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July 8th, 2014:

Dan Wallach: Home power analysis, 2014 edition

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

It’s July and that can only mean one thing: time to worry about my electrical contract for the next year. As we saw in last year’s installment, I ended up going with TriEagle Energy’s 100% renewable product. They want to jack my rates by 10% over last year, so clearly it’s time to run the numbers again.

This year, I decided to try to sort out what each plan would cost based on my power usage data for the past year (thanks again to SmartMeterTexas.com). For five months, my usage went over 1000 kWh/month and for seven it was well below. I then downloaded the full spreadsheet of available offers from PowerToChoose.org, built an equation to estimate my monthly charges, and then all I have to is sort to find the cheapest, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy. The spreadsheet data they give you is a disaster. Rather than just listing the fees, there’s now a textual column titled “Fees/Credits” and there’s no standard way in which they’re reported. Some companies report what you’d pay per kWh, inclusive of monthly fees, while others report what you pay exclusive of those fees. This meant I had to go through every row in the table and try to interpret their mumbo jumbo. Deregulation!

If you just try to just naively scale the 500 or 1000 kWh numbers, you end up with a wrong answer by 2% or more, but the EFLs often fail to give you enough data to do any better. So, with that caveat, here’s a histogram of how much money I’d spend in a year with each of the nearly 200 fixed rate electricity contracts on offer. Higher points in this histogram mean there are more plans that would end up costing me that price.

WallachPowerAnalysisChart2014

While I don’t want to name names for companies with unhelpful Electric Facts Labels and PowerToChoose-published data, I do want to give kudos specifically to Our Energy for doing it better. They say explicitly what CenterPoint expenses they are passing through, and they themselves have a flat rate on the power they’re selling. This allows me to calculate my real expenses, not a cheesy approximation of them. That would adjust them from $1316/year (as everything else in the histogram above is computed) to $1277/year, moving them into the top competitive position on my chart. Would others be cheaper as well? Probably, but PowerToChoose doesn’t give me enough information to choose. Should I reward Our Energy with my business for having the best and most transparent EFL? It’s tempting, but first, a rant…

Can’t we please go back to having a centrally regulated traditional utility company?

San Antonio still has this. I had a friend there send me a copy of her utility bill. She’s paying approximately $0.11 / kWh. Her bill breaks out the fixed and variable charges, much like I appreciate from Our Energy. On my histogram above, she’d be somewhere in the far left — getting an exceptionally good rate and not having to do this stupid analysis every year. All of our lovely free market competition in Houston is really just a series of opportunities for fools and their money to be quickly separated from one another.

Hey, what about solar power and saving the earth and stuff?

When I first started writing this year’s analysis, I said to myself, “Surely solar power must be a real option by now!” After way too much investigation, the short answer is, “maybe, if you can afford the big payment up front.” After spending the last month getting quotes and doing the research, I’m this close to pulling the trigger on a solar installation. Here are the high points:

Solar works hand-in-hand with the grid. When you install a solar system, it’s generating power during the day that you probably don’t need, and you need power at night that your solar system isn’t providing. This means your meter gets to run backwards during the day and forwards at night. If you have a month where you generated more than you used, you get a negative electric bill, which is then “banked” for future months. (Curious side-effect: you don’t want to over-size your solar system, because you’ll never get all your money back from the “bank”.) Also notable: if grid power goes down, so does your solar system. You can install a backup battery system or a gas-powered generator, but that’s a whole separate animal.

The financial incentives are okay, not great. In rough terms, the system I’m contemplating, which might generate 9-10 kW from the mid-day sun, will cost $20k after federal tax incentives. After that, you have small or even negative electric bills, and you start making money back on your initial investment. You stir in a bunch of assumptions about the depreciating value of the asset you’ve bolted to the roof, and you come out with a bottom line that you can look at with standard financial investment terms (internal rate of return, etc.). The proposal I’m considering from Texas Solar Outfitters would have an IRR of 7.4%, under their standard set of assumptions. Under different assumptions, you’re better off just getting power from the grid. (The same numbers in a place like California are in the “no brainer” category, both from additional up-front incentives and from the tiered electrical pricing they have. Solar helps keep you out of the higher tiers.)

