Can Austin Become Carbon Neutral by 2050?

The city stepped up its game, but it'll need your help

In August 2019, just weeks before the September climate crisis protests in Austin, the city of Austin declared a climate emergency in response to rising global temperatures. Currently, the city is on track to meet key sustainability goals, according to a January 2020 report released by the Office of the City Auditor (download the full report here).

Austin Climate Strike at the Texas State Capitol in September of 2019 (Photo by John Anderson)

After the September climate strike protests, city policymakers took additional steps to ensure the 2015 Austin Community Climate Plan had real teeth – including stopping production at Austin Energy’s two largest carbon emitters by 2027: the Decker Creek Power Station and the Fayette Power Project.

The natural gas-fueled Decker Creek Power Station, which has been operating since the 1970s, has two steam units; Austin Energy will stop operating one by the end of this year and close the other unit by 2021. In compliance with protester demands, the staff currently employed at Decker Creek Power Station are receiving additional training in preparation for other jobs once the station shuts down.

Ceasing production at Fayette is a bit more complicated, as Austin Energy shares ownership of two of the coal-fired plant’s three units with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). By 2027, Austin Energy plans to cease all of its production at Fayette and will not sell its shares to another owner; however, LCRA is the sole owner of the third unit. In August 2019, the City Council approved legal assistance to help Austin Energy negotiate with LCRA to halt its production at Fayette. The audit report does not comment on the status or progress of these negotiations.

Other highlights from the report include:

• Austin Energy is on schedule to meet (or surpass) its goal of generating 65% renewable energy by 2027
• Austin Energy’s own internal audits and studies project that energy generation will be 84% carbon-free overall (61% renewable and 23% nuclear) by 2021
• The city plans to add 330 electric vehicles to its fleet and make all municipal operations carbon-neutral by the end of 2020

Other than power generation, transportation is the main source of Austin's carbon output, and while electrifying the municipal fleet is a step in the right direction, this will reduce the entire city’s carbon emissions by less than 1%.

Bearing this in mind, another Austin institution has taken action: Capital Metro. On Jan. 26, the transit authority started operating its two first electric buses – a vital step towards a carbon neutral fleet. CapMetro aims to replace its entire 423-bus fleet with electric buses in the future, but has not released a deadline for that goal.

Compared to peer cities in the U.S., as well as to other Texas cities, Austin gets a large percentage of its energy from renewables – a priority of the city that’s made easier by its ownership of Austin Energy. Other publicly owned power providers (such as San Antonio’s CPS Energy) have yet to reach AE’s levels. Cities like Houston and Dallas that are served by private utilities do not have the same amount of data or level of control over where their power comes from.

But the city and Austin Energy can only do so much; efforts by the rest of the community – especially residents – are crucial. The report is abundantly clear: residents must significantly decrease their driving alone in gas-powered cars for Austin to have a chance of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Providing alternatives – such as expanded mass transit – will be crucial so that individual Austinites have real choices.

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