Wasted Energy

The return of the Strayhorn

According to Mayor Lee Leffingwell's favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, "Predictions are very difficult, especially when they're about the future." Leffingwell uttered these apt words in City Council chambers last week as the council considered Austin Energy's generation plan, a guide for the utility to generate 35% of its power through renewable sources by 2020, an outcome of the Climate Protection Plan, initiated under Mayor Will Wynn to lessen Austin's carbon footprint.

But despite the plan being just that – a plan – a group of would-be prognosticators predict financial ruin in the utility's proposals. A new group and an old face – Austinites for Action, helmed by the indefatigable Carole Keeton Strayhorn – is sensationally claiming that changes to AE's generation mix will result in a whopping 57% increase for Austin ratepayers. "If enacted," Austinites for Action claim on the group's website, "the plan will cost billions of dollars and dramatically increase electric rates for families, as well as the commercial businesses and industries that are our community's economic lifeblood." They urge that "the plan be submitted to a vote of the people on the next available election date." The group held a kick-off press conference in East Austin last week.

That 57% figure is a far cry from the city's rate increase estimate of 20%. "Their numbers are just wrong," says Chris Herbert, chair of the city's Resource Management Commission. Aside from obscuring the fact that the 20% increase wouldn't be fully in place for another decade (and again, it's only a long-term policy proposal at this point, inevitably subject to further revision once it's adopted), AFA also includes other costs the utility will face, green plan or not – such as, notably, energy transmission riders and inflation, wholly unrelated to the generation mix. "If Carole has a plan to eliminate inflation," says Herbert, "I would like to meet with her. ... If you don't do a damn thing, inflation's going to happen."

The city didn't factor in inflation in its long-term estimates, acting AE General Manager Robert Goode told council, because "it's very difficult to predict, and we cannot control that." However, he did note that unlike fossil fuels, "renewables are not as subject to inflation as other parts of our portfolio" and may likely serve as a better hedge against increased costs in the future.

Beyond the issue of literally inflated rate predictions, the biggest question about Austinites for Action is – why now? Why, at the end of a two-year process – including, by the utility's estimate, 10 utility-wide meetings, 14 customer group meetings, 35 customer one-on-ones, the creation of the generation task force, and a public forum at Palmer Auditorium with attendees in the hundreds – raise objections two weeks before the plan is set for a vote? "It's funny hearing Strayhorn say that we need a robust public debate on the generation plan, because that's what's been going on for nearly two years now," says Matthew Johnson, an energy efficiency research associate with environmental group Public Citizen. "It's disrespectful to the community that has been engaged in working with the utility to craft this plan, too – which includes large businesses, consumer groups, environmental groups, and individual feedback."

Moreover, AFA isn't exactly what one normally thinks of as a "community group." Aside from Strayhorn's position as executive director, the group lists Shiree Sanchez, co-founder of the conservative policy group Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity as one co-chair; the other is Roger B. Borgelt, a partner at Potts & Reilly law firm and the vice chairman of the Travis County Republican Party.

Regardless of its stated intention, AFA's actual goals remain to be seen. On its website, the group speaks longingly of citizens "lobbying the legislature to let them choose other utility providers" – action in sync with Strayhorn's long-held views on deregulation and the Lege's suspicion of municipally owned utilities. But looking at the general rabble-rousing on the site – calls to "break the establishment's lock on our city politics" and "mobilize the people to elect candidates who represent us" – we wouldn't be surprised if AFA is but the latest vehicle for Strayhorn, a politician genetically incapable of ceding the public spotlight. To quote Yogi once more – it's déjà vu all over again.

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Austin Energy, 2020 generation plan, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Austin Climate Protection Plan, Austinites for Action, Chris Herbert, Matthew Johnson

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