Thursday, April 30, 2009

Reading your natural gas bill. Or, playing monopoly

How much more confusing can they make this thing? First one will note that there is a lot of industry jargon mixed in with a few things we consumers might actually tax.

My gas bill from our monopoly gas provider, Atmos Energy, has no fewer than 10 line items that make up my April bill. So, after reading all the fine print on the back under the heading "understanding your bill" I called the gas company. It turns out their representative had a lot of problems with "understanding my bill".

Maybe before we move on I should discuss why we should care. If we as consumers are responsible for reducing our carbon footprint, or our overall energy use etc, its helpful to know what we are being charged and why. If the charges are directly tied to gas use, then I can count on a savings for those line items and portion of that total when I conserve. If I want to understand the return on a conservation effort, I need to know how that will effect my bill.

For example - if I put in solar hot water, but I still have to have an account with Atmos for cooking, then what will I still pay in fixed fees?

So back to the bill.

The first item is a fixed fee, it's called the Customer Charge. $14.47. You are going to pay this no matter how much you conserve. Its what you pay for the administration of your Atmos account.

Next is a Rider WNA, that is an extra fee or credit, calculated on the number of days above or below average temperatures. Why or how that is calculated is unclear and the Atmos person has escalated the question. I received a credit of 1.74 this month and a charge of 1.33 last month???? Basically your bill is based partially on how weird the weather is.

Next is a Consumption Charge. But its not really. It's really a delivery charge. It's what we pay to have the gas delivered, not what we pay for gas. But it is based on the amount you use.

Next is the Rider GCR - GCR stands for Gas Cost Recovery charge. Believe it or not, this IS the price of the gas you used. Why the silly labeling? Well technically it's because the gas company doesn't mark-up the gas we buy. We pay whatever their cost is. They make their money on all the fees etc.

You will note that this multiplier is the cost per therm which extrapolates into MCF or thousand cubic feet. This amount will change every month depending on what Atmos paid in the market for the gas. So unlike your electricity bill, this "cost" is all over the map. Atmos doesn't appear to have long term contracts for supply or storage sufficient to provide less volatile pricing. Who knew?

Next is a GUD 9530 refund. (37 cents in my case) GUD means Gas Utility Docket. There are no explanations yet for this other than it is somehow calculated on the amount of gas you use and the temperature? Crazy. (Updated above)

Then a Rider Surcharge, this is what we are charged to cover Atmos expenses for requesting rate changes. It's fixed at 25 cents.

Now we have taxes, the first is a Franchise Fee charged by the city for use of streets and right of ways. Next a City Sales Tax. (the only obvious one) and a simple thing called Rider Tax. This is unknown yet. But all three of these are based on your total bill. If you save gas, you save taxes.

Lastly, in April only, there is a Pipeline Safety Fee. We pay this once a year so the Railroad Commission can protect us consumers from large gas explosions by maintaining the system better. The only scary part is it's a 49 cent fixed fee. How safe can a pipeline be for that?

In the end it appears that $14.96 is fixed every month. In April that charge was almost 27% of my bill and you cant affect that amount through any conservation.

It's also interesting to note that natural Gas hit a high of $2.07 per therm last July. This month I paid 61 cents a therm. That's a more than three fold drop in price in less than a year! We Texans generally do better on price than the national average, and I am sure you know why.

Bottom Line - The gas bill is almost indecipherable, but with the above information you should be able to track your actual gas usage and see the results of any conservation efforts. This is mostly the effect of regulating a monopoly. Next we will review electricity and deregulation.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A trip to Big Bend

I have been away from my computer for a few days traveling around the Big Bend area of Texas. I have a few observations about the trip that seem applicable to this blog.

On the way one passes through huge wind farms. You can feel the wind buffeting your car as you watch the windmills turn. One immediately gets the idea that good wind is localized. The windmills dot the landscape as far as the eye can see and they make you feel like you're in the land of giants.

A few miles further down the road you drive into the oil field territory of Midland-Odessa. There too the landscape is dotted, only this time with pumper jacks and drilling rigs. The towns are all oil-field oriented, the place reeks of petroleum.

