Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Let the Sunshine In! As Other Cities Catch Up, "Solar Austin' Advocates Look to Prime the Green Power Pump

Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Illustration By Doug Potter

Austin Energy likes to call itself the greenest utility in the country, and Austin would like to be the hub of the U.S. renewable-energy industry. Until last month, a lot of Austinites thought this was just more hippie talk from City Hall. Then they got their electric bills and saw the first of three planned, and not small, hikes in the AE customer fuel charge, due to the wacked-out cost of natural gas and (what are the odds?) another defect-spawned shutdown of South Texas Project 1, our very own little nuclear power plant. Their neighbors who'd signed up for Green Choice saw their bills remain unchanged.

A preview of coming attractions, says Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, one of the groups spearheading the current Solar Austin Campaign. "We're on the verge of a humongous energy crisis as gas prices rise. Unless we have a plan, in terms of renewables and efficiency, we're at the mercy of the gas barons." The 1970s energy crunch, he notes, "led to a huge boom in coal-fired plants and nuclear power. And here we are again. We thought we'd killed that stuff 10 years ago."

In other words, taking a next-level jump to increase Austin's use and support of renewable energy -- the broad goal of the Solar Austin effort -- would clean up the air and water, provide Austin with a new growth industry, and avoid energy-driven economic chaos. Not just a win-win, but a win-Wynn-win. At the City Council meeting today (Thursday, Aug. 14), the Solar Austin forces (a coalition of more than a dozen organizations) plan to use the mandated public hearing on the AE rate schedule for FY 2004 -- the only real opportunity for public input into the Austin Energy budget -- to advocate that the city "update" its clean-energy commitment. The campaign wants Austin to move toward getting 30% of its energy from renewables by 2010; to use 2% of AE's annual budget (about $18 million a year) to buy solar power; and to combine these efforts with AE's already successful efficiency and conservation initiatives.

Currently, and since 1999, the city's commitment has been to a 5% renewable share of AE supplies by 2005. That's been enough to give Austin Energy its green-leader status, and because the wind power the utility has so far purchased toward that goal is fairly cheap, that leadership has come at little cost to AE's "competitiveness" -- somewhat of a euphemism for Austin's attractiveness to major corporate customers, the bond houses, and in a converse way to the investor-owned utilities that, through their friends in the Lege, have been willing to let Austin keep its municipal monopoly. All of which has allowed AE to subsidize city municipal spending -- the utility basically pays for the entire library and parks system -- and thus allowed the City Council to crow about keeping taxes low.

Solarity Forever

The challenge for Solar Austin is to convince those same players -- who are really a much harder sell than either the citizens or the City Council -- that Austin can do much, much more without taking an unacceptable risk. But the fact is, Austin really isn't such a green leader any more; the state of New York has established a 25%-by-2012 renewable standard, Illinois is shooting for 15% by 2020, and California for 20% by 2017. (That's for all utilities, not just those that are publicly owned.) Even our neighbors in San Antonio have set a 10%-by-2015 goal. When looking specifically at solar, the gaps are even wider -- Sacramento, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles, among others, have made commitments to solar that put Austin, well, in the shade.

As its name implies, the coalition is sweeter on solar than even on wind, or geothermal or hydro or any of the other clean-energy options, for obvious and familiar reasons: The sun is everywhere. Solar power need not be transmitted from a West Texas wind farm or Buchanan Dam, let alone thrown into the pockets of natural gas, coal, oil, and nuclear interests far, far away, which is where much of your AE bill goes now. There are suitable rooftops all over Austin that could generate megawatts now being cranked out of the coal-smoke-spewing Fayette Power Plant; the aging, arguably unsafe, and assuredly unpopular Holly Power Plant; or the hideously expensive, likewise unpopular, and -- let's not forget -- potentially catastrophic South Texas Project. Following the example of San Francisco, where voters approved a $100 million bond to put solar roofs on public buildings like the enormous Moscone Convention Center, or even San Antonio, which put a solar thermal water-heating system in the new Bexar County Jail, Austin advocates see enormous potential, as yet untapped by AE, for cost-effective solar power generation, right now, with current technology. (One sample project: Solar-panel shade parking at Bergstrom, for which airport passengers would pay a premium, as they already do at private lots, that would help underwrite the costs.)

Solar power's initial costs are still high, higher than wind, but the investment Solar Austin wants AE to make might change that. Given Austin's high tech expertise and capacity -- much of it currently, um, underutilized -- and the real, though somewhat diminished, public accountability of a city-owned utility run by the council, AE's $18 million annual investment can create not only clean power but good jobs and advances in solar technology that will drive down the start-up costs. "Now we need to create a vision for the city and the council of what we could be doing," says Public Citizen's Smith. "We could do a lot of wind power" to meet a 30% standard, "but what does it mean for Austin to be the solar capital of the nation?"

The Sun Also Rises

At least one City Council member is on board with the general program; during his campaign, Brewster McCracken called not only for an increase in the AE renewables standard but also for all replacement power to come from renewable sources -- i.e., for Holly when or if it closes as scheduled in 2009, and for STP if Austin ever manages to unload its 16% share, as voters mandated way back in 1982. The city's Resource Management Commission is likewise committed to the commitment, having passed at least nine resolutions this year supporting a more aggressive renewables effort. (The board wants to change its name to the Clean Energy and Resource Conservation Commission, which tells you all you need to know.) And the citizens like the idea already. In the Liveable City economic survey I reported on last week, nearly 75% of respondents supported specific and ambitious solar goals, nearly 90% supported using local government incentives to encourage use of renewable resources, and many said they'd be willing to pay a surcharge on their electric bills to support solar development.

So what's stopping Austin Energy from doing this right now? Nothing, really -- the utility is finishing up its next long-range plan, to be presented in November and likely to include some sort of big solar statement. But utilities are bureaucracies, and change comes hard, and plenty of people in this great land -- particularly at its highest levels of government -- are plenty accustomed to the idea that established energy industries, driven solely by profit, should decide this little matter of policy. Even as it increases its renewable commitment, City Public Service in San Antonio is also pushing for a new $750 million coal plant, and despite having had nothing but problems for decades, the nuclear industry -- which laughably argues that it is even more enviro-friendly than solar or wind -- sees its future path paved with gold. "Sometimes we're just battling old-fashioned thinking," says Smith. end story

The City Council public hearings on the utilities' rate schedules and on the "community services" cluster of the General Fund budget will be today, Aug. 14, at 6pm at the LCRA Hancock Building, 3701 Lake Austin Blvd. For more on the budget process, see p.22.

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Solar Austin Campaign, renewable energy, solar power, wind power, Austin Energy, Tom "Smitty" Smith, Public Citizen, Brewster McCracken, Holly Power Plant, Fayette Power Plant, South Texas Project

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