The total residential electricity usage has increased by more than 31.88% across Austin Energy’s service area since the last week of February, the new numbers show.
Throughout the week of March 21-27, Austin residents used 71.63 million kilowatt hours of energy. Three weeks prior, from Feb. 29-March 6, Austin Energy customers used 57.73 million kilowatt hours of energy.
“At the end of the day, most people are going to see an increase in their utility use because they’re at home, and that’s where we want them to be,” Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo said.
In response to increasing utility usage—and in turn, increasing utility bills—on March 26, Tovo introduced a resolution directing city staff to “identify and evaluate options for reducing utility bill impacts for customers affected by the coronavirus pandemic.”
Tovo and council asked Austin Energy to consider two measures specifically: implementing emergency rates throughout the duration of Austin’s stay-in-place order and expanding eligibility for available utility bill assistance.
“We have a lot more people who really need assistance with their utility bills who, three weeks ago, may have had full time jobs, ... and they don’t have that income coming in anymore,” Tovo told Community Impact Newspaper on April 2. “We should have more people who should be eligible for those assistance programs.”
Austin Energy is prepared to bring solutions to help Austin families facing utility cost issues to Austin City Council’s April 7 work session, Tovo said, though the council member said she has not seen the recommended changes as of publication. Any proposed changes would be voted on at Austin City Council’s April 9 meeting.
Jennifer Herber, public information officer for Austin Energy, said in an email to Community Impact Newspaper that City of Austin Utilities is exploring ways to expand its assistance programs to help customers affected by coronavirus.
Currently, Austin Energy and Austin Water have both stopped all disconnects for nonpayment and are working to contact customers who may have had their service disconnected prior to the stay-in-place order, according to Austin Energy.
“Austin Energy is community-owned. When the community is in a crisis, our utility can respond in a way that a private utility cannot,” Tovo said. “It seems really appropriate that our community utility recognize the position many families are in.”
Overall, energy usage is up 20.21% from mid-March last year, according to numbers provided by Austin Energy, though there are contributing factors other than just coronavirus-related activities. Environmental factors, such as warmer weather, can increase energy usage across the city, and more customers have connected to Austin Energy’s utilities as the city's population continues to grow.
But in the past month, Austin residents have been forced to use electronics more and more as local independent school districts and universities have moved classes online. Other Austinites with jobs in offices that are currently closed are now working from home.
In early March, Austin Energy began sending out weekly updates and high utility bill alerts to its customers, Herber said. The high bill alerts notify customers when their utility bills climb higher than usual.
Austin Energy also recently published information on how customers can conserve electricity moving forward. Tips from the flyer include cooking with a grill instead of an oven when possible, unplugging electronics and appliances and keeping window coverings closed, among other tips.