In either place, it hits home that energy is big business. And as always, there is a compromise in its effect on the landscape. It also gives you a feeling of pride that Texas was a leader in oil, and is now a leader in wind. We get energy here, and we are willing to make the sacrifices to assure us of a fundamental thing we need to

In these oil-field towns we saw large quantities of inventory sitting in the yards of the businesses that supply services to the industry. It was obvious, we are once again in the the throes of an oil-field slow down. People aren't drilling.

But even more unfortunate was the slow down on the wind farms. We didn't see one tower under construction, or one truck loaded with blades. Our economic crisis has hit this industry hard.

But isn't it interesting that the people who control the world's oil supply created a boom, that led to a bust that adversely affected our economy that dried up the money to invest in wind power?

Driving through the plains of west Texas allowed us to see the drama played out first hand. Obama called it shock and trance. What ever we call it, it's bad for America, it's bad for the environment and it's bad for business.

Bottom Line - Whether you like being dwarfed by drilling rigs or windmills, there is a cost to energy production. But our trip through the center of this energy production in Texas was unsettling and makes me feel less secure about our future.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Oh! The "green" part is the cash!

I finally realized why they call it a green movement! If you do it right you can save real cash. Or, you can get a lot better return on your investment than the stock market! That's green!

Lets see, if you held $2600 in GM stock or you bought a pressure reducer and ET controller for your sprinklers, like me... OK, that's not fair...let's just say a S&P index fund. I have a projected 79% savings. $616.84 a year. If the price of water doesn't go up, it will be like my fund is returning a $616 dividend a year, or 24%!

Another way to look at it is in typical accounting terms for rate of return on my investment, ROI. $2,600 returning $616 a year is a 24% return on investment. Tax free! Bernie Madoff couldn't do that for you...legally.

That's without considering the price of electricity, water, natural gas, etc going up, which they always do over time. My ROI will get better, but in 10 years without increases, I will have turned that $2,600 into $6,160 of value. I also know my home will be worth more with sensible energy and water bills.

Bottom Line - Applying these principles to natural gas and electricity, which I can assure you will go up, will provide even greater savings opportunity. My purchase of a $100 programmable thermostat paid for itself so quickly I wish I needed two.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Recycling - clarity in the big picture

I have the answers to my questions! It turns out that if someone is willing to take the time and explain it, almost all of it makes sense.

First a little background. Here in Dallas we have a contractor "the processor" who handles all our recycling. They have a seven year contract. That means they are stuck with whatever we put in our bins and stuck with however the city oversees them.

Given that, we do have restrictions on what goes into our bins. The city publishes a list that I copied into my previous post. But more importantly, we have do be diligent about a few unstated or unclear things for our "processor".

First is no plastic bags, none, zero. The processor already has problems because they gum up the machines and create downtime. That means we need to strip the bag off of newspapers, out of cereal boxes, off of door hangers, etc. (The blue bags are of course, okay.)

Second is that they want clean recycling. If it can't be cleaned, or you don't want to clean it, it's trash. It's important because single stream recycling allows everything to be transported together and cross contamination is the issue. If your plastic bottle of motor oil isn't clean it will leak on paper and make it unusable. They would prefer you threw away a mayo jar rather than send it all greasy and dirty. So you have to judge whether using that much water for cleaning is better than throwing it away. (I tried to make the point that the processor cleaning it with recycled water might be better than us cleaning them, but no go, we still have cross contamination).

Third, our recycling program is targeted at household waste. So containers that are found in your house are fine as long as they are clean. Containers found in your garage or garden shed are not. You don't want to try and rinse out pesticide bottles, paint cans, etc. They are bad for the water system and bad for you to be messing with. These items are recycled or disposed of in a different manner.

Bottom Line #1 - Our recycling processor is a business partner with our city. The better we make it for them the better it is for our program. The better our program does the better we can add items to the list (plastic bags and Styrofoam), and expand it's reach in our city.

Now some more details:

Plastic - Containers only! It's not written clearly but that's what they mean. Everything else that's plastic is a no. Remember, household products only. They must be clean and you can leave the labels on.

Glass - Again they mean containers, clean containers. Labels are fine. Anything else that is glass is a no.

Metal - Again, household containers. They don't want any other metal. Clean only, labels are fine.

