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Consultant says doubling city’s solar goal do-able but expensive

Wednesday, October 23, 2013 by Bill McCann

Should Austin double its already ambitious solar energy goal?


It’s a question that has begun to get renewed attention from solar advocates, environmentalists, utility officials and others following a year-old recommendation by the City Council-appointed Local Solar Advisory Committee that the city increase its 2020 solar goal from 200 megawatts to 400 megawatts.


The issue heated up Monday when outside consultants told a joint meeting of the city’s advisory Electric Utility Commission and Resource Management Commission their just-completed analysis confirmed the advisory committee’s conclusions that doubling the current solar goal is technically feasible and would bring economic benefits to the city. However, the analysis questioned the costs associated with meeting the proposed goal.


In a strategic solar plan adopted last fall, the committee estimated that increasing the solar goal to 400 megawatts would carry a total net cost of $36 million between 2013 and 2020. But the analysis prepared for Austin Energy by DNV KEMA, an international consulting firm, concluded that the net cost could exceed $90 million. (Austin Energy had put a price tag of $226 million on the new goal in its initial review.)


Olof Bystrom and Austin Collins of DNV KEMA explained that the cost differences were a result of using different methodologies. The solar advisory committee based its estimates on the avoided purchase of a new natural gas power plant, while the consultants used market-based prices forecasted by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.


The cost issue drew a number of questions and comments from commissioners, including EUC Vice Chair Karen Hadden who said: “We should be comparing new generation to new generation rather than new generation to what’s on the market.”


Several solar advocates reacted generally favorably to the consultant report, expressing hope that the new attention will help the issue get a thorough review as part of an anticipated update of the city’s Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plan next year. The City Council will have a final say on any changes to the city’s energy goals.


“The (DNV KEMA) consultants did a fine job. They matched our assumptions nearly line for line, except for one key area,” Steve Wiese, principal of Clean Energy Associates and chair of the solar advisory group told In Fact Daily. “I am happy to see attention to solar and to have these analyses on the table for consideration and I look forward to seeing a series of discussions on our work and on the solar goal.”


The current resource plan, adopted by the City Council in 2010, includes a goal for Austin Energy to get 35 percent of its energy from renewable sources, including 200 megawatts from solar, by 2020. To reach the 200-megawatt goal, Austin Energy will be tapping electric power from rooftop solar equipment, community solar projects, and large-scale solar power plants. As part of that effort, Austin Energy on Monday issued a Request for Proposals, seeking responses from companies that would build a solar power plant and sell the power to Austin. (See Whispers, Oct. 22). Responses will be accepted through Dec. 3, with selection of a developer planned by March 2014.  


The City Council created the 20-member Local Solar Advisory Committee in April 2012, charging it with developing a strategic plan to ensure best use of Austin’s solar energy resource. Committee members represented a wide range of stakeholders, including the solar industry, business, academia, and environmental and consumer groups. The committee adopted the plan on a 16-0 vote last Nov. 1. Besides recommending the 400-megawatt solar goal, the committee plan proposed an interim (2016) solar goal of 135-200 megawatts.


The plan received relatively little public attention until this summer when Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis sent a memo to Council in anticipation of a rally by solar advocates who were calling for doubling or tripling of the solar generation goal. Weis blasted the idea, saying the existing 200-megawatt goal was already a stretch for the utility.

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