Military's electricity billing a 'success' in isles
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
An electricity billing pilot program focusing on Navy and Marine Corps family housing in Hawaii was a "huge success," and the Pentagon is expanding it to include all services nationwide.
The program, which includes a bill for overages and a rebate for reduced use, resulted in $1.5 million in savings as of July in Navy housing in Hawaii, and $1 million in electricity savings in Marine Corps housing here, the Navy said.
The Navy side of the pilot, which began Jan. 1, 2011, saved 7,775 megawatt-hours of electricity and more than 5,300 tons of greenhouse gases, according to the service.
"The Navy is committed to reducing energy and water consumption, increasing use of renewable energy sources and constructing sustainable facilities, all while maintaining readiness," Capt. Bret Muilenburg, chief of staff for Navy Region Hawaii, said in a statement. "Our military community is overall very supportive of the need to conserve electricity and achieve energy security, reducing our dependency on foreign sources of oil."
The electricity billing remains controversial, however, because military families already pay for utilities in their rent, which comes from substantial housing allowances that are turned over to housing manager Forest City Military Communities.
"I'm sure they are" happy about the electricity program, "because they are spending our money out of our pocket on top of the money we already gave them," said Jamie Williams, whose husband has been in the Army for nearly 28 years.
The couple and their son live in Navy housing run by Forest City and have had monthly electric bills of more than $100, Williams said.
The Navy until recently determined an average electricity use per neighborhood and made families pay only if their power use was more than 20 percent of that average. Usage 20 percent or more below that benchmark earned a rebate. Usage in between resulted in no bill.
As of Oct. 1, however, the buffer was reduced to 10 percent on each side, and the Navy in Hawaii increased the electricity rate from 20 cents per kilowatt-hour to 26 cents — which is still below the civilian residential rate charged by Hawaiian Electric Co.
"My (electric) bill's going to be over $250 this month," Williams said.
The Navy said it has lost money on the electricity rate passed along to military families, and it needed to increase the rate 30 percent to make up the difference.
The Navy notes that with the 10 percent buffer, there's a greater chance of receiving a rebate.
Navy Region Hawaii said it has received "very few complaints" about the electricity billing, known as the Resident Energy Conservation Program.
A Sept. 28 notice of the electricity rate increase on Forest City's Facebook page drew 51 comments — most of them critical of the billing program.
"Our buffer decreases AND our rates are going up!? Grrrrrrrrrr," Melissa Morton said.
David Slipher wrote: "$29,844 for a 12-month period per family (for rent), I think Forest City is making a killing off us and we should not be paying any part of the electric bill."
As an example, a Navy senior chief petty officer stationed in Hawaii with dependents receives a monthly housing allowance of $2,802.
Joy Fairbanks said on the Facebook page that her family gets an electricity refund every month, and she is "thrilled with Forest City."
Navy Region Hawaii said the residential energy program is its response to a Department of Defense mandate to establish a policy for the payment of utilities in privatized family housing to encourage a reduction in energy consumption.
According to the command, among the 4,300 Navy homes and 2,300 Marine Corps homes that are managed by Forest City in Hawaii, about $1.1 million in electrical bills have been paid by military families under the program.
Residents started paying bills on Jan. 1, 2011.
Meanwhile, about $1 million has been given out in rebates, the Navy said.
The Navy said the cost savings from resident utility conservation go into the "operations, maintenance and long-term reinvestments in the homes and neighborhoods" and that they "do not go to Forest City's pocketbook."
Asked what the $1.5 million in Navy electricity savings was used for, the service said in an email to the Star-Advertiser that the money was used to pay for "project operating expenses," with remaining funds deposited into the project's "sustainment accounts" to ensure future improvements to homes and neighborhoods.
The Navy did not specify how much went into the sustainment accounts. The Navy collaborated with Forest City on its responses, and the housing manager did not provide any comment.
Historically, military housing families have consumed more energy than military or civilian counterparts living outside military housing, and the conservation program was designed to set a "reasonable range" for energy consumption, the Navy said.
Forest City, which renovated and built new Navy and Marine Corps housing and now manages the homes, established "like-type" groups of homes within each neighborhood based on size, number of bedrooms and year built to determine an average energy use, the Navy said.
The Navy said it determined that the new 10 percent buffer "should result in increased conservation without significantly increasing the financial burden on residents."
In addition to Hawaii, the energy pilot program also was conducted at Beaufort/Parris Island in South Carolina. All the services have begun to implement electricity billing in their public-private housing ventures, including Army and Air Force housing landlords in Hawaii.
Some Hawaii residents say inequalities remain in the electricity billing.
Christina Fulmer, who lives with her husband and two children in Navy housing, says she has to pay $20 to $40 every month.
"Obviously, we're going to use more electricity than, say, my neighbors, who are two adults with no children," she said.
Williams, whose husband has been in the Army nearly three decades, said she doesn't think the energy program is fair because some military houses get tradewind breezes, keeping air-conditioning costs down, while others don't.
Military families are assigned homes and can't choose one that's breezy, she said.
She says she doesn't like being pitted against her neighbors to fight for the lowest electricity bill.
Williams said she turns the lights off when she leaves a room and doesn't leave anything plugged in unnecessarily, but she does use the air conditioner — and pays for it.
She now lives around a bunch of "energy Nazis," she said.
"They will sit in their houses and sweat at 83 degrees so they can have 40 bucks back at the end of the month," Williams said. "I'm old and tired and I'm not going to do that. My husband has not done 28 years in the military, so many deployments and (received) a Purple Heart, to sit and sweat."