What about leasing vs. buying, warranties, etc. In short, a lease is a lot like a loan. You’re paying less up front and you’re making monthly payments. The leasing company is trying to make money. The net effect is that the IRR goes down to the point that the deals are less likely to be worthwhile. (Again, this varies on a state by state basis. Nobody’s subsidizing those leases here.) Solar lease deals also act like an extended warranty on your gear. If your panels aren’t up to spec, they repair them for you. Most solar parts have very long warranties of their own, so this is less of a big deal than you’d think.

The environmental impact of solar is less abstract than the premium you pay for a “green” grid electricity plan. No matter what grid plan you purchase, green or not, the same mix of mostly coal and gas-fired generators are still producing the power your house is consuming. The only difference is that you’re paying your utility middleman to also buy you “renewable energy credits”, which are sold by wind farms and other such things and which may or may not be feeding their electrons to your house. It’s at best unclear whether you’re incentivizing somebody to install more “green” generation capacity versus building another traditional plant. On the flip side, when you’re turning sunlight into power, you’re directly removing your demand from the grid. This sort of logic is especially attractive if you’ve got an electric car and you’re worried about the “long tailpipe” emissions problem.

Aren’t you just a leach on the electric grid, then? Umm, no. By installing solar, you’re doing the grid a favor by supplementing its power during the peak draws in the hot summer sun. If more houses could run their meters backwards, that would effectively supplement the big generators and help avoid brownouts. Also, you’re paying the same monthly fee that everybody else pays for connecting to the grid.

So, what’s your new electricity plan then?

I need to pick a new electricity provider now, even though it might be a while before I can get a solar panel system installed on my house. The set of plans that support solar sellback is very small. So far as I can tell, I’ve got precisely three choices: Green Mountain, Reliant Energy, and TXU. The winner among these seems to be Green Mountain, who will buy your first excess 500 kWh/month from you at full retail price and half price thereafter. TXU buys from you at 7.5 cents/kWh no matter what. I can’t seem to find the Reliant number.

Green Mountain says you can sign up for any of their plans and switch without penalty to the plan that supports buying your power back from you, so that’s probably the way for me to go.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has provided this annual analysis three times before.

Davis presses the attack on Abbott’s obstruction on chemical info

I know, it’s a little lazy of me to do a post based on a campaign email, but this missive from the Wendy Davis campaign is the best roundup of the incendiary chemical disclosure issue and the potential fallout from it. So here it is, which will both serve to catch you up if you missed any of this last week and to keep it in the forefront for at least another day.

After weeks of backlash, Greg Abbott is in full-blown damage control mode. First, Greg Abbott said the location of dangerous chemicals shouldn’t be public, and then he says parents need to drive door to door in order to find them, which multiple news outlets have found is next to impossible.

Abbott is clearly scrambling to paper over his hugely unpopular decision any which way he can – especially after the Dallas Morning News reported that his ruling came after the Koch Industries Fertilizer Division – which own at least one dangerous chemical facility — gave tens of thousands of dollars to the Attorney General.

Take a look at two blistering editorials from this weekend.

Dallas Morning News Editorial, 7/5/14: Abbott Steps In It On Chemicals Issue: “Boy, did Attorney General Greg Abbott step in it. The occasion was Abbott’s explanation for how Texans could find out about volatile chemicals in their neighborhoods, in the wake of a ruling by his office restricting access to records on chemical inventories. “Drive around,” was the AG’s advice. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not.” That simple? To test Abbott’s “just ask” advice, a WFAA-TV news crew visited two Dallas plants to inquire about the chemicals on hand. The response from one place was the corporate runaround. The response from the other sounded like “get lost.'”

