The 21 residents who volunteered to spend two years studying all aspects of CPS Energy’s rates, from how they’re designed to who they impact, will finally get a chance to do what’s right there in the name of the committee: advise on rates.
But the rate advisory committee, formalized by the utility’s board of trustees just before the pandemic struck in March 2020, then finally launched this spring, will only be able to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether the committee should support the 3.85% rate increase the San Antonio City Council will consider in January.
Several members have expressed frustration over what they now wonder was just a sop to environmentalists and the city council, both of which pushed for the committee’s creation.
“We’ve spent the last seven months studying rate design, utility burden, looking at financials — but at the end of the day, we haven’t weighed in on any of that,” said committee member DeeDee Belmares, a San Antonio-based climate organizer with Public Citizen.
Led by Reed Williams, a former energy executive, the committee has met regularly since May to learn about rate design and structure. While the meetings have included some discussion, those opportunities have felt far and few between, and too late in the process, several members of the committee have commented during recent meetings.
“Many of us are feeling like we invested a lot of time, and it’s for what?” said committee member Brenda Pacheco. “We’ve invested a lot of time, and if all this discussion was — I’m feeling — for nothing, then we need to make some decisions.”
But CPS Energy interim CEO Rudy Garza says the rate advisory committee was not formed to give input on this rate increase discussion.
Instead, he said, it was created for “future rate increases — not this one.”
Garza told the San Antonio Report Monday that CPS Energy “always knew” putting together a public rate advisory committee while seeking a rate increase would be challenging.
He said the work the committee is doing is meant to be more long-term, such as studying CPS Energy’s overall rate structure and its generation portfolio — the mix of coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables the utility uses to power San Antonio.
“Go back and listen to the board [of trustees’] input on creating a RAC,” Garza said. “What they actually said was, ‘Let’s get this RAC put together and not give them an opportunity to weigh in on this rate increase — let’s get them going on future stuff.'”
Both CPS Energy’s Chief Financial Officer Cory Kuchinsky and the city’s Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell shared a similar message to the city council last week. The RAC was given a two-year term for a reason, Gorzell said. The committee members will be actively discussing CPS Energy’s rate structure and generation portfolio starting in the new year, he added.
Belmares, who has been working — largely unsuccessfully, she would say — to make the utility more transparent, more responsive and greener, begs to differ.
“It just fluctuates with whatever crisis CPS Energy is going through — whether it’s Winter Storm, Uri, changes in leadership, debt from past accounts,” Belmares said. “I think our role has just been really reactionary.”
In addition to their up or down vote on the current rate increase, the committee on Thursday will also vote on whether it thinks CPS Energy should create a regulatory asset to spread out the $418 million already-paid costs of Winter Storm Uri across ratepayers’ bills for 25 years.
Those votes, along with some written comments by committee members, will then be presented to the board of trustees and the city council prior to their votes in January, Williams told the committee at its last meeting.
The committee only formally started discussing the impending rate increase this month, Williams told the San Antonio Report. In an effort to make sure all committee members have the same base of knowledge around rate structures, he said, meetings thus far have mostly been educational in nature.
But Garza also said the committee has offered valuable input thus far, pointing to the utility’s decision to expand the utility’s Affordability Discount Program, which helps low-income residents pay their bills. The program will cover about 14,000 more customers, bringing the total number getting assistance to roughly 65,000 customers. That expansion will shield them from the effects of the rate increase, Garza said.
Belmares doesn’t think that’s enough, noting that other utilities set their assistance threshold at 200% of the federal poverty line, while CPS Energy’s is at or below 125%.
“I think that would… have a far-reaching impact on low-income customers who are really struggling,” she said.
CPS Energy is starting to hear from some of those struggling customers as it launches its public input campaign on the proposed rate increase. The utility hosted two town hall meetings this week, and is planning more in the near future.
Whether that input will matter — from the rate advisory committee or the public — remains to be seen, Belmares said.
CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here. DeeDee Belmares is a member of the San Antonio Report Community Advisory Board.