Unrealized Opportunities: Ester Matthews on the Austin Climate Protection Program

Ester Matthews reflects on the progress of the ACPP

Last week the Chronicle spoke at length with Austin Climate Protection Program Director Ester Matthews about the history and progress of the program and her perspective on its future as she prepares to retire at the end of 2010. The following is an edited transcript of that interview. – Michael King


Austin Chronicle: We're working on a "snapshot" of the ACPP, and we might begin with your sense of where things stand right now.

Ester Matthews: I think we're in a bit of a lull because of a couple of things. We've lost quite a bit of staff, lately. I want to say all of my staff got better paying jobs, and that's why they left. That's what they told me, so I can only assume they were telling me the truth.

AC: We had gotten some unattributed buzz earlier that at least some staff members were unhappy with the results so far.

EM: I think some were fairly discouraged by what they discovered of what was our role in all this [with no direct enforcement authority] ....

AC: You're stepping down soon?

EM: I'm planning to retire at the end of the year, if everything goes as planned.

AC: Do you feel free to speak freely about how well or badly it's going?

EM: I'll tell you what I'd tell a reporter: We prepared through 2009 – a lot of that was preparation. And 2010, we thought that would be our big year. We had the big kickoff in January to promote our Carbon [Footprint] Calculator, and it launched on January 14, and we spent some money trying to attract people's attention to that product throughout the year. We also thought that our training program was going to be – our trainers had learned what they were going to do, and they were going to launch it, and it was going to be a much grander program.

We were going to train all the city employees. We were working the departmental climate protection plans, and that, I would say, is destined to be our best success this year. Because we don't have any authority, we told the departmental directors this was coming and then we asked them to assign to us some people from their department that would participate. Really, the plans were created on a grassroots level, in the departments, because it was created by these individuals within the departments. Then, they got their director to sign the plans, I signed the plans, and the assistant city manager over each department signed them. That information is being loaded into a computer program that all the department directors will be able to see.

AC: Is that the "CARS" [Climate Action Reporting System]?

EM: Yes. And that computer program also will compile most of the information that documents what the greenhouse-gas emissions are for the departments.

AC: You say in the documents the information has been computerized instead of manually tracked. Is that true across departments, that you could see what's happening in a given department?

EM: It will be department by department. Here's a little-known fact: The departments don't see their electric and water bills. Since we're all internal, the money is just journaled out from the department's budget to Austin Energy's budget and to the water budget. This is going to be an opportunity for all those department directors to actually see what their individual buildings are using.

AC: And that's the single biggest institutional contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions, right?

EM: Yes, the buildings and facilities. So they'll see the energy use, the water use, and they'll also be able to see what types of emissions are coming from their specific fleet. It's going to distill this information down so each department director can see what they're supposed to be addressing.

AC: When you say you have no authority, does that mean you rely on the good faith efforts of the department directors to execute [emission reductions] but you can't tell them to do this?

EM: Yes. I can't make them buy a Prius instead of an F-150.

AC: So this is an exhortation coming from the city management, but they work independently and do their budgets pretty much on their own, et cetera?

EM: Yes.

AC: Have you seen better or worse cooperation from some than others?

EM: I have felt like there has been excellent cooperation. I think when it gets up to the department directors, they have so much to deal with, that we felt like we really needed to distill it down for them so that they could see what was really going on in their department and give them an opportunity to address it that way. Now there is a problem with the departmental climate protection plans, and that is that the goals probably aren't stringent enough. We looked at it, and it looked like we could get about 50 percent of our emissions reduced by 2020 through the goals that were set out. We know what our greenhouse-gas emissions are now, and we know that with the goals that are in place now – that the departments created and that will be loaded into the CARS program – we can reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions by about 50 percent.

But we're supposed to be zero by 2020 – carbon neutral. So we know that the goals aren't stringent enough, but we also know that is quite a stretch goal, [to get to] carbon neutral by 2020.

AC: So the hammer isn't down – does that discourage you?

EM: I'm still feeling good about this program. I was pleased to see how many departments really stepped up to the plate and tried to create aggressive goals. And there are people individually within departments that are trying to find opportunities for reductions. That's still happening.