Austin American Statesmen, 7/6/14: Want to find out what chemical plants are storing inside? You must ask: “Particularly troubling are Abbott’s comments last week defending a ruling his office made blocking public access to state records specifying the location of dangerous chemicals… “You know where they are if you drive around,” the Tribune’s Jay Root reported Abbott as saying. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

FIRST ABBOTT RULES THAT TEXAS CHEMICAL FACILITIES CAN KEEP SECRET THE CONTENTS OF THEIR PLANTS

  • WFAA reports on Greg Abbott’s ruling to keep dangerous chemical storage locations secret from parents: “Hazardous chemical lists no longer public record in Texas” [WFAA, 6/12/14]
  • DMN: Want to know about chemicals stored near you? Don’t expect Texas to tell you anymore: “The AG’s Office, which rules on open-records matters, said the department did have to keep the information from the public, according to a May 22 letter. WFAA-TV (Channel 8) first reported on the ruling Thursday night. As a result, the state health department will no longer release its inventory reports unless told otherwise by the AG, a spokeswoman told The News Friday.” [Dallas Morning News, 6.13.14]

COMMUNITIES START EXPRESSING OUTRAGE

  • Houston Chronicle, 6.15.14: “I have no clue what they’re doing over there,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said, referring to the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.”
  • KXXV (Waco), 6.17.14: Local officials won’t change procedures on chemical reports, despite state changes
  • Waco Tribune Editorial: Attorney general decision hinders public from readily learning of chemical threats: “That’s why we have trouble understanding the reasoning behind state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s abrupt decision to refuse to give the public key information about where plants stockpiling ammonium nitrate are located…The attorney general’s decision is definitely at odds with growing efforts to prevent another West…” [Waco Tribune, 6.19.14]
  • Houston Chronicle Editorial: Coming clean: “Texans have a right to know what dangers to our health and safety we are being exposed to – especially now, when Texas, and particularly Houston, is riding high, with a vibrant and welcoming economy that is the envy of the nation. If we are to continue to attract the best and the brightest, it is essential that we intelligently address quality-of-life issues on which we base our choices of where to live and raise our children – such as clean air, clean water and a safe environment.” [Houston Chronicle, 6.20.14]

ABBOTT THEN TELLS PARENTS TO “JUST DRIVE AROUND” AND “ASK EVERY FACILITY” IF THEY HAVE DANGEROUS CHEMICALS

Abbott Said, “You Know Where They Are If You Drive Around.” The Texas Tribune reported, “[Abbott] said Texans still have a right to find out where the substances are stored – as long as they know which companies to ask. ‘You know where they are if you drive around,’ Abbott told reporters Tuesday. ‘You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have.'” [The Texas Tribune, 7/01/14]

Abbott Tells Parents to

MEDIA OUTLETS TRY TO “JUST DRIVE AROUND” TO NO AVAIL

July 2: WFAA Reporter Brett Shipp @brett_shipp

Abbott refuses to release chemical inventory lists…tells citizens to get their own. We tried. We failed. What now?

  • WFAA Was Not Able To Obtain Information On Dangerous Chemicals From Private Companies. On July 2, 2014, WFAA reported, “Abbott says the public can still go knock on chemical company doors and ask…So, WFAA attempted to do just that…First up was Oxy Chemical…WFAA left empty handed. Next stop was Buckley Oil Company just down the road…Not only did they not give hand over their Tier II report, they said not to record images of their chemical inventory stored on site, which was clearly visible through an open gate.” [WFAA, 7/02/14]

Fact Checking Abbott, Houston Chronicle Proved The Public Cannot Get Information On Dangerous Chemicals From Any Private Company. [Houston Chronicle, 7/03/14]

WFAA once again denied access to chemical lists by state officials: “At issue was the Texas Attorney General’s decision to deny public access to chemical inventory lists called Tier II. Those lists were mandated by Congress in the mid 80s and are supposed to be available to the public to alert citizens of dangers posed by the handling of hazardous chemicals by local businesses. They were public records in Texas until two months ago when Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled they were off limits.” [WFAA, 7/03/14]

DALLAS MORNING NEWS REPORTS ABBOTT HAS RECEIVED THOUSANDS FROM KOCH INDUSTRIES, WHICH OWN AT LEAST ONE DANGEROUS CHEMICAL FACILITY

Abbott Received More Than $75,000 After The April 2013 Explosion in West From Koch Interests, Who Own the Georgia-Pacific Gypsum Plant in Sweetwater.The Dallas Morning News reported this week that five months after the April 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion in West, the president of Koch’s fertilizer division sent Abbott a $25,000 campaign donation. Koch’s chief and the Koch political committee also gave Abbott $25,000 checks. And Abbott rode on a company jet to a Koch-related retreat last year in New Mexico that introduced political candidates to wealthy donors.” [The Dallas Morning News, 7/02/14; 7/03/14]

