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Duncan explains plans for reducing Austin’s carbon footprint

Tuesday, July 29, 2008 by Austin Monitor




In an effort to meet both expected federal regulation and the city’s own climate change goals, Austin Energy announced last week plans to cap its carbon footprint through a combination of new carbon-neutral generating technology, energy conservation, and shifting 30 percent of its generating capacity to renewable energy sources. However, according to Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan, a key element of the reduction plan will be the purchase of carbon offsets in an effort to meet an anticipated 2014 deadline.


Duncan presented Austin Energy’s efforts to meet the goals set forth in the Austin Climate Protection Plan to Council last Thursday. In his report, Duncan said that Austin Energy’s plan is based on the Lieberman-Warner Bill, which is the only carbon-footprint legislation to make it out of a Congressional Committee thus far.


The bill proposes that electric utilities lower their carbon emissions down to their 2005 levels by the year 2014. While those deadlines are not part of the law just yet, Duncan said Austin Energy is using those dates to measure its program’s progress. 


“Some utilities are setting goals to cap or reduce CO2. Up in the northeast and in California, they have mandatory cap and reduction programs,” he said. “But we are one of the few that are setting a voluntary rate.”


Under the Climate Protection Plan, Austin Energy is planning to conserve 700 megawatts of energy– mostly through conservation – while increasing is generating capacity by 1,375 MW by 2020, by adding renewable energy generated by wind, solar and biomass. Part of that effort includes increasing the city’s gas fired Sand Hill generation plant’s capacity by 200 MW.


However, the city’s current generating capacity, 2,473 MW of nuclear, gas and coal power, leaves a hefty 6.25 million ton annual carbon footprint, 71 percent of which is generated by the coal-fired Fayette power plant.


“That leaves us with two options in order to cap emissions at the 2007 rate and reduce them to the 2005 rate (5.6 million tons) by 2014,” Duncan said. “So, we can purchase the offsets or burn our gas plants more to offset the coal from the Fayette plant.”


Building a new technology coal plant or replacing the Fayette plant with gas or other technology is not feasible by the 2014 deadline, Duncan said. While some of the new technology related to coal plants, such as capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide emissions, is promising, he said he did not expect it to be fully developed in time to meet 2014 standards.


From a purely economic standpoint, purchasing carbon offsets is by far the most cost-effective way to achieve the 2014 goals, Duncan said.


According to information provided by Austin Energy, purchasing offsets would cost about $19 million between now and 2014. The alternative – increasing the use of natural gas – would cost approximately $253 million during the same time frame.


According to Duncan, Austin Energy would purchase carbon offsets at the rate of one offset per metric ton (2200 lbs) of reduced emissions.


“We are buying a project somewhere else that would not otherwise have been done, that will reduce the same amount of carbon we produce,” it said. “It could be a reforestation project, it could be the use of methane from landfills that prevents it from going into the atmosphere…several different types of projects where carbon is prevented from going into the atmosphere.”


To ensure quality, Duncan said that offsets should be third-party certified. He pointed to organizations such as the California Climate Action Registry and the Voluntary Carbon Standard Council, who certify offset programs before that are purchased.


Duncan submitted Austin Energy’s plan to meet the goals of the Austin Climate Protection Plan, but Council members took no action on his recommendations.

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