Paper - Shiny, dull, printed or not. Clean paper only, no food or other contamination.

Cardboard - Clean only, (no pizza boxes) and any that is foil coated for freshness or wax coated to hold liquid is a no. No juice boxes, milk cartons etc. Printed cardboard is fine. Remember, you have to take out any bags inside the boxes (cereal).

Bottom Line #2 - Giving me a long lists of do's and don'ts was hard to remember. Now that I know what we are really doing and why, it's easy. Household containers, non coated paper and cardboard...all clean, anything else is garbage.

We are working on recycling plastic bags and Styrofoam just like everyone else in the US. It just requires another step (or two) by our contractor to pre-sort etc. Your batteries, electronics, paint etc are all best held for the quarterly city drop offs.

One recycling issue that has yet to be addressed is paper money recycling. But I am an official drop off location...

Friday, April 3, 2009

Recycling - I'm confused

As much as I love "single stream" recycling, I have lots of items that I am not sure about. I also have a friend who has the same concern. So we end up standing between the two garbage and recycling bins and choosing based on some vague past recollection. Newspaper bag? The plastic bag from Target? The plastic bubble wrap? What about other metal? You're standing there with hangers? Aluminum foil? Wire?

There must be a way to figure this out or make a cheat sheet to post somewhere as a quick reference.

First, here are some City of Dallas residential recycling figures, seems pretty good until you see the last one. 50%, that's all? It's also worth noting we are excluding commercial...hmmmm
  • Dallas continues to increase their recycling volume from 9,680 tons in FY 2005-06 to 20,149 tons in FY 2006-07 and to 29,664 tons in FY 2007-08!
  • The City’s goal is to increase that figure to 35,000 tons in FY 2007-08 and 45,000 tons by 2011, with a residential participation rate of at least 50 percent of households.
Here is the Dallas list of items on their website. I have paraphrased where necessary for clarity.

  • Yes - Bottles and jars of any color.
  • No - Window glass, light bulbs, ceramics, mirrors, Pyrex, fiberglass.
I think that means nothing other than jars and bottles. Can we leave the labels on? Do we need to rinse these? Old glasses? Old light fixture glass? Old table top? Glass tile? If we all change to CFLs, wont we fill the landfills with old incandescent bulbs?


  • Yes - Containers labeled #1 through #7 in the recycling triangle. If in doubt, put it in the cart - we'll sort it out, if need be.
  • No - Plastic grocery bags (regardless of number in recycle symbol). Styrofoam or peanuts. Chemical containers. Toys.
One through seven are all the recyclable plastic types. There are many others, but #7 is the "other" category. If it has a number, in theory they take it...

Number 6 is polystyrene. It's the stuff they make takeout food containers from but...if it's expanded polystyrene, that's Styrofoam and verboten.

  • Yes - Steel, tin, and aluminum (labels do not need to be removed). Empty aerosol (non-hazardous) cans are OK too.
  • No aluminum foil, pie plates, parts, toys, electronics, appliances.
I guess steel includes stainless. What is a non-hazardous aerosol? Hairspray? Paint? WD-40? Bug spray? I cant think of anything that's completely non-hazardous and in an aerosol can. Oh ya, Cheese Wiz and whipped cream.

Paper products & Cardboard:

  • Yes - Newspapers and inserts, window envelopes, magazines, catalogs, paperback books, phone books, food and detergent boxes, paper egg cartons, 12-pack drink cartons, folded corrugated boxes, cardboard boxes, cereal boxes.
  • No - Rubber bands, plastic wrapping, hardback books, waxed cardboard, plastic or foil-lined cereal or cracker boxes, pizza delivery boxes or food contaminated boxes.
What's a paper egg carton? What's the difference between a folded corrugated box and a cardboard one? What's plastic wrapping, that's a very broad term, no? What does waxed cardboard look like? Is that like paper plates? If I have emptied a cereal box, it still has the internal plastic bag, can I throw it in? Or do I need to separate the two, then throw it in? Or just throw it away?

And what does food contaminated mean? I have a feeling 90% of what goes in that bin comes from the kitchen and it's all food related. If we have a picnic, what about the plastic utensils? The paper plates? Are they "contaminated"?