AC: In terms of progress, what are the main differences in 2010?

EM: In 2010, we started our carbon calculator effort, and we hope we are driving some reductions within the community. We kind of started our community side of this focus in 2010. We kicked off the community plan in March, and we hope to have the first year of that wrapped up in March of 2011. Now that's a continuing process – we will have some kind of summit in March or April, and then we'll try to do that on an annual basis – identify additional actions that the community could be taking to try to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions. We planned to do communitywide inventories every three years, so there was one that was done in 2007, and we'll have one done in 2011 – we'll do the 2010 inventory.

AC: It's retrospective.

EM: Exactly. We use Travis County for our community planning boundary, and some of those things have to kind of be guesstimated. With the city's inventory, we know what vehicles are being driven, we know how many miles they were driven, and we know what kind of fuel is being used. So the city's inventory is much more accurate.

AC: So that pie graph that lists the Travis County inventory, that in theory is supposed to include the entire community, not just institutional – residences, vehicles – and so you're your ballpark estimate, based on whatever sources, is 16.6 million metric tons. You're expecting to recalculate that next year, and I presume it will be larger.

EM: Since we're growing – what are we hearing, 1,000 people a week? – I don't see how it can not be growing.

AC: Who comes up with that communitywide number?

EM: We used Austin Energy wherever it was within the county, and then we contacted Bluebonnet and [Pedernales Electric Cooperative] and TXU [Luminant], and we did get them to tell us how much energy was used within the Travis County area. And then we went to [the Texas Department of Transportation] to get an estimate on the transportation. The water was a little easier, because our water department [Austin Water] covers a good bit of Travis County.

AC: Transportation, energy, and waste are the three major aspects.

EM: We used the buses; we tried to calculate even the trains in there. It's very much of a guesstimate.

AC: If the city number is right now at 5.8 million, is it really accurate to believe that the city institutionally produces roughly one-third of all of the CO2 in the whole county?

EM: That's what our numbers show, and that is very interesting, isn't it?

AC: I found that puzzling simply because there are so many private cars in the county. But your numbers are telling you that the city institutionally creates roughly a third of the entire county's greenhouse-gas emissions?

EM: No one else has looked at it from that perspective. I kept thinking, "Is anybody going to notice this?" And a lot of that has to do with the water. It's not shown as one of the three categories, because it's actually reflected in the energy proportion. [Note: In a subsequent conversation, Matthews clarified that while the municipal inventory includes the energy used to provide residential and commercial water, it does not include AE's generation of residential and commercial (non-city of Austin) energy, which should instead be reflected in the countywide inventory. That distinction, and the fact that the transportation (vehicle) estimate is very approximate, makes her suspect that the 2007 Travis County carbon footprint total is too low – a question that needs to be explored in the 2010 update. – M.K.]

AC: How committed is Austin Water to cutting back on this?

EM: Of course, they say that Water Treatment Plant No. 4 is going to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions, and they have been actively trying to identify ways to reduce their energy costs through improving their pumps and several of their other projects. And they have the [biosolids] digester out at Hornsby Bend that we are finally getting hooked up to a generator, so instead of emitting that methane or burning it off, we'll actually be using it for fuel. So they've been trying to respond to this. And the department directors are all aware that this charge has been given to us by City Council.

So I say that we don't have any authority, but there is the larger authority. It's just that we can't tell someone that, "No, you can't buy a building way out in North Austin and drive back and forth, because that doesn't do your greenhouse-gas emissions limiting very well." They're supposed to be aware of it.

AC: Before I drop that authority question, one of the questions still simmering is that because the program is housed in Austin Energy, thus far, that that's been kind of isolating. There has been some discussion of moving it into City Hall. Is your retirement and the hiring of this new sustainability officer [Lucia Athens] going to affect that administrative relationship?

EM: I couldn't tell you that; they have not shared that detail with me. The council just voted on our budget, and we got our budget passed, so we are still part of Austin Energy for the fiscal year of 2011. That doesn't mean that they couldn't move us, and I think Austin Energy's paying half of the sustainability officer's salary too, so it all kind of fits.

