City Hall Hustle: Alternating Current

Hard times make hesitatin' council blues

During campaign season, politics inevitably intrudes on policy – look no further than the City Council's Feb. 12 meeting. Saddled with several politically risky choices – including expanding Austin's nuclear power draw (rejected) and approving the controversial Wildflower Commons development over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone (punted to Aug­ust) – council's mayoral candidates, Brewster McCrack­en and Lee Leffingwell, were careful not to rock the dais. If anything reflected a difference between the two last week, it was the proposed $250 million solar energy project from Austin Energy.

AE's Roger Duncan broke down the specifics of the proposal: The solar array, to be managed by San Francisco-based Gemini Solar, would be "the largest single solar photovoltaic project in the United States" and the sixth largest worldwide. Planned for the city's Webberville tract, the project would reside "on our side" of the state energy transmission grid, meaning it would sidestep grid congestion problems that prevent West Texas wind from traveling efficiently to Austin. When completed, it would be a major step in Austin's ambitious renewable energy goals, generating 30 megawatts by 2010; currently, Duncan said, AE generates "maybe 2 megawatts" of solar through a rebate program.

Of course, all this comes at a price: $10 million a year for 25 years. But while customers would pay more initially – approximately 60 cents on a monthly residential bill – Duncan noted the "price will be locked in for 25 years," making it akin to the already oversubscribed GreenChoice wind-energy program. With such a minimal increase, this would be an easy sell in oh-so-progressive Austin, right?

Not necessarily. Massive electricity consumers, chip manufacturers such as Freescale and Spansion – who, not coincidentally, are feeling the economic heat right now – plus groups such as the Building Owners and Managers Association came out in opposition to the extra charge, admittedly larger in bulk. Seemingly a valid point, until swatted away by environmental expert and council watchdog Paul Robbins, who noted: "Larger users have much lower electric charges per unit, per kilowatt-hour, than residential customers. Typically it is on the order of one-third lower than residential customers."

It still wasn't an easy sell. Cognizant of the cost, not only financially but politically, Council Member Mike Martinez questioned the immediate necessity of the array. Saying that when the solar goals were originally set, "nobody knew we would be in global economic Armageddon," he urged reconsideration. "What if we explore what comes out of [the federal] economic stimulus and can make a 60-megawatt solar-power facility by the end of 2011?" Alluding to Spansion's current financial woes (briefly in property-tax arrears last week), he noted: "Many of our large corporations that employ thousands upon thousands of employees are literally struggling day to day. ... We need to be mindful of the impact of our decision, and we need to try to mitigate that as much as possible." The solution he proposed was to bundle the solar cost into a package of GreenChoice energy AE customers can purchase at a premium. Duncan said this was possible, but dispersing the cost only among a self-selecting group rather than among all customers would make it a "fairly expensive" batch.

McCracken enumerated the reasons he supported the project as originally conceived. Calling solar "the most flexible way to add new power as we need it," he said: "The backbone, the foundation of our private-sector economy is the semiconductor industry ... and just about every single one of them has said their number one business opportunity into the future is going to be solar energy. ... If the Austin City Council were to say, 'No, we don't really think solar is the way to go; we're going to reject it; it's too expensive,' we would be doing significant economic harm to our sectors trying to sell these technologies to customers worldwide. ... Austin should not be the kind of city that follows and waits for others to make the future." Martinez dismissed McCracken's rhetoric, saying additional analysis "is not sending a message that Austin does not want to lead. ... A little over 24 hours ago we sat in a room, and we saw $20 million in a budget shortfall we needed to talk about. ... We're going to consider closing libraries, closing fire stations, and we're going to consider cutting services. And today we're saying we're going to consider investing $2 million in 30 megawatts of power." Duly postponed, the item is scheduled to return March 5, one meeting before the March 12 meeting – the last day council can make a decision without losing its current price guarantee.

As McCracken has founded his own campaign on forward-looking technologies such as solar power, his adamant defense of the project was no surprise. And as Martinez is surmised to be Leffingwell's proxy on issues the candidate would rather not wade into at the moment, his fulsome call for caution shouldn't surprise either. Maybe most surprising was Lef­fing­well's virtual absence from the debate – as politicians take pains to appear cautious, they may not want to remain overly so.

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City Council, Austin Energy, Roger Duncan, Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken, Paul Robbins, Mike Martinez, GreenChoice

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