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Electric Utility Commission OKs energy generation plan

Tuesday, November 17, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

The city’s Electric Utility Commission recommended last night that the Austin City Council adopt a plan that would push the city to use more renewable energy sources and step up conservation programs by 2020. Renewable energy sources (solar, wind, biomass) would supply a minimum of 35 percent of the city’s power needs by 2020 under the new generation plan, compared with the current plan’s goal of 30 percent. 


The recommendation, by a vote of 5-1, closely follows a staff recommendation about the mix of energy sources the city should rely on during the next decade.


The commission’s vote is similar to last week’s recommendation by the Austin Resource Planning Task Force that the city adopt a generation plan that emphasizes increased use of wind and solar power as well as more conservation, while rejecting any additional commitment to nuclear power or coal.


On Monday, the Electric Utility Commission endorsed the task force recommendation.


The most contentious issue, and certainly the one that generated the most discussion at Monday’s meeting, was whether, when and how the city should scale back use of the Fayette Power Project, a coal-fired electricity plant near La Grange that the city owns along with the Lower Colorado River Authority. Austin Energy owns 36 percent of the power generated from 1,641-megawatt plant, which is among the single largest polluters and generators of greenhouse gases in Central Texas. LCRA operates the plant and the rest of the electricity it generates.


The energy resource plan, if adopted by City Council and implemented, would increase the city’s reliance on renewable energy and de-emphasize the Fayette Power Project. Under the plan, the city would get 36.7 percent of its electricity from wind, solar and biomass sources by 2020, up from 12.6 percent this year. Energy generated by coal and nuclear — which includes the city’s share of the South Texas Nuclear Project in Matagorda County — would stay at 1,029 megawatts (MW), with about 600 MW from Fayette. Plants fueled by natural gas would increase slightly under the plan and make up the remainder of the city’s electricity-generation mix.


The task force members added a proviso to the staff plan: That the city scale back the power generated from the Fayette Power Project to 60 percent of the amount it now receives.


The longest-tenured member of the Electric Utility Commission, Shudde Fath, was the lone dissenter on the group’s vote to approve this plan. Fath offered an alternative motion: that the commission merely make it a “goal” and not a “policy” that Austin Energy reduce the energy generated from Fayette to 60 percent. She argued that a “goal” would give the city more flexibility to increase its solar and wind portfolios if commercially viable and reliable storage makes this more feasible.


While reducing its reliance on the coal-fired plant was laudable, she said if Austin Energy pulls out of the Fayette plant it will remove its lowest-cost energy source, and risk increasing electric bills for customers, many of whom are already struggling to pay their bills. She added that LCRA would have right to buy its share in the plant. “I’m 99 percent sure LCRA will buy our share and make money on it,” Fath said. Under such a scenario, “we’re wasting money.”


Fath’s motion, seconded by commission vice chair Linda Shaw, was defeated 4-2.


Instead the commission approved the recommendation from Chair Phillip Schmandt, who outlined for his fellow commission members the analysis that was done by the task force, which Schmandt also chaired.


He said the Austin Energy staff recommendation, with the proviso, represented a middle path that minimizes risks and costs to the city, while still reducing the city’s carbon emissions. He also added it was important that the plan provide  Austin Energy with flexibility so it can adjust and move quickly to take advantages of changes in technology and prices on the open market.


“It’s a plan to get from A to B,” Schmandt said. “We’re just charting a course.”


The Resource Management Commission will consider the generation plan tonight and it is expected to appear on a City Council agenda in December.

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