With weather conditions impersonating a broiler oven, the public is seeking relief from the heat and high electric bills they cause.
Gypsy Lucas is familiar with both. Her family owns Skate Country in Bellmead and Skate World in Waco, both havens for people craving good times and cool conditions. Her electric bill runs about $14,000 a month between the two locations, or 30% of her monthly outlay to keep the doors open.
“The Bellmead facility is 24,000 square feet, Waco is 20,000 square feet, and the people inside are doing physical activities,” Lucas said. “We try to keep them as cool as possible, which can be quite difficult. We try to maintain our air conditioning using a variety of sources, including technicians who come out every two or three weeks versus every two or three months.”
Even if Lucas succeeds in lowering the 105-degree temperature outside to 85 degrees inside, conditions are not comfortable. She would be skating on thin ice with customers who worked up a sweat in her friendly confines. She sets the thermostat at 72 degrees, and hopes for the best, that temperatures creep little beyond that as doors open and close and the building fills.
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Fortunately, Lucas remains under contract to an electricity provider who locked in her rates three years ago, eliminating roller-coaster rides that become scarier during summer months. Without such an arrangement, “I can’t imagine what I would be paying now,” Lucas said.
She crosses her fingers, hoping she can renew her contract next year.
Challenges threaten homeowners and business owners alike this summer. Market conditions spell higher-than-usual utility bills. Electric generating plants that run on natural gas have produced about 35% of the power so far this year on Texas’ main electric grid, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, though those plants represent a higher percentage of the grid’s total production capacity. Natural gas prices have risen more than gasoline prices.
“Natural gas prices are being affected by rising demand as the economy gets back into gear after the pandemic and supplies become strained,” Waco-based economist Ray Perryman in an email response to questions.
He said the energy sector faces supply-chain and workforce issues like other sectors, plus capital for major drilling programs has been scarce due to low investor returns prior to the pandemic and concerns over climate policy.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration on Thursday released a report saying natural gas inventories remain low and prices likely will not fall until early next year. It says inventories began the 2022 summer injection season, April through October, 17% below the five-year average.
Tim Morstad, associate state director for AARP Texas, told The Dallas Morning News he is concerned about sticker shock among people on fixed incomes and people who must leave their fixed-rate plans for whatever reason.
The Morning News said Morstad calculated that average residential rates today are about 70% higher than those offered a year ago. Consumers may choose electric suppliers from among many companies serving Texas.
Caritas of Waco and the local Economic Opportunities Advancement Corp. office both offer assistance with paying utility bills. Caritas Executive Director Ann Owen said she has seen a 50% year-over-year increase in requests.
Jake Schwarz, a manager at the Bowlero Waco bowling center on West Waco Drive, said he strives to maintain a sub-70-degree environment.
“We just crank the thermostat down,” Schwarz said. “This is an old building with old air conditioning, so it can be rough. But I’ve never been told not to run the air conditioning. In the summer it’s on all the time. We also have ceiling fans per lane. Some older folks say they get cold.”
At the skating rinks, Lucas said she applies strategy to achieve efficiency. Each manager can use phone apps to remotely control temperatures in the centers. This allows them to gradually cool down facilities before the public arrives.
“We’re doing what we can not to spend frivolously,” Lucas said. “But the rising cost of everything has been our biggest challenge. No longer can we hire a teenager who has never had a job and pay minimum wage. They’ll just go down the street. We went up about 15% on admissions, on about half our menu, on birthday parties. A lot of customers were not too pleased, but we wanted to make sure we could keep our doors open.
“Our price increases did not match our cost increases, but we don’t want to price ourselves out of the entertainment industry.”
Perryman said relief may arrive sooner than expected for fuel prices, but not this summer.
“Rig counts are rising and the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico, the largest domestic oil production area, set all-time records for output of both petroleum and natural gas,” he wrote in his email. “Activity is also rising in the Eagle Ford area in South Texas, the Bakken in North Dakota, in other domestic gas fields, and in Saudi Arabia.
“This production will ease pressure on the natural gas market, and, hence electricity prices, in the near future, although it won’t likely provide much relief during the high demand period we are likely to face this summer.”