  • Koch Owns at Least One Fertilizer Plant in Texas. The Georgia-Pacific Gypsum plant in Sweetwater is a Koch subsidiary. “The subsidiary now makes a nitrogen fertilizer.”[The Dallas Morning News, 7/02/14]

Koch Industries “and its subsidiaries are collectively one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of fertilizers.” The Dallas Morning News reported, “According to its website, Koch “and its subsidiaries are collectively one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of fertilizers … Koch Fertilizer’s expanded product portfolio includes ammonia, urea, UAN, phosphate, potash, and sulfur-based products, in addition to a variety of high-performance” nitrogen fertilizers.” [The Dallas Morning News,7/03/14]

Scrambling, Abbott Says That Getting Information About Dangerous Chemicals Is “Challenging.” [AP, 7/02/14]

ABBOTT TRIES TO ESCAPE CULPABILITY OF HIS RULING

Abbott Claimed He Wasn’t Aware That His Office Made A Ruling On Dangerous Chemicals Until The Decision Made Headlines…[AP, 7/02/14]

…Despite having taken credit for it previously. “That statement to the AP – that the ruling was “not a law or conclusion that I created” – was different from the “I ruled” phrase Abbott used on Tuesday, where he seemed to take credit for the decision.” [Texas Tribune, 7/03/14]

So there you have it. The one thing I will add is that if Abbott had any response to any of this yesterday, I didn’t see it in the news. I’m not sure what there is for him to say at this point – he’s already contradicted himself and made himself look more than a little foolish – so perhaps he’s just lying low and hoping it will blow over or some other shiny object will pop up. Good luck with that.

Charles Sebesta may finally have to face responsibility for his actions against Anthony Graves

Very good news.

Anthony Graves

It’s been eight years since the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the DA who prosecuted Anthony Graves for capital murder had done something unconscionable : withheld favorable evidence and used false testimony to secure a conviction—a conviction that sent Graves to death row.

Since that federal ruling came down in 2006, granting Graves a retrial, many good things have happened: Anthony was freed from prison in 2010, after all charges against him were dropped; he was formally exonerated by the State of Texas; and he received $1.4 million in compensation for the eighteen years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. But the man who secured his 1994 conviction—former Burleson County DA Charles Sebesta— never faced any consequences. The state bar took no action against him. Even when he continued to impugn Graves’ character, telling Texas newspapers as recently as this January that Graves was guilty of murder, he did so with impunity.

Finally, last week—twenty years after Graves’ wrongful conviction—the bar took a small but significant step toward ensuring that Sebesta would have to answer for his actions. The bar’s chief disciplinary counsel determined that there was “just cause” to believe that the former prosecutor had engaged in misconduct in Graves’ case. This finding followed a lengthy investigation, which the bar conducted after Graves brought a grievance against Sebesta this January. (Graves was only able to do so because lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 825, which changed the existing statute of limitations, allowing exonereees to file such grievances with the bar up to four years after their release from prison.)

A legal proceeding will now follow, in which the bar will decide whether or not to dismiss the grievance, or sanction Sebesta. If the bar decides to sanction him, he could receive a punishment as light as a reprimand—essentially a slap on the wrist—or as severe as disbarment.

Though Sebesta has always put great stock in trying people before the court of public opinion—to this day, he continues to insinuate on his website that Graves is a murderer —he has asked that the bar hear his case in a confidential proceeding, rather in than open court. (The bar allows attorneys who are the subject of such grievances to choose whether they will have their cases heard in a district court before a judge or jury, or privately, before a panel of lawyers who serve on the bar’s grievance committee.) “His conduct against Anthony Graves was in a public proceeding and he continues to make public attacks on Mr. Graves,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a non-profit organization that represents Graves, along with attorneys in the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey. “He should defend his conduct in a public proceeding, for all to see.”

