The Austin Chronicle

Eco-Currents: Party Circuit

Solar trailer makes the social rounds; wind power blows hot and cold

By Nora Ankrum, August 27, 2010, News

Ice? Check. Cups? Check. One thousand watts of pure energy to keep the party lights twinkling? Check, thanks to Austin Energy. The city announced this week that AE is sharing its solar trailer – at no charge – with civic groups and nonprofits hosting outdoor events. (Who needs Party City when you've got Austin Energy?) The system can power a soundstage, lights, and small appliances while curing your party's carbon hangover, which is almost as cool as the Don't Mess With Texas campaign's "swirling chamber of litter" making an appearance this weekend at another big outdoor party, The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival. (See Community Listings.) To apply for the solar trailer, call 482-5312 or e-mail; be sure to give at least four weeks' advance notice.

One thousand watts may sound like a lot of power, but when the city throws a solar party, it thinks much bigger. Last week, council approved the purchase of up to 2 megawatts' worth of solar modules (the equivalent of 2,000 solar party trailers) to be installed at municipal buildings and schools over the next three years. The city aims to secure a favorable rate with the high-volume purchase, and the timing seems right, with the price of solar on the decline (by 50% in the last two years, according to AE). Altogether, the carbon dioxide emission savings from 2 MW of solar would be similar to removing 400 cars from the road, according to AE. Still, the purchase represents only a tiny first step in the city's plan to acquire 200 MW of solar capacity by 2020.

Over on the less sunny side of the street, the Lower Colo­rado River Authority's plans to build wind power transmission lines through the Hill Country have drawn fire from area residents. According to the LCRA, the suggested options in its application with the Public Utility Commission could "produce more than 20,000 possible routes," but residents say those routes don't take full advantage of existing rights of way, and last week, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas released a report saying that the 345-kilovolt line is unnecessary. The public notice period ends this Friday, Aug. 27; for info on filing a request for intervention, see or call 369-4151.

The PUC is also drawing criticism this month after gutting plans to increase state energy efficiency goals and proposing limits on utilities' investments in efficiency measures. Public Citizen, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the SEED Coalition are calling on the state to yank the commission's authority to review efficiency efforts around the state and establish an independent agency to coordinate them instead. The groups say an independent agency would save Texans money and handle efficiency much more, well, efficiently.

Street Smart, Water wise?

Austin's grid is about to get a lot smarter with the addition of photocells allowing AE to communicate wirelessly with 70,000 streetlights. The "smart" part will come in when the utility is able "immediately" to detect and address malfunctioning or inefficient lights (such as those shining in the daytime or turning on too early in the evening). The $6 million project – council-approved pending the success of this summer's 3,800-streetlight pilot – should extend the life of the streetlight system. It will also avoid wasted money and energy, to the tune of $340,000 a year and 358,000 kilowatt-hours, or enough to power 29 homes, according to AE.

Not to be outdone, Austin Water hopes to save 250,000 gallons of water a year with the recent installation of low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators at Parks and Recreation pool facilities around town. The effort arrives none too soon, with Austin slogging through the hottest month of the year. Daily water usage hit its highest mark of the season so far on Saturday, Aug. 21, at 191 million gallons.

With Austin enjoying a relatively wet summer, especially compared to last year's near apocalypse (peaking at 228 MG just before one-day-per-week watering restrictions began), the city is nowhere near its 285 million gallons of capacity – though that may not be such a great thing for the utility, according to the Save Our Springs Alliance. Director Bill Bunch says data from the first nine months of the fiscal year show Austin Water's sales coming in 30% below projections. "Their business model doesn't work anymore," he says. "If it rains, people don't use water, and now if there's a drought they don't use water," because of improved efficiency and conservation measures. The impending revenue shortfall, he said, should "be a wake-up call that maybe we don't really need to throw 400 more million dollars at [Water Treatment Plant No. 4] right now." (With two WTP4-related lawsuits pending against the city, Bunch hopes the utility might agree; for more, see "No Surprises in City's Answer to WTP4 Suit.")

Of course, Austin Water could always cover the shortfall with a rate hike for the eighth year in a row. That topic just so happens to be up for public discussion today (Thursday, Aug. 26) at a 4pm hearing at City Hall, 301 W. Second.

Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.