AUSTIN (KXAN/LBJ/CLASS) - Austinites enjoy some of the lowest electricity rates in Texasfrom what is known as one of the most progressive and sustainableutilities in the country: Austin Energy.
And now, Austin Energy is trying to accomplish something noutility has ever done: Carbon neutrality.
The next City Council will make important decisions about AustinEnergy’s new-generation investments that will change the waythe utility operates and how citizens consume their power. Thissummer, Austin Energy will present to the council theirrecommendations for their long-term generation plans. The counciland the new mayor will have a great impact on the future of AustinEnergy and the future of the city’s energy use.
Are Austinites prepared for the drastic changes associated witha carbon-neutral Austin Energy? Already, locals have been skepticalabout some of the more expensive proposals that have come on thetable, such as the biomass plant and the Weberville SolarProject.
For many years, Austin Energy has been a national leader indemand-side management (DSM) programs designed to encourageconsumers to modify their electricity use and wind energyinvestment through its GreenChoice® program, and theinstallation of new smart meters. The Austin Climate ProtectionPlan (ACPP), passed by City Council in 2007, established a numberof new goals for the city-owned utility, including requirements forcarbon neutrality on any new-generation, dramatic increases inenergy conservation and efficiency.
The ACPP has challenged the utility to change the way itoperates and lead the nation in greenhouse gas emissionreductions.
Austin Energy emits the most carbon dioxide of any cityactivity. Austin Energy produces about 1/3 of its energy from coalcombustion, while this activity produces about 71% of theutility’s total carbon dioxide emissions. In order to becomea carbon-neutral utility, Austin Energy must purchase carbonoffsets for their emissions from coal combustion, or pay for newcarbon-neutral or renewable-generation sources.
Since the approval of the ACPP, Austin has explored adiversified range of generation options.
In 2008, the City Council unanimously approved a $2.3 billioncontract to purchase all power produced over a 20-year period by a100-megawatt (MW) wood-waste-fueled biomass plant in East Texas.While this new source of power helps meet Austin Energy’srenewable energy goals, there were numerous complaints about theproposal’s lack of community discussion.
In September 2008, Austin Energy announced an 8-monthcommunity-wide public participation process to solicit feedback onfuture power-generation options for the utility. Austin Energydeveloped a resource guide for the public that provides the prosand cons of each generation type and revealed a proposal for newgeneration between now and 2020. The resource guide and proposalfor new generation were discussed at five community-wide town hallmeetings and on the utility’s web site,austinsmartenergy.com, where Austinites can post questions andprovide input on the proposed generation plan.
Austin Energy plans to send their final recommendations on theproposed generation plan to City Council by early summer of2009.
In the meantime, Austin Energy took action on two investmentoptions.
The utility had considered investment in the expansion of theSouth Texas Project, a nuclear facility in Matagorda County. InFebruary, the utility announced it would not participate in theproposed expansion, though not ruling out nuclear energy inprinciple.
Then on March 5, 2009, Council approved (7-0) a $250 millionagreement under which Austin Energy will purchase all electricityproduced over a 25-year period by a 30 MW solar project to be builton city-owned property near Webberville. This project is one of thecountry’s largest solar power facilities and helps diversifyAustin Energy’s renewable portfolio, which is currently 99%wind-generated power.
The unanimously approved project has received much publiccriticism about the facility’s use of foreign-made panels andSan Francisco-based design company, not to mention fears that thesolar investment will raise Austinites’ utility rates. Powerproduced from the solar project will likely be sold in a programsimilar to Austin Energy’s GreenChoice® program for windenergy, where customers voluntarily subscribe to a flat charge forelectricity use over a set period of time in place of a fuelcharge.
Katy Cummins is a graduate student at The University of Texasat Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs, specializing in Urban andState Affairs, with a focus on energy and transportation issues.She is part of the CLASS program at LBJ. She can be reached byemail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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