December 28, 2016

Source: Omaha World-Herald

If a Texas energy developer with Nebraska roots gets his way, electricity ratepayers in Nebraska may one day shop for electricity providers like they do with Internet and cellphone carriers - and public power utilities wouldn't be the only providers offering energy.

Gary Aksamit, chief executive of Aksamit Resource Management, said Tuesday that he has been in talks with Nebraska legislators about pushing a measure for so-called "unbundled billing" that would require the state's public utilities to break down customers' energy bills in more specific terms.

If successful, electric ratepayers would see exactly what their utility charged them for delivery of energy, for example, among other itemized costs for service.

"I think it's time for unbundled billing, and we will be introducing some legislation in the 2017 legislative session around unbundled billing, transparency and accountability for ratepayers," Aksamit said.

Aksamit has yet to find a state senator to sign on to a possible bill, and officials declined to name any specific legislators they have contacted.

Research published earlier this year by the Electric Markets Research Foundation found that such retail choice offerings do benefit ratepayers, but larger commercial and industrial users reap more benefits when compared with residential customers. That's because heavier users are better able to exact savings from switching to different providers than are lower-use customers.

The utility-backed nonprofit trade group has spent about 20 years researching the effects of deregulation on electricity markets.

Its report conducted by Wisconsin-based Christensen Associates Energy Consulting found that a total of 14 states and Washington, D.C., have retail choice legislation on the books, and eight others have "suspended or rescinded" retail choice.

Retail choice means ratepayers choose their energy provider based on preference, whether it's for one generator's bargain price or for another's renewable resources. Delivery of electricity would still happen through the owners of transmission wires and poles.

Aksamit in June filed legal motions against Nebraska's largest electric utilities, including the Omaha Public Power District and the Columbus-based Nebraska Public Power District, seeking a judge's order to force utilities to divulge their costs to generate electricity. The utilities pushed back, saying such information is competitive and therefore exempt from public records laws.

The matter is still tangled up in court - Aksamit said Tuesday he's spent about $700,000 on legal fees and other costs associated with various records requests he's made for cost-of-generation information.

In the latest salvo, a Lincoln nonprofit connected to Aksamit's Houston-based power concerns commissioned an economic study that determined that Nebraska ratepayers could save a minimum of $250 million a year if the state were to go another step and open up the electric utility industry here to retail competition.

Unbundled billing would serve as a precursor to "retail choice," a break from the state's mandatory monopoly through which ratepayers could choose between legacy public power providers and new generators.

An OPPD spokeswoman on Tuesday said the organization is not familiar with the report by Denver-based Goss and Associates Economic Solutions. The principal investigator for the study is Creighton University economist Ernie Goss.

"OPPD has taken steps to reduce its generation costs while ensuring high reliability. We have committed to a general rate freeze for the next five years, and we have a strategic directive to achieve rates that are 20 percent below the regional average," OPPD spokeswoman

Jodi Baker said. "We welcome an open, transparent, unbiased discussion of public power in the state of Nebraska."

An NPPD spokesman said Goss had not contacted it for information for the study, either.