See here and here for the background. I find it utterly risible that Sebesta wants a closed hearing given the way he has (and continues to) run off his mouth about Anthony Graves, but whatever. Have a fair hearing and then disbar the SOB. Anything less would be insufficient. The Trib, the AusChron, and Grits, who has statements from Graves, the Texas Defender Service, and Kathryn Kase (all of whom amusingly and appropriately reference the actions of “honest” prosecutors in getting to the truth of the matter), have more.

Helping the hungry of Montgomery County

I have three things to say about this.

Though many are familiar with [Montgomery County]’s growth, thanks to the wealth of The Woodlands and the coming Exxon corporate campus just down Interstate 45, fewer see the poverty and hunger dispersed across the suburban and rural communities.

School officials see it. Over the past decade, every district in the county has seen an increase in the percentage of students designated “economically disadvantaged,” according to the Texas Education Agency.

Last month, meanwhile, the Montgomery County Food Bank opened a new center, boosting its capacity from 220,000 pounds of food to 42 million pounds. The large increase was necessary to meet a rising need from the community that’s being driven in large part by an influx of low-paying service jobs that coincide with the boom, said Rodney Dickerson, the food bank’s president.

In 2013, the food bank served 25,000 to 30,000 individuals per month. This year, the number rose to 40,000 to 45,000 per month.

“The challenge is that people in Montgomery County don’t really see the poverty because they’re pockets that are hidden,” said Julie Martineau, president of the Montgomery County United Way. “Because everything looks beautiful, and the people in poverty are away from the main roads, (many people) don’t know it’s here.”

Some parts of the county, such as New Caney and Splendora, have long struggled with poverty.

[…]

Even with the school’s breakfast and lunch programs in the first half of the summer, Dickerson said, the summer months are a difficult time for many.

“For us, we see it immediately,” said the food bank president. “We see the jump as soon as school is out.”

It’s the combination of rising electrical costs to cool homes and the gaps in meals for school-age children that hurt the most in summer, he said.

The food bank operates four mobile pantries once a month throughout the county, in addition to supplying food to various daily programs and hosting periodic “food fairs.” Since the mobile pantry service began three years ago, Dickerson said, there’s been a steady increase in demand.

Growing suburban poverty is part of a national trend, according to the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. So while the country added some 12 million new poor people from 2005 to 2009, that growth tended to occur outside city limits.

“The growth we saw in poverty was located more frequently in the suburbs than in the cities,” said Carey Anne Nadeau, a research analyst who worked with the Brookings program and is now a masters student at MIT’s urban studies and city planning department. Houston ranked in the top 10 metropolitan areas where suburban poverty grew most rapidly in the 2000s, along with Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta.

That decade also saw more concentrated poverty, or neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty. In the suburbs, that sort of isolated poverty can be harder for families to combat, said Nadeau, because it tends to come with fewer affordable housing options and a lack of access to public services like mass transit.

Even suburbs that seem to be booming, like Montgomery County, experience the suburbanization of poverty, she said.

“It’s a trend regional economists talk about all the time, where higher-wage employment can create low-wage employment,” Nadeau said.

Three major groups contribute to hunger in Montgomery County, according to Dickerson: the working poor, children and seniors.

“When you experience the growth that Montgomery County has, in The Woodlands in particular, that brings the need for additional minimum wage workers,” Dickerson said.

1. While poverty is rising nationwide, much of that poverty is concentrated in southern states where not surprisingly, and not coincidentally, the safety net is all but non-existent. If it’s not from the federal government or local government – if you’re lucky enough to be in the right locality – there’s nothing to help you or your kids if you’re poor. Go ahead and starve, the governors and legislatures of these states couldn’t care less.

2. Speaking of local government, there’s nothing in this story to suggest that Montgomery County, which is overall a fairly wealthy place currently experiencing a huge economic boom, has anything to offer the folks on the bottom of the ladder. Given the nature of local government in a place like that, it wouldn’t shock me if their basic plan is to push anyone who needs services into neighboring counties that actually have a heart. I don’t know this to be true about Montgomery County – again, the story says nothing on the subject – but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true, and it shouldn’t surprise you.

3. You know what would really help all those minimum wage workers? Raising the minimum wage, that’s what. Please spare me the BS sob stories about how national fast food chains and multi-national energy companies are going to be put out of business by being forced to pay their cashiers and janitors three dollars an hour more.