The heat of the Texas summer is in full swelter and our electric bills go up as we try to bring the temperature down. I wanted to take this opportunity to make you aware of some changes in Austin that could mean even higher electricity prices this summer and offer you some tips on saving money and other ways to stay cool this summer.
Rising Energy Bills?
Summer has arrived with a vengeance, producing high temperatures that remind us far too much of last year’s record-breaking heat wave. The last week in June saw over 2,100 temperature records either matched or broken across the country, and the Houston region was certainly not spared. The past month brought multiple days with triple-digit highs – something that will become far too common as we move forward.
As the temperatures rise, unfortunately so do our electric bills. This is usually because of increased use of our air conditioners, which can account for 60 percent of electric bills during summer months. But due to a recent vote by the state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC), Texans across the state are likely to see prices even higher than usual.
The PUC, which regulates the state’s electricity market, voted on June 28 to raise the price cap for wholesale power by 50 percent beginning in August. While the details of the wholesale electricity market are certainly complex, the most important takeaway is that the price for electricity paid by your electric provider will now be higher during the hottest days of the year. These costs will inevitably be passed down to you, the consumer.
The PUC argued that this step was necessary in order to incentivize the construction of additional power plants in Texas. If these companies were not promised the ability to make higher profits, the argument goes, then Texas could soon fall short of electricity and face the threat of rolling blackouts during our hot summer months. However, the problem with this argument is that the higher costs we are all soon to experience offer no guarantee that additional generating capacity will get built.
Prior to the PUC’s vote, I sent a letter to the PUC chair and brought up this exact point. I said that we must be sure that the decisions being made both take into account their impact on the average Texas family and will actually solve the problem at hand. After all, it would be tragic to see families pay higher rates and still face the threat of blackouts. As this issue continues to unfold, I pledge to fight for your ability to have affordable and reliable power.
System Benefit Fund
Higher electricity bills never come at a good time, but their impact will be felt even more than normal by Texas’ most vulnerable families due to the Legislature’s decision to defund an important program that serves Texas’ low-income residents: the System Benefit Fund Low Income Discount Program. Known as LITE-UP Texas, the program provides for an electricity rate discount for qualifying low-income customers. Created in 1999 as part of the deregulation of the state’s electricity market, it is funded through a monthly fee on everyone’s utility bill. The program’s goal has always been to assist the least fortunate Texans in braving the summer heat. As temperatures across the state soar, that mission is more critical than ever.
Unfortunately, last session the Legislature decided to cut almost $100 million from LITE-UP Texas’ budget. What makes this situation even more untenable is that those in control chose to leave over $650 million unspent and sitting in the program in order to protect tax breaks for oil and gas companies. That’s right: while Texas bakes, over $650 million that could have gone toward assisting Texans with their utility bills and energy efficiency upgrades sits unused and cannot be touched. Telling Texans their money will be used for one purpose but instead redirecting it to another without voter approval is dishonest governing, pure and simple. Our state deserves more from its budget than smoke-and-mirrors and diversions.
But there is still some funding available. An electric customer is qualified and probably already automatically enrolled in LITE-UP Texas if the customer is currently receiving Medicaid and/or SNAP. If they are not in one of these programs, they can still qualify for LITE-UP Texas if their household income is at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Applications are accepted year round and, for this year, applicants can still receive the August and September discounts for 2012. In 2013, funding for discounts will be available in May, June, July and August. For more information or to apply, please call 1-866-454-8387 or visit PUC of Texas.
Beat the Heat
When it comes to saving on your electric bill, there are some simple tips and tools to help you beat the heat:
Increase efficiency: If you can, one way to beat the heat is to invest in improving the efficiency of your air conditioning unit. According to experts, having your air conditioner inspected, its coils cleaned and refrigerant adjusted can save enough to pay for the maintenance costs. As summers are getting hotter and longer, doing the little things could help you save energy and money and ensure it works when you need it most.
Program your thermostat: Many homes and apartments today have programmable, more efficient thermostats, but too few people take advantage. Check your thermostat and set the temperature higher for when you are not home or when the sun is down. Remember, every degree of cooling below 78 degrees raises energy costs by 4 percent, so if you aren’t home turn it up.
Add insulation to your attic: Attics trap heat, and in the middle of the Houston summer your attic can reach 135 degrees or even higher. Keep that from heating up the rest of your house by adding insulation. One large roll of insulation can cost as little as $11 at most major hardware stores.
Advice, Tips and Rebates: Websites like the Texas Public Utility Commission and others provide tips and advice on how to save energy, and consumer websites like SaveBigBread.com match customers with contractors and with rebate programs available from manufacturers or governments.
Unplug those appliances: You can save electricity and pay less on your electric bill by just unplugging appliances you’re not using. Many of your appliances and gadgets draw a small amount of current on a constant basis, even if they are not actually turned on and in use. Over time, this small but constant use of electricity leads to waste and higher electric bills.
Common sense: Remember what your momma told you: close the door and turn out the lights! You’ll be surprised just how much energy you can save by keeping lights off in rooms you are not in and making sure the doors and windows are closed.
Houston Cooling Centers
Thousands in Houston don’t turn on the air conditioning for fear of high bills, and thousands more do not even have air conditioning and just sweat out the dangerous heat. Thankfully, there is a little relief, as the city has designated 11 cooling centers across town.
Northwest Multi-Service Center
9720 Spaulding, 713-491-5500
Acres Homes Multi- Service Center
6719 W. Montgomery Road, 713-694-9274
Southwest Multi-Service Center
6400 High Star Dr., 713-778-6500
Denver Harbor Multi- Service Center
402 Market, 713-670-2143
Sunnyside Multi-Service Center
4605 Wilmington, 713-732-5030
Fifth Ward Multi-Service Center
4014 Market, 832-393-3800
Third Ward Multi-Service Center
3611 Ennis, 713-527-4005
Hiram Clarke Multi-Service Center
3810 West Fuqua, 832-393-4200
West End Multi-Service Center
170 Heights Blvd., 713-803-1050
Kashmere Multi-Service Center
4802 Lockwood, 832-393-5503
Magnolia Multi-Service Center
7037 Capitol, 713-928-9515
Texas Organizing Project’s Neighborhoods of Opportunity Workshops
During my 22 years in office, I have fought for affordable housing in Senate District 13, and part of that means ensuring that those families affected by disasters receive appropriate compensation to allow them to rebuild and repair their homes. That is why I am proud to partner with the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) to sponsor their Neighborhoods of Opportunity Workshops.
With $151 million in additional funding recently made available to provide quality housing to Houstonians living in homes damaged by Hurricane Ike, the City of Houston named four Neighborhoods of Opportunity in which to strategically target the funds. In response, TOP is hosting a series of workshops in those areas to allow community members the opportunity to discuss how they believe the funding can best be used:
5th Ward/Denver Harbor: Saturday, July 21, from 10 am to 1 pm at the Denver Harbor Multi-Service Center (6402 Market Street).
Southside/Sunnyside: Saturday, July 28, from 3 pm to 6 pm at Outreach Baptist Church (5055 Bellfort Avenue).
I encourage you to attend these events to voice your desire for comprehensive community development that meets your needs. For more information, please call TOP at (832) 387-5845.