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Duncan set to retire from Austin Energy next spring

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 by Bill McCann

Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan is dimming the lights on a storied career at the City of Austin.

Duncan, widely regarded as the architect of Austin’s nationally known renewable and energy efficiency programs, announced today that he will retire on March 1. Duncan, 62, has played a key role in shaping Austin’s energy policy over the past three decades, mostly from the inside. He has worked for the city for most of those years in various positions, including four years on the City Council in the early 80s. During the past 11 years he has held senior positions at Austin Energy, including the past 19 months as general manager.

After taking time off to relax, Duncan said he plans to finish writing a book that he’s started “several times” on the topic of energy. He also will look for part-time writing, teaching, and consulting opportunities.

Flanked by Mayor Lee Leffingwell and City Manager Marc Ott, Duncan told a news conference this morning: “I have truly enjoyed the work I have done over the years, and working with the wonderful people – colleagues and co-workers – who have made Austin the best city in America.”

Leffingwell said, “Roger Duncan has distinguished not only himself but also Austin Energy as a national leader in energy policy. He’s made a lasting impact in an industry that is changing day to day. His dedication and expertise will be greatly missed.”

Ott noted that one of the first important decisions he had to make after arriving here as city manager in early 2008 was selecting a general manager of Austin Energy. Duncan had been Interim general manager for about six weeks when Ott decided to make the appointment a permanent one. 

“I was aware of his leadership and the creativity and innovation that he brought to this industry, even before I arrived. So, given that and given the wonderful things people had to say about him once I arrived, it was really a no-brainer for me to make the decision to appoint him as General Manager of Austin Energy. I think this organization, this entire city, owes Roger a debt of thanks for the leadership that he brought to Austin Energy,” Ott said.

Duncan said he was announcing his retirement well ahead of time to give Ott time to find a replacement. He thanked Ott and the City Council for their support and confidence in him, saying, “I have watched Austin grow from the 45th largest city in the nation to the 15th largest today, and yet we consistently receive the highest marks for quality of life in every poll taken. That could not have been achieved without the vision and work of both this and previous City Councils.”

In 2005, Business Week magazine named Duncan one of the decade’s top worldwide leaders in efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, for his work in developing a green-power program that has become a model for others around the country. The elite list also included a former British prime minister and two U.S. governors.

Last week Duncan was named a finalist for the 11th Annual Platts Global Energy Awards in the Lifetime Achievement category. The Platts awards are considered among the most prestigious in the energy industry.

Over the past two decades, he has participated in a long list of state and national policy groups, including the Alliance to Save Energy, the National Urban Consortium Energy Task Force, the Western Governors Association task force on energy efficiency, the Electric Drive Transportation Association, and the State of Texas Sustainable Energy Development Council.

During Duncan’s tenure at Austin Energy, the utility has won a number of national awards for its energy-efficiency programs, which have been credited with saving ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars by avoiding the cost of building a power plant.  Duncan prefers to give most of the credit to others, including Austin Energy staff and a cadre of local activists. But many of those close to the issue give much of the credit to Duncan, citing his patience, passion and low-key persistence.

In a feature article on Duncan last year in The Good Life magazine, Duncan’s former boss at Austin Energy, Juan Garza, called him “one of the city’s treasures,” adding that many Austin Energy employees regarded him as a “sage.”

In the same article, Peck Young, a former political consultant and Duncan colleague, said: “Roger Duncan, more than anyone, has reshaped the city’s energy policies for the better and because of it he enjoys a national reputation.”

Duncan, a native of Port Neches, came to Austin in 1967 to attend the University of Texas, where he got a degree in philosophy. In 1975, he worked on the City Council campaign of Margaret Hofmann and became her aide when she won the election. It was during that time that he became a staunch opponent of Austin’s involvement in the South Texas Project nuclear plant. It endeared him to local activists but put him at odds with the business community, which supported Austin’s participation in the plant.

Duncan was elected to two two-year terms to City Council, in 1981 and 1983, during which time he became a leading advocate for advancing policies supporting environmental protection and energy efficiency. 

After a four-year stint as administrator for College Houses, a nonprofit student-housing cooperative, Duncan was lured back to the city in 1989 by former City Manager Camille Barnett to be the assistant director for an environmental department that she was setting up. He later was named director of the department and environmental officer for the city. He moved to Austin Energy in 1998 as vice president in charge of conservation, renewable, and environmental policy. He became deputy director for distributed energy services in 2004 and general manager in February 2008.

While the city has adopted ambitious renewable and energy-efficiency goals, thanks largely to Duncan and supportive city leaders, there have been detractors. Members of the business community, particularly some high-tech firms, concerned about cost and reliability, have raised questions about the renewable-energy goals, for example. They have been especially visible in recent months after Duncan announced a proposed updated electric generation plan that includes even more ambitious renewable-energy goals. The plan also has drawn concerns from groups that help low-income families, due to rate increases that will be needed to pay for the plan.

Undaunted, Duncan has continued to make the case for energy efficiency and renewables – such as wind and solar power – as the best alternatives for the city and for the environment. It is a case he has been making with regular success for a long time.

Duncan is married to In Fact Daily editor Jo Clifton.

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