Bottom Line - It's not confusing if you don't care, it is if you do. I will get to the bottom of this.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

An organic yard?

It's spring and I need to feed my lawn. Normally I just head to the depot and get whatever sounds good or is on sale, take it home and give it to my lawn crew to spread. I do this twice a year. I am never sure how much to buy or use, but I guess, and the landscape guys never complain.

So what's the problem you ask? Organic. The word that means simple is no longer acceptable. We must somehow "care" for our lawn differently.

First I call my neighbor who I know has had organic lawn care on and off over the years. (My yard looks better than hers). We discuss the merits of the service and a general idea of cost. After that discussion I begin to try and learn what I can (curious mind) about organic yard care.

The real difference, as far as I can tell is that organic tries to grow happy plants that are well adjusted and play well with others. Non-organic does that cheaper and faster.

But, in all fairness, it's a little more complex than that. Your landscape exists primarily on nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water and sun. The carbon dioxide is in the air, the sun is pretty reliable, so it really comes down to us providing water and nitrogen (fertilizer).

Nitrogen is either supplied "organically" (poop etc.) or through a miracle of science that figured out how to synthesize nitrogen. The world's crop yields owe a huge debt to this discovery. Now, having said that, there is very little, if any, evidence that organic -vs- synthesized nitrogen make any difference to your plants, soil etc. So what is the difference?

First, organic fertilizers aren't as concentrated as the synthetic ones. Check out your depot, you can see that a synthetic bag is about half the size of an organic one. This means that it's more convenient and efficient for the world's farmers, and possibly you, to use synthetics.

Also, synthetic nitrogen is made using natural gas (uh oh). Apparently, synthesizing nitrogen by making ammonia nitrate uses a lot of gas. Burning the fossil fuel makes CO2...(you already know where this goes). The good news is we have plenty of natural gas here in the US so we aren't subsidizing any Saudi Bentleys.

Organic however is made from lots of different sources including chicken byproducts, bat poop, fish "emulsion" (fish parts), compost squeezins etc. This is nature's way.

Bottom Line # 1 - I can't find any evidence that one or the other is better for your plants, lawn, soil, worms etc. Your choice should be based on other reasons. Those other reason include using nature's waste products instead of them going to waste, and, minimizing CO2.

Ignore anyone who tells you that you should be concerned about run-off with synthetics. It's all nitrogen and that is bad for our watersheds etc. The key is to use the right amount and minimize run-off, whichever product you choose.

By the way, there are two other components of fertilizer, they are phosphorous and potassium. NPK, or Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium, are the three numbers on the bag, ie 10-10-10 is 10% of each. (I don't think we have figured out how to make the last two using fossil fuels, yet.)

But there is more to yard care than fertilizer. There are pesticides, and herbicides. And, there is compelling information for using organic products when fighting weeds and pests. Mainly because the non-organic chemical compounds developed for that purpose are some scary stuff. Just read the label...but whatever you do don't touch them, don't breathe them, don't get them on you, or your pets, and wash thoroughly after visiting that aisle at the depot.

Good watering, mulch, and regular fertilizer will go a long way towards fighting pests and weeds. Organic products are available for all your landscape maladies, but it's way too complex for me to figure out how to be successful with them.

So, I use Roundup for my driveway weeds, It's a little toxic when wet but once it dries it's safe (so they say, would Monsanto lie?). They actually use a form of it on pond weeds without harm to the two headed fish.

I don't use any pesticides because I like lizards. If bugs attack something, first I feel sorry for it, then I feed it, and let the winner live on! If it dies or keeps getting bugs I will put in something more resilient or adapted to my yard.

Bottom Line #2 - Organic weed and pest solutions are available to those that want a hobby. Or, get someone to do this for you who knows what they are doing. Chemical pesticides and herbicides are generally bad for your soil, bad for the environment and bad for you and Rover. You don't want any run-off with these products, ever.

In the end, I bought the Scotts brand organic fertilizer for about 20% more than the regular Scotts turf builder. Is it worth it? I doubt it, but it's made from chicken feathers and that's easier than plucking them yourself. I spread it on everything, got a little exercise and communed with nature. Then I had a cocktail, no pun intended.