

Emmett said he was disappointed, but not surprised, the Legislature failed to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. He also decried a lack of progress on transportation.

“That’s the biggest worry we have, because if we’re going to realize our economic potential and our growth potential, we’re going to have to have transportation, and right now it’s not there,” he said.

Emmett and [Rep. Garnet] Coleman cheered large increases in mental health funding compared to the last biennial budget, including a $10 million pilot program to divert the mentally ill from the Harris County jail.

Given the Legislature’s “disgraceful” failure to restrict payday lending, or to ban texting while driving, Parker said she will move forward with local ordinances.

Parker echoed Emmett’s disappointment at the Legislature’s progress on big issues, ticking off education, transportation, immigration and pensions as areas in which she said there had been insufficient progress.

“It’s always a success for a city when the Legislature doesn’t do anything to harm that city,” she said, “but in terms of the major issues confronting our state … you can’t say this was a successful Legislative session.”

Given that at one point, the payday lending bill would have done little more than nullify local ordinances, failure to do anything wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Mayor Parker wanted to wait and see what the Lege would do before acting locally on the issue, so I’m glad to see her bring it up again. We did get the bike trail bill, which was very nice, and there was something in there about a bill to allow county clerks to accept financial disclosure forms and campaign finance reports electronically, which would be awesome if it leads to a makeover for the crappy interface we have now. Death to scanned PDFs, I say! We didn’t get Medicaid expansion, but we did at least get that.

Alexan Heights gets approved

The Leader News updates us on the latest news regarding the proposed development on Yale at 7th.

Alexan Heights on Yale

Houston’s Planning Commission has approved Trammell Crow Residential’s replat application without variance for the site of its 360-unit Alexan Heights mid-rise luxury apartment at Yale and 6th streets, West Heights Coalition’s website reports.

The replat for the 3.5-acre site included properties previously restricted to single family use but recently revised with deed restrictions amendments.

The deed restrictions involved single-family home initially within the block-filling complex’s proposed footprint — properties that the owners did not want to sell and that TCR was able to design around. TCR’s earlier request for construction with a variance failed before the Houston Planning Commission.

A half-dozen or so area residents spoke against the replat request at the May 23 hearing — and others had written and called relevant offices and attended numerous planning commission meetings, WHC sources said.

See here and here for the background, and here for the WHC’s statement. I think people are going to have to come to terms with projects like this and Elan Heights and whatever the next foofily-named high-end apartment project that will replace some existing piece of old Heights development is. People want to live in the Heights, but the houses are scarce and ridiculously expensive. A high-end condo or apartment isn’t a bad alternative for a lot of folks, given that reality. For all of the gentrification that has occurred in the last decade or so, there’s still a lot of low-end properties and vacant lots dotting the map. Trammell Crow, to their credit, is offering to address some of the items on the neighborhood wish list, in particular a pedestrian-activated crossing signal where the bike path traverses Yale, as part of their offer to the city for this space. I think overall we’re going to be better off engaging developers on that sort of thing rather than going full metal Ashby Highrise and hoping for a different outcome. I’m just saying.