Renewable energy pioneer retires from Austin Energy
Tuesday, February 11, 2014 by Bill McCann
Michael Osborne, long-time entrepreneur, author, and renewable-energy pioneer in Texas, is turning another page in his storied career.
Over the past four decades, Osborne has built energy-friendly homes; developed the first wind farm in Texas; helped form the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association, marketed solar and wind equipment around the state, and found time to write four books.
Now 64, his long gray hair still sporting a ponytail, Osborne announced he is retiring this month from Austin Energy, where he has played a key role in the utility’s nationally recognized renewable-energy efforts over the past 12 years. Actually, Osborne doesn’t care for the word “retire.” He prefers to call it moving on to the next phase of his life. He plans to write another book or two and stay involved with two of his passions, renewable energy and climate change.
“I think I’m leaving at a good time as Austin Energy is close to achieving the renewable energy goals that the City Council assigned to us,” Osborne said. “When you are getting to be 65, you don’t think about 15-year projects any more.”
He was referring to successful efforts in recent years to lock in long-term agreements for Austin Energy to purchase renewable energy, mainly wind power from West and South Texas. Most recently he has been working on a deal for the utility to purchase energy from a planned solar plant at a price he said could be a “game-changer” for solar power in Texas. The project is expected to be announced this spring.
“Few of the most significant policy and business developments that have moved the marker forward for renewable energy in Texas didn’t have Michael Osborne’s hand in them,” said Russel Smith, executive director of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association. “In the man-made world things don’t happen unless someone first imagines they can. When stuck in ‘same old, same old’ we’re told you’ve got to think outside the box. I’m not sure Michael was ever in the box.”
Osborne believes his biggest challenge, and accomplishment, has been helping to get Austin Energy in position to achieve the Council goal to obtain 35 percent of the city’s energy needs with renewables by 2020. He is confident the utility will meet that goal by the end of next year, with five years to spare.
“We are going to meet the goal, not only without causing rate shock, but being able to reduce energy costs,” Osborne said. “The timing had been perfect. We bought wind in a buyer’s market and now we may have the same opportunity with solar.”
Currently, Austin Energy has contracts calling for the purchase up to 850 megawatts of wind energy, with another 400 megawatts scheduled to go on line in the next two years. The utility also has agreements to purchase up to 30