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Austin Energy chief reviews first year of accomplishments, challenges

Monday, October 3, 2011 by Bill McCann

Larry Weis sums up his first year as general manager of Austin Energy by highlighting accomplishments, frustrations and ongoing challenges.

 

In a wide-ranging interview with In Fact Daily, Weis says he has moved into his leadership and management role smoothly, and is thrilled with the utility’s efforts this year to bring its wind-energy portfolio to within striking distance of the city’s 2020 renewable-energy goal. 

 

He sees the restructuring of electric rates as his top goal – and challenge – for the utility’s future. Meanwhile, he expresses frustration about what he calls the “lack of knowledge and misunderstanding” by many people about how a publicly owned power system like Austin Energy, which provides huge financial and other benefits to the community, operates compared to privately owned utilities.

 

Energetic, outspoken, and confident, with a quick sense of humor, Weis has 30 years of experience in utilities, having worked previously at the Snohomish Public Utility District and Oreille Public Utility District in Washington State, and the Turlock Irrigation District in California’s Central Valley. He was running the Turlock district, with about 400 employees and annual operating revenues of $330 million, when Austin City Manager Marc Ott tapped him to lead Austin Energy, the ninth largest publicly owned power system in the nation, with about 2,000 employees and $1.2 billion in annual revenues.

 

Since taking over on Sept. 27, 2010, Weis has presided over a utility that had to deal with rolling blackouts during extreme cold last winter, oppressive heat this summer, wildfires in and near the utility’s service area, and a growing – and potentially protracted – fight over electric rates.

 

Still, he says, he loves his job, is impressed with Austin Energy staff, enjoys the setting of Austin, and likes the people, who remind him of the friendly folks back in rural Washington state where he grew up.

 

“I think that Austin Energy is a great utility and I want to help make it better.”

 

Accomplishments 

 

One accomplishment, Weis says, has been in his management and leadership role. “I’ve been able to sort out all of the different objectives and strategies and put the right people on them,” he says. “And then it has been a matter of getting the management team to work together and understand the priorities. I’ve been real pleased with our success as a team.”

 

Also, he says, he was able to pick up an understanding of the operations and finances of the utility pretty quickly. “It was easier to get a grip on the utility than I thought it would be.”

 

Similarly, he says, he has worked hard to demonstrate leadership at the utility. Austin Energy had been without a general manager for seven months after Roger Duncan retired in March 2010.

 

A pleasant but surprising accomplishment, Weis says, has been the utility’s success in moving forward with the three recent wind power agreements that will add 491 megawatts of power-generating capacity – at a very competitive cost – to the utility’s portfolio by 2013. That should bring Austin Energy’s total renewable-energy to 30 percent of the utility’s total capacity, and well within reach of the 2020 goal of 35 percent.

 

“When I took the job, I wondered whether we could make the 35 percent goal by 2020,” Weis says. “I would say that this has far exceeded expectations.”

 

By the same token, Weis says he would not have taken the Austin Energy job if it were not for the city’s renewable and other ambitious green-energy goals. “Those challenges are the reason I’m here,” he says. “I love doing renewable projects and my first job in the utility business was in energy efficiency. I’m very comfortable with those goals.”

 

One thing he wishes he could have done this year, but didn’t, was develop a plan related to future base-load power – the amount of lowest-cost, reliable power needed to meet minimum customer demands. “The year has gone too fast.” The plan will focus on future base-load power as it relates to nuclear power and the coal-fired Fayette Power Project of which the City of Austin is part owner, he says. That plan should be ready by the end of 2012, he adds.

 

Frustrations

 

One of the most difficult and surprising issues he has faced since coming to Austin, Weis says, is the general lack of understanding of public power. “I am surprised at the lack of knowledge and misunderstanding of how public power versus how private power does business.”

 

“There is a lot of misunderstanding of how we operate, what the money goes for, and things like that,” Weis says. “I find myself a constant educator to stakeholders, the general public and even some employees.”

 

Challenges

 

The biggest challenge by far is the rate case, Weis says. “Getting rates redesigned and restructured is really important to the utility’s future,” he says. “People need to know that we are not just raising rates. We are redesigning the whole rate structure. The balance has got to be fairness. And when one group asks out (for rate relief), they are asking another group to pay for it.”

 

The rate process is “going as well as can be expected,” Weis continues. “The timing is not so good with the economy and everything else being what it is. But what is unique about Austin is that we are in the state capital and the PUC (Public Utility Commission of Texas) is here and there is a multitude of consultants who make their living off rate proceedings.”

 

Furthermore, under state law Austin Energy customers living outside the city limits can appeal to the state PUC, Weis points out. “So what we see is that as we go through the rate process, a number of individuals, including some who make a living lobbying at the PUC, are weighing in as if some telecom company was involved in a rate case, trying to interject themselves as if this were a private rate case. There are a lot of individuals – PUC lobbyists, lawyers, consultants – used to feeding off the system. It is disappointing, especially that some do not seem to understand the basics of public power.”

 

But while Weis sometimes lets his frustrations show, he lets his sense of humor slip into conversation as well. When he was asked, for example, whether he had any major disappointments, he replied: “Yeah, my handicap golf game. Not much time for golf.”

 

And asked about his college days, Weis acknowledged that he had long hair, played the drums in a band and studied music before focusing on industrial technology. “Now, I’m more like the lead vocalist here at Austin Energy.”

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