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AE manager argues against expanding utility’s goals for solar power

Wednesday, August 7, 2013 by Michael Kanin

A fight is brewing over Austin Energy’s solar energy goals.


In a memo sent to Council Tuesday, utility General Manager Larry Weis preempts a rally set for noon today at City Hall. Weis says that gathering called by solar advocates “will call on the Mayor and Council to double or triple Austin Energy’s solar goal.”


Weis questions the feasibility of solar advocates’ calls for an expansion of Austin Energy’s current solar generation goal. He maintains that the current goal of 200 megawatts of solar power by 2020 stretches the utility to its limits. “Running it to 400” – the low-end figure proposed in a recent report from the recently concluded Local Solar Energy Committee – “makes no sense whatsoever,” he said.


Public Citizen’s Tom “Smitty” Smith, who also served on the Local Solar Advisory Committee, questioned Weis’ conclusion. “We looked at the costs and came up with a plan to ramp up installation…between now and 2020,” Smith told In Fact Daily.


The 200-megawatt solar goal is part of an ambitious plan to significantly reduce carbon emissions from utility operations controlled by Austin Energy. As of June, Weis says Austin Energy had 9.9 megawatts of residential solar power, 6.4 from commercial sources, 1.7 with schools and multifamily housing outlets, and 30 from its new Webberville solar plant. In June, the utility signed contracts that put it in line to surpass its goal of 35 percent renewable generation four years before a Council-mandated 2020 date.


Weis suggested that an increase in solar scale along the lines of the one now pushed by committee members would be cost prohibitive. He told In Fact Daily that large-scale solar power reliance will force the utility to either construct or purchase power from solar fields, and that distributed solar energy – generation gathered from small-scale rooftop installations – was not a practical means to achieve major use of solar on a large scale.


“If we have to go out and buy a bunch of solar plants to bring us up to 200 (megawatts) between now and 2020 we’d be affecting the fuel charge significantly – to the point where our ratepayers would fundamentally have some real problems,” he said.


Weis noted that the utility is “not interested in higher goals than what we have because we know that we will be right back in there taking another look at our rates.”


Weis added that, even though it would be “a significant challenge for us,” he would not back off the 200-megawatt solar goal approved by Council in 2011. “


Smith continued to stand by the advisory group’s goals, set somewhere between 400 and 600 megawatts of solar-generated energy. He argued that the group’s conclusions were based on the idea that “the cost of solar would come down naturally over time.”


Looking ahead, Smith also argued that utilities that make major solar acquisitions before the expiration of federal solar tax incentives in 2016 would become “economic engines” for the development of wider use of solar power. Under that argument, Smith suggests that Austin Energy ratepayers could, instead of a rate increase, stand to benefit from an early adaptation of large-scale solar power by the utility.


Smith quickly listed a set of benefits he saw for the utility that would come with large-scale solar use: He noted that the value of solar is “far more” than the cost of purchasing wholesale energy; that it could reduce fuel costs; that it would cut down on air and water pollution; and that it would help create local jobs.


Weis argued that proponents of the loftier solar goals hold on to a “misconception” that other means of generation could be sold or otherwise liquidated, and replaced with solar power. He said that solar generation offered the utility “value in capacity” with regard to its ERCOT picture for only two months of the year.


He told In Fact Daily that he is “flabbergasted” at the suggestion that solar could simply replace other modes of mass-electricity generation. “We have a utility to operate,” he said.


Later, he added: “We have to be practical…They are pushing Austin Energy too far.”

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