Naked City

Electric Shock

The steering committee for Austin Energy's so-called "utility secrecy resolution" got off to a somewhat rocky start on Monday night. Even the ground rules surrounding this initial discussion of how the utility might conform to a proposed Open Records/Meetings Resolution appeared to be up for debate, despite a clear directive from Teresa Reel, chairwoman of the Electric Utility Commission, that attendees should not view the meeting as a forum for debate. At issue is what information the municipally owned utility should be allowed to keep secret in the face of electric utility deregulation and the corresponding increase in competition -- a decision that ultimately will be made by the City Council.

But before it gets to that point, the EUC, Austin Energy, and a wide variety of interests ranging from businesspeople to consumer watchdog groups must wade through a long list of items that AE believes are in need of protection from prying eyes. Activists worry that the utility may be overstepping its boundaries and could leave citizens out in the cold when it comes to public oversight and environmental protection. For their part, AE administrators worry that Austin's penchant for open meetings and access to public records might leave the company vulnerable in a newly competitive atmosphere.

Like many states over the last few years, including California and Montana, the Texas Legislature voted last session to deregulate Texas utilities. Considering the fact that Austin Energy landed more than $60 million in the city treasury last year, it remains to be seen whether this new system will benefit Austinites and the city at large. In the long term, the city could decide to "opt in" to the competitive marketplace and compete with private companies for electricity consumers; or it could opt to keep control of Austin's retail energy market firmly attached to the city's reins. In the meantime, the utility's management team wants to make sure it's not placed at a disadvantage in a competitive market with companies such as Dallas-based TXU or newcomer GreenMountain.com, a renewable energy company that moved to Texas this spring.

But consumer groups such as Consumers Union and Public Citizen, as well as longtime environmental activist and consumer advocate Paul Robbins, say the list of items AE would like to keep secret is too long, a fact they say bodes poorly for the public good. Says Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen: "To give the utility credit, the list of things they're trying to keep secret has been cut in half from what was first proposed. But we would like to see more than half of what they still want to keep confidential taken off that list."

Karen Mitchell, the open-records point person for Consumers Union, was direct in her criticism following Monday's meeting. "If they weren't asking for the kitchen sink," she said, "maybe I wouldn't be so P-O'd." For the activists, among the more problematic items AE would like to classify as "competitive" matters are fuel prices, transportation and storage records, plant maintenance schedules, and capital improvement plans and strategies. If the public can't access this type of information, they say, then it's going to be hard to measure whether consumers are getting the best deal or if plants are being managed according to best practices for the environment.

"The tendency with Austin Energy has always been to move toward what the industry does," says Smith, "while what the citizens have generally wanted was for the utility to look at alternative forms of energy, environmental concerns, and renewable energy sources."

According to Scott Norwood, a partner with GDS Associates -- the firm which is advising the city on electric deregulation -- the items deemed competitively sensitive, and therefore worth making private by AE, are the same ones that most private, investor-owned utilities already keep under wraps. He maintains that to allow public access to these sorts of figures, contracts, and documents would disadvantage the company. "You need enough information to be available that consumers know you're doing a good job," he says, "but there are certain kinds of information that are only useful to competitors."

The EUC will be meeting again Monday, Aug. 7, to work toward hammering out a final resolution to bring to the City Council, which is expected to vote on the matter in August.

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