But I haven't noticed that [it's a problem]. I've been so pleased and impressed with how actively involved the different departments are – we have monthly meetings, we started by calling them the "CAT" meetings (Climate Action Team). That was created right after I hired my staff in 2008. It was originally 12 departments, and they came together and came up with ideas that the city could implement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Then, when we started the departmental climate protection plan, we added all of those other departments to this CAT team. We still have those meetings once a month, and they're well attended; last December the city manager came and gave a little presentation and thanked them all for their efforts. That's where we built the departmental climate protection plans, in that monthly meeting.

Then my staff would go out to the buildings and to the different offices and help them identify ways that they could reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions, and people have been engaged. We still get questions about: Oh, they might be buying something, and they want to put it on the council's agenda [for approval], and they want to know what the emissions will be if they buy this versus that. I think they're engaged.

Right now I think everybody's beaten down because of the budget [process], but I think the employees have tried to reach this goal of helping us reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

One of the things I wanted to mention – this is one of the things I've been trying to get people to understand. If you look at the copy of our budget, although we're all called the Austin Climate Protection Program, I actually have air quality and urban heat island in my budget. Urban heat island, there is a certain amount passed over to Parks and Recreation for their street tree-trimming. It got put in my budget because I was involved in the whole tree task force effort. It was an easy budget for them to put it in.

We look like we get $2.8 million, I think $2.7 million this year. But some of that transfers to other departments.

But there is another thing I want to mention to you about our budget, and that is, not all of the costs of meeting the goal of the climate protection plan are in my budget, because I don't help somebody buy a Prius instead of buying a sedan. There's an additional cost there [to the departments]. When Fleet had to clean out all those filters because we moved to 20 percent biodiesel, and biodiesel basically cleans out the engine, and so they have to clean the filters, there's more maintenance involved – the departments absorb that cost. It's moving us to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, but there is a cost. And it's citywide. ...

AC: Have you gotten any backlash beyond, say, online postings that this is all baloney and there's no reason to do it at all? Do you get resistance along those lines within the city?

EM: Well, when my employee who was doing the training – she ran into a lot of people that just completely disagreed – city employees that did not agree. She would usually just let them have a say and then move on. She wouldn't argue with them, because it doesn't work.

AC: The municipal inventory – 2007 to 2009 – shows reducing numbers of emissions. You know you've pushed it down that far?

EM: Yes – and I can tell you that's because we moved departments on to GreenChoice and the use of biodiesel in our construction equipment.

AC: So that's the main reason for that decline. So when I go to the ACPP 2010 matrix and it says 53% of city facilities use GreenChoice energy – which is not Fleet yet – that only includes 19% of the energy use. So you've still got 80% of the energy use needing to get on its way to renewables. I've been told a little more has been added in 2010 [since risen to about 23%].

EM: Yes, we do have additional GreenChoice. We haven't moved any department over to GreenChoice since the first of the year, when we moved the Convention Center over. We put the Convention Center on GreenChoice so that they could document that they were a sustainable site and get their LEEDs rating.

The Convention Center is an enterprise [revenue generating] fund. I don't know if you're aware of all things about GreenChoice – different batches, different pricing – there are some batches that GreenChoice charges less than our current fuel charge (Batch 1 and Batch 2 are like that).

AC: How much of the city is on Batch 1 or Batch 2?

EM: Very small numbers.

AC: So you're buying at the more expensive batches?

EM: Right, and at this point Austin Energy is absorbing that cost difference.

AC: Overall, in moving to GreenChoice, you've already grabbed a lot of the low-hanging fruit. And yet you've still got these larger goals.

EM: Well, there's still a lot of kilowatt hours. If they go over to GreenChoice, it's going to be lower.

AC: Is that the single biggest hunk to cut emissions, to get everybody on GreenChoice?

EM: Yeah – because 75 to 80 percent of the amount is energy.

AC: On the bar chart, the 2005 line – is the short-term target to get it back to where it was in 2005?

EM: The cap that we've proposed through [AE's] generation plan is 20 percent below the 2005 level. So what I'm demonstrating there is that we're getting close to 2005, but we still have another 20 percent to go. But I was kind of mixing metaphors there, or mixing concepts there, because the cap is actually for all of our emissions, communitywide, and those emissions there [on the municipal bar graph] are the part that the city departments use. So it doesn't include the energy that we sell to our customers – it includes the energy used to create that energy but not the energy that we sell.

