Shudde Fath served on the citizens-based Electric Utility Commission in Austin, Texas, for 40 years — from its inception in 1977 until November 2017. She turned 102 in December.
Upon retiring, you said that Austin Energy is Austinites’ most valuable asset. Why?
The citizens of Austin own the utility. Unlike an investor-owned utility, which gives dividends to stockholders every year, Austin Energy gives a transfer to the City of Austin’s general fund. It helps on the overall city budget. The general fund takes care of all of the public safety functions: emergency, fire, etc. And also parks and libraries. All of those different functions get part of their revenue from this transfer.
Municipal-owned utilities have advantages in taxes, interest rates. And if they are well-run, they are able to pass [these advantages] through to the consumer in the form of a little bit cheaper electric bill. If a utility’s well-run, the people ought to pay less than they would from an IOU.
There have been times, in past years, when [the city was] taking too much away, and our commission hollered about it, and they revised the formula [for contributing to the general fund]. At one time, they were taking a certain percentage of gross revenues, which included fuel, on which there was no markup. They were taking too much money, and they would have eventually bankrupt Austin Energy. We got them to finally remove fuel revenue from that percentage.
We’ve grown more and more every year. We have about 465,000 customers now.
What responsibilities does a public power utility have to its community?
To have a well-run utility would be number one. Because we’re actually a monopoly.
City councils come and go, but we’ve generally had city councils that care about the community, not just special interests. A long time ago, that was environmental people versus business people. Finally, we had a smart mayor and council that got that if we have a good environment that we have a good city, and they quit fighting.
There’s always a fight with the largest consumers of electricity. They like to think that if we deregulate they can go out and get cheaper electricity. I’m not sure that’s ever been proved.
How can public power utilities remain in good standing with the public?
Have an activist citizenry. Residents and local citizens that care, that help and advise. Some of them don’t give a hoot. They just pay their bills.
Citizens got to get well-involved in their municipal utility. You need to pay attention. Help with new ideas, always bearing in mind what the cost is.
Looking back on all the things I’ve done over the years, I ended up with kind of a mantra: You’ve gotta give a damn about something, and then work to try to make it happen. And you can’t do it alone — you need help from others. You don’t win ’em all, but if you hadn’t tried, it might be even worse than it is. The fact that you’ve tried something, and it didn’t succeed, might have made that something better than it would have been.
Austin is full of smart people; unless they have a special interest, all they want is a lower electric bill. With the university, we have probably higher-educated citizens than other places. And a whole lot of them care — they give a damn.
In the fight for residential rates, people began to realize there was no citizen oversight. The utility commission was created in 1977. The utilities commission is advisory. They haven’t always listened to us. The most contentious thing has always been residential electric rates and small business electric rates, and that sort of comes and goes.
It’s kind of a plum appointment to be on the EUC. And [people] wouldn’t file an application if they didn’t care.
Now, the city has a whole bunch of boards and commissions; I think there are about 40 or 50. Some start out temporary, and they never run out.
Your time on the commission was often characterized as championing residential and small business ratepayers. With the onset of distributed energy resources (DERs), has the landscape for ratepayers changed?
Fundamentally, it is the same thing. We had a big rate case in 2012, and again in 2016. In 2012, my version is that I lost the rate case. They used a cost-of-service methodology that put more cost on the residential [customers] than some of us thought it should have.
Prior to 2012, small business, if their demand was below 20 kilowatts, they didn’t pay a demand charge, only consumption. In 2012, they lowered that to 10 kW, and I’ve been fighting that ever since. It hurt about 4,000 small businesses. They made two improvements that helped part of them in different ways, but it still left 2,000 small businesses that, in my view, are being punished. I’m not giving up on this, even though I’m not on the commission anymore.
How should public power utilities prepare for the future?
I’ve served my 40 years, and I’m leaving it up to whomever comes along.