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Energy Drain: Wrangle Over Renewables

Greens uneasy about energy task force

By Daniel Mottola, Fri., May 15, 2009

The City Council has yet to appoint, as planned, a group to study future energy projects, but some local greens already fear that the new task force will be hijacked by corporate interests. The uneasiness grew out of Council Member Lee Leffingwell's proposal in March to create a task force of various stakeholders – including Austin Energy's large industrial and commercial electric customers.

The 15-member panel, to be appointed by the council, will "review timing, technologies, and implementation" of renewable energy policy "to insure afford[able] power" and make recommendations to City Council. Leffingwell, an environmental advocate and Austin's mayor-elect, proposed creating a task force as part of his motion to approve building an ambitious 30 megawatt solar array on city-owned property in Webberville, east of Austin. Many big energy users opposed the solar plant (as well as a biomass project approved earlier this year) because of the cost and its potential effect on rates. At its April 30 meeting, the council directed the city attorney to establish the task force, though council will eventually appoint its members, including representatives from each of the following areas: environmental, government, hospital, hotels, industrial, development, commercial property, multifamily property, and restaurants. Six "at-large" members will also be appointed.

"It's hard to believe that Austin would even consider forming a new group loaded with special interests that could delay if not veto clean-energy investments," said Mike Sloan, president of a renewable energy consulting firm and founder of PowerSmack.org, an Internet forum on Austin politics and energy. "Over the long haul, it's a no-brainer we must use energy that is cleaner, cheaper, and local."

But ratepayers should also be included in the process, said John Sutton, sustainability chair for the Building Owners and Managers Association of Austin. "Austin Energy, in its haste to meet City Council's [renewable energy] goals, was ignoring input from the public," he said. "We've asked the city to make a more formal body that's representative of all factions: industrial customers, homeowners, environmentalists. And since economic circumstances and energy demand have changed," he continued, "we wondered whether city renewable energy goals should be reconsidered." He suggested that task force membership be based on energy usage, noting BOMA members oversee 35 million square feet of office, industrial, retail, and institutional space locally.

"The perception that this task force is anything other than an opportunity [for industrial energy customers] to make their voices heard is incorrect. It will have no power whatsoever," Leffingwell said. "I told these organizations that if their intent is to put off alternative energy projects or not have them go through, that that's not going to happen," he added. "There's no stronger proponent of renewable energy on council than I am."

Dowe Gullatt, a lawyer and lobbyist representing St. David's HealthCare, was among the voices calling for the task force. "Big energy users were being left out of a collaborative process and were forced to respond to initiatives instead of collaborating to create them," he said. "It's more an issue of timing," he added. "These projects are being rushed." Of the organizations that attended meetings resulting in requests for the task force – which included AMD, Applied Mater­ials, Samsung, Dell, Seton, and others – "most of them have strong corporate green policies and subscribe to Austin Energy's GreenChoice program," Gullatt said.

"Often, the problem is that we don't hear from those opposed until after the decision," said Christine Herbert, who chairs the city's seven-member Resource Management Commission, which advises the council on energy- and water-conservation policies.

While industrial customers weren't commenting on how much additional costs the renewables projects represent, consumer advocate Paul Robbins believes it wouldn't be much. The industrial users, he said, could see up to a 1.5% increase in the fuel-charge half of their bills. The other half, their utility rate, is already discounted compared to residential customers. "My heart bleeds for these industrials, many of whom are multinational corporations." Asked about the task force's possible chilling effect on clean energy goals, Robbins said, "If it derails renewable progress, it'll be out of bureaucratic inertia."

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