AC: On the fleet changeover, when you talk about biodiesel and ethanol, etc., there's a lot of controversy whether this is really as beneficial as everybody thought it was at the beginning. What's your sense of how that's going to play out?

EM: The ultimate choice for the city is to move towards an electric platform. So these are all kind of temporary fuels for us. [The move would be] to all electric, or at least plug-in hybrid, so that you could use electric for the majority of the travel.

The ethanol does cause us a problem, because we have our air quality division here too, so you're using ethanol, and it's okay for the one but not so good for the other. And we've had some fueling issues with ethanol – we haven't had enough fueling stations until recently – and we had to go off of the biodiesel for a little while, because the mix that we got wasn't a clean mix. So we had to go back and get a new contract that will improve, because we'll be using biodiesel in 2010 all year long, and we'll have more fueling stations for the other fuels.

AC: In your report, you talk also about savings. There's at least the possibility of saving costs through saving energy. What's your sense of getting to those goals and whether the money is showing up in savings?

EM: We haven't figured out a way to quantify that, because it is basically locked in to the departments. I'd like to think that they would tell me, but I don't think they will.

AC: Wouldn't they want to be bragging about saving money?

EM: You'd think so.

AC: How'd you come up with these estimates?

EM: The electric and water are very easy for us, and transportation comes directly from the Fleet division. Ethanol is less expensive than gasoline, so those are costs that we can document by the amount of savings that they should be getting if they continue to implement the policies that they committed to in the departmental climate protection plans. It was a projection, obviously, and we won't know these confirmations until next year.

We would have to go through and see if there really was a drop in usage. I think there will be because we're doing a lot of efficiency stuff in the buildings.

AC: What kind of efficiency stuff?

EM: There's a lot of lighting that's being changed out – I know they just finished changing out the lighting in the parking garage at City Hall. They've done a lot of lighting in all the buildings. We got $7.4 million of stimulus money to do some improvements in our facilities – new HVAC systems, new chillers, the whole thing.

AC: So the up-front cost has been paid with federal dollars, and the city gets energy savings.

EM: Exactly. And then we have a small one – it took us a long time to get this done, but we got all of Austin Energy and I think almost all of the city of Austin's computers on hibernation at night, so that they basically turn themselves off. It's a little savings, but we like that kind, because it's structural rather than behavioral.

AC: In evaluating the departmental plans, the projection for 2010 is a 5 percent carbon footprint reduction, and if you get that every year between now and 2020, that's a 50 percent reduction. But you're shooting for a 100 percent reduction. Are you basically surrendering now, in 2010, that that goal cannot be reached?

EM: No. I had a meeting with [sustainability officer] Lucia Athens Friday, and she asked me, "If you could wave a magic wand, what would you do?" I said, "Well, I'd go in and strengthen all of the goals that are in the climate protection plans, because I think we can do better, and I think we can get below the 50 percent." I think we can do better, and it's a matter of setting goals that are more aggressive.

AC: What's your sense of the role that the sustainability officer is going to play in this whole project?

EM: I think she will have some role in it; I don't know if she will be directing or managing this group. We're all eager to start to work with her; we're trying to give enough space so she can learn a little bit before she tries to take over. She reports to [Assistant City Manager] Sue Edwards. She's got a lot to absorb – it's a three-legged stool concept. People ask me, "Why are you doing a climate protection plan when we're hiring a sustainability officer who's going to do a sustainability plan?" Well, the climate plan is just a portion, like maybe one-third, of what she needs to work on: She also has equity and economy to deal with. We're not the total environmental picture, but we're a good part of it. It's something for her to build on. ...

I'd like to fill my positions – the total group is 11, counting myself, an admin specialist, and then I had six people that were working explicitly on climate protection. It was good staff, a nice big staff. I had really good employees – they worked hard and they did really good work. And I've lost all six. ... Now I have the three air quality people and the admin person and a new hire that I have who came on a month ago to work on the community plan. His name is Marc Coudert.

