The Austin Chronicle

Then There's This: Shake-up

How green was my Austin Energy

By Amy Smith, June 15, 2012, News

A close-knit community of green energy proponents have spent the last two weeks wrestling with the sudden, but not terribly surprising, resignation of Karl Rábago from Austin Energy. The mixture of emotions over what is believed to be his forced departure is somewhat similar to at least four of the five Kübler-Ross stages of grief – denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance. But anger is the dominant theme, and it's spurring them to organize, strategize, and consider their next steps.

As vice president of Austin Energy's Distributed Energy Services, Rábago oversaw the utility's efficiency services, green building, new technologies, market research, and generally most anything related to clean energy. His hiring in 2009 was widely applauded, given his background and work history in the energy field, both at the U.S. Department of Energy and the state Public Utility Commission. During his three-year tenure at AE, Rábago continued to build on the programs created under former General Man­ag­er Roger Duncan, who recruited him.

Rábago's last day at the utility is Friday, June 15 (not June 8, as first reported in a preliminary version of this story on the Chronicle Newsdesk blog). Envi­ron­mentalists fear that without him, AE will continue backsliding on green initiatives as long as Marc Ott is city manager. It happens that Ott is due for his annual performance review by City Council, and activists want to weigh in with their two cents before the evaluation.

It's no secret that Ott and Rábago had an uneasy relationship. The two got off on the wrong foot early on, and Ott, it was said, seemed to be looking for reasons to move him out. Late last year, after a scrap between Rábago and minority contractors temporarily caused a missed opportunity for federal funding for low-income weatherization, there were concerns that Ott would use the incident as one more reason to fire him. As one city official wryly observed at the time: "Rábago has now become a verb at Austin Energy. To 'Rábago' somebody is to try to build up a file to try to get them fired."

Indeed, despite his friendliness and accessibility, Rábago seemed to have a knack for rubbing some people the wrong way, both inside and outside city government. Some local air conditioner contractors, for example, had a long-running tussle with him over the rebate program. Inside the department, he was said to be a tough boss who demanded workplace accountability; not every employee viewed that as a positive.

Fence Mending

Once word began to spread early this month that Rábago was on his way out, AE General Manager Larry Weis reached out to an outraged enviro-community in an attempt to avert any embarrassing flare-ups before a June 7 council vote on an electric rate increase. The day after council approved the new rate structure, Weis met for about 90 minutes with several advocates and professionals. He got an earful about what they believe to be the utility's backslide on programs initiated under former GM Duncan. And to his credit, he heard them out.

"They basically wanted to look me in the eye and say, 'Are you still committed to the things you said you were committed to?' and I said 'absolutely,'" Weis recalled. "I didn't tell them what they wanted to hear; I told them what I honestly think about what the future holds." He also assured them he had no plans to split up the energy services division, as some employees had feared.

"I would say I was encouraged, but we are still concerned," said Brigid Shea, whom Weis initially contacted in an attempt to quell a potential storm. During the conversation, Weis agreed to meet with representatives to try to hash things through. Robin Rather summed up the meeting this way: "We went in as environmentalists to say 'enough already' and to offer to help him regroup. [Weis] seemed open to that but offered no specific next steps."

Weis has tapped Fred Yebra for the interim VP spot, and said he'll launch an internal and external search for Rábago's successor, as well as hire a new chief strategy officer to replace John Baker, who left in early 2011. While his intentions are good, Weis admits he's behind the curve on the green-business side of the utility. But with the rate case out of the way, he said: "I will pull myself close to the organization and make sure I understand the working parts real well. I haven't frankly had a chance to do that – under different circumstances I would have jumped in with both feet, but I've been working on rates."

On Thursday, Rábago was wrapping up some loose ends at AE and looking forward to furthering his clean energy cause through consulting work. And he says he has faith that AE will continue raising its profile in the green arena. "It's already got a hard-earned reputation," he said. "It's got a brand, and everybody in the competitive market knows that once you have a brand you have to work hard to maintain the integrity of that brand. That's what gives the ability to move in the marketplace."

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