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Council approves Austin Energy’s 2020 Generation Plan

Friday, April 23, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

After more than two years of planning, Austin Energy has a Generation Plan for the next decade, approved unanimously by the City Council on Thursday. The new plan builds on the already ambitious mix of renewable energy forecasted for the utility’s future and requires that an “affordability matrix” be approved before the new plan goes into effect.


A veritable “Who’s Who” of Austin environmentalists spoke before Council Thursday, each endorsing the plan. The Generation Plan would increase the amount of solar power the utility generates from 100 megawatts (MW) to 200MW, and increase the energy efficiency goals from 700MW to 800MW. The total percent of renewable energy power would increase from the current rate of 30 to 35 percent in 2020. At the same time, carbon emissions from Austin Energy plants would drop to 20 percent below 2005 levels.


Those who opposed the plan expressed concern about how much it would ultimately cost, and sought to bring the plan before a vote of the citizens. Among those opposed were former Mayor and State Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn, Dominick Chavez, longtime East Austin activist Gavino Fernandez, and former Council Member Bob Larsen.


Cary Ferchill, president of Solar Austin and a member of the Generation Resource Planning Task Force noted that AE’s residential rates were 9.5 cents per kW compared to an 11.5-cent price for the rest of the state. “That didn’t come from failing to plan, failing to think ahead, failing to diversify fuel sources. Austin Energy has done a pretty darn good job….there’ve been a lot of people who’ve reviewed this and only in the last couple weeks have I seen people showing up with costs pulled out of thin air.”


Noting that the efforts began with the 2007 Climate Action Plan, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said, “This has been a public process on steroids. Frankly, I’ve never seen so much public process. All the boards and commissions and the utility itself conducted numerous meetings.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole asked the city attorney to clarify what would be necessary to bring such a vote before the people. She was told that the city charter did not allow for the city to just take items before the voters, and it would need a state law or the city charter’s authorization.


“This is the cry we hear every time we make difficult decisions as a Council,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, who called out the politics of some speakers complaining about the lack of a citizen vote. Martinez said previous referendums had required upwards of 23,000 signatures or had been required by law in the cases involving workers rights. “Many of the folks who are opposed to this generation plan are some of the same folks who were fully in favor of us moving forward on Water Treatment Plant 4 without a vote. When the decision is in your favor, you’re all down here wanting us to ‘move forward and lead because that’s what we elected you to do,’ but when you’re against the decision coming before us, you want it on the ballot. You can’t have it both ways.”


Each individual investment choice for new generation would also have to be reviewed by Council and the public before actually being funded and built. Cyrus Reed with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club reminded those speaking against the plan that “it is a roadmap, not a straightjacket.” Leffingwell noted that “It has to be a living document, one we can stop, start and change direction in,” depending on the markets and technology. A number of future developments, ranging from a 2012 rate case for AE to federal climate legislation could provide an external impact on the utility.


Council Member Chris Riley pointed out that approving the plan would help to ensure Austin Energy could find a new General Manager who would be focused on increasing renewable energy. He said the plan, “defines a course for the utility in the next decade. I think this is going to indicate the kind of leader we’d expect in a general manager.”


Robert Goode, the interim General Manager for AE explained the affordability matrix. He told In Fact Daily that the utility would be looking at residential, commercial and industrial rates across the state for publicly owned utilities. AE, with the aid of a consultant, will then formulate an algorithm which will predict the rate impact per resource. “They’ll be able to compare a particular decision with our counterparts,” he said. The matrix is scheduled to be completed by December 31, 2010 at the latest, though Goode said it should be completed before then.


Council seemed satisfied that the matrix could enable them to protect affordability and that the economy and environment would be better off. Luke Metzger of Environment Texas commented on the Council’s approval of the Generation Plan, saying “what a present for Earth Day.”

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