A lot of us are picking up extra work. I say these people are air quality people, but I have them working on climate protection. With the community plan, now, we had six resource sectors, and so each employee has one sector that they are in charge of, and I have one.

When we kicked off the communitywide plan, the employee who was in charge of it announced her retirement on the day we had the kickoff.

AC: It's your understanding you're going to be able to fill all those positions?

EM: Yes, I've been advertising and interviewing. I have one that's supposed to come in on the 27th, and hopefully I'll be able to hire another one in October.

[...]

AC: A little bit about these urban heat islands. They don't contribute directly to global warming, is that right?

EM: Right. The urban heat island program was something that the council approved back in 2001. I've been managing it since then. So when Climate Protection was given to me, heat island came with it. Air quality came in 2004, so I guess I was a natural choice for the ACPP. It doesn't contribute directly, but because the heat island causes us to use our air conditioners more, it does contribute. And then most of our urban heat island programs are tree-planting programs, and that's the mitigation [for both heat and climate change] that we can provide.

The truth is, I'm trying to get somebody interested in this, and with the green roofs initiative, one council member is interested. I've been keeping these projects alive, and I don't want to see them die. It's maybe a personal thing; I think there's a real benefit to these programs. One of the things we have is called the NeighborWoods Program, created back, I think, in the early Nineties. They had to stop the program because it was one of their funding cuts. So when I was given the task of the urban heat island project, the council came up with 14 items that we should address to reduce urban heat islands. Several of them were tree planting, and one of them was to reinstate this NeighborWoods Program. So we turned it into a contract, and TreeFolks is our contractor, and they take trees out into the neighborhoods. They first identify neighborhoods that could use trees, and then they ask the homeowner if they would be willing to plant and maintain a tree, if we gave them a tree. Then we take them a tree, between October and March, tell them where it should be planted, and then they go back and check and see if they got planted and send them cards reminding them to water.

That sounds kind of hokey, but for an electric utility to be doing that at the same time we're going around and trimming people's trees, it's kind of a feel-good program. We just had an intern who did a study of the trees that were planted in the Nineties, and he found a 63 percent survival rate of those planted where they were supposed to be planted. (Sometimes people plant them in other places in their yard.) I asked urban foresters if that was a good percentage, and they all thought that was a great percentage of those trees to be in place for more than 10 years. I just don't want to see these programs die.

AC: Are you worried these programs are going to lose their mother and waste away, or take another year for somebody to get up and get going again?

EM: Well, yes. That's why I was hoping this would be the year we would really get going and show success, and the team would be all excited about it, and that didn't work. So it's kind of sad, but we're really a start-up. I got my budget in October of 2007, so we're barely 3 years old.

AC: You're about to say goodbye. What's your sense of what's going to happen next?

EM: I feel like this program, and especially with this new CARS system, this program is going to provide the departments a lot of excellent information that if they will use it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will be successful. There's one other thing that I would like to see happen, and that would be that we further our green purchasing efforts. I think there's opportunity there that hasn't been realized.

AC: What do you include under green purchasing?

EM: Well, we've created [specifications] for landscape and equipment so that when we hire landscapers, they're using fuel sources that create less of an emission. And we have what is called "best value," that allows us to add a percentage onto a contract – we usually use a low-bid contract, but if a contractor is within a certain percentage and they demonstrate that they're going to provide a product that's less carbon intensive than another product, then we can use this "best value" percentage to maybe go above what would have been the low bid.

But there's still so many things that we could be talking about. The city buys a lot of paper, a lot of copiers; we buy little gimmes – it would be good if we bought them made in the USA. Just a lot of opportunities out there; purchasing is a big component of what the city does. I think there's opportunities there, and I hope that's one of the things that happens.

  • More of the Story

  • Slow Burn

    City's climate protection plan sputters in 2010
  • How Cool Is Austin

    2010 snapshot of the ACPP 'five plans'

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

global warming, city poicy, Austin Climate Protection Program, Ester Matthews, Carbon Footprint Calculator, Austin Energy, Austin Water, Greenhouse gas emissions, Water Treatment Plant No. 4, Lucia Athens, Urban heat island, GreenChoice

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