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Business, environmental panels split over Austin Energy candidates

Friday, July 2, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

Depending on the interest group, the two finalists for the job of general manager of Austin Energy either are experienced candidates who can lead the utility through future growing pains or aren’t qualified enough to play in the big leagues of utilities.


The city assembled two eight-member panels, one comprised of environmental activists, the other of business representatives, to interview finalists Larry Weis and David Wright.


The business panel met with the candidates Wednesday and several of them told In Fact Daily yesterday that both men are strong candidates. However, members of the environmental panel, which met with the finalists Thursday morning, said during a news briefing at City Hall afterward that neither candidate passed muster.


“Austin Energy is recognized nationally for its leadership on clean energy, and I think we need someone who’s a major-league player,” said Brigid Shea, a former Council member who represented Solar Austin, a non-profit organization that is promoting the switch to renewable energy, on the panel.


Cary Ferchill, an attorney who served on the city’s Generation Resource Planning Task Force, said the environmental panel members – himself included – relayed to City Manager Marc Ott their belief that the job search should be reopened.


Weis is general manager and chief executive officer of the Turlock (Calif.) Irrigation District, and Wright is general manager of the City of Riverside (Calif.) Public Utilities.


Both utilities obtain at least twice as much of their energy needs, percentage-wise, from renewable sources than Austin Energy does. The Turlock utility generates 28 percent of its needs through renewable energy currently; Wright’s Riverside utility is at 20 percent renewable energy. Currently, 10 percent of Austin’s energy production comes from renewable sources.


Among the environmental panel’s concerns was the learning curve either of the two would surely face because the Texas energy market is different than California’s, Ferchill said.


“We have a totally different culture, political climate and regulatory system that applies here,” he said. “From my point of view, I think the learning curve for either one of these gentlemen would be very, very high. I think Austin Energy is poised at a position where they cannot afford to put their plans on hold and wait for people to catch up.”


But members of the business panel left the interview process with a different perspective.


“I think, overall, the group felt that these were both good candidates that had the experience and the ability to help us work through these issues that we’re going to have to face in Austin,” said Martha Smiley, a local attorney who represented the non-profit Austin Area Research Organization.


She said the panel members asked deep and broad questions about the difficult balance the community is trying to achieve: clean energy at an affordable price. Smiley noted the candidates’ utilities have been successful lining up renewable sources of energy, and that they have dealt with rate case issues. Austin’s rates are expected to increase in 2012, the first time since 1994.



“No matter which one is chosen, I think it will be the right person to lead Austin into the 22nd century,” said Earl Hairston, director of government affairs for the Austin Board of Realtors and a business panel member.


A third finalist, Ronald Davis, general manager of Burbank Water and Power, a community-owned utility that serves the Los Angeles suburb, withdrew his candidacy last week.

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