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Mayoral candidates gravitate towards solar

Tuesday, March 3, 2009 by Austin Monitor

On Thursday, the Austin City Council is scheduled to vote on entering a contract with Gemini Solar Development to build a new 30 MW solar array on 300 acres of land owned by Austin Energy near Webberville. The Council postponed the vote at its Feb. 14 meeting after representatives of Spansion and St. David’s Hospital, among others, complained that their rates would go up.


Lobbyists opposed to the plant were still visiting Council Members on Monday. However, Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell, who aspire to succeed him as Mayor, say they are solidly in favor of moving forward with the project.


Mayor Will Wynn told In Fact Daily that building the solar power plant will pay off in the long run, even if rates go up for a while.“ When Council is faced with decisions like this, it’s sometimes easy to forget why we established our renewable energy goals in the first place,” he said. “Yes, this contract will help keep electric rates lower over the life of the project. Yes, it’s an important step toward fostering clean-tech economic development in Austin. Ultimately, though, our renewable energy goals originate from an understanding that we have a responsibility to do our part to combat the climate crisis — and it’s probably worth taking a moment to remind ourselves of that.”


The Burnt Orange Report featured lengthy interviews Monday with both McCracken and Leffingwell on their support for the solar plant. McCracken’s interview is at and Leffingwell’s is at .

Leffingwell faced some criticism for agreeing to postpone the vote last month, but says he will be voting for the plant this week. “I know there’s been some criticism, especially in the context of the mayor’s campaign, about the delay that I supported on this vote,” he told the Burnt Orange Report. “I’ve actually heard some speculation that I don’t support the idea of investing in solar, but I do. I just felt the delay was important so we had the opportunity to listen to everyone’s concerns and think through all the implications of making a big investment like this — $250 million.”


McCracken said a further delay would be even more costly. “Right now the national leaders in the solar energy are being determined,” he said. “If Austin walks away from leadership at this moment it will leave us behind in having the expertise to integrate solar and it will harm our national leadership.


“There are two reasons why regions develop leadership in an economic sector,” he continued. “One is the people who know how to do these systems live in that community and the second is they develop market leadership. You can’t decide one day that you want to lead in solar economically when you lack the experience in using it.”


If the Council does not vote for the project, McCracken envisions headlines in cities such as San Jose and San Francisco trumpeting Austin’s failure to move forward with the Gemini deal. “Every one of our competitor cities will say, ‘These guys aren’t serious about it and you can’t count on them when they say they’re going to make a deal with you.’ So this vote is a test of our vision and of our word.”


Leffingwell told the Burnt Orange Report he intends to “create a stakeholder group to study and make recommendations about our future strategy for additional purchases of solar and other kinds of renewable power. [The large companies opposed to the solar plant] are asking — and they have a lot of expertise because it’s in their interest to use less electricity and to make sure that their costs are minimal — so they’re asking for a seat at the table as we talk about our strategy moving forward from this point, after this particular 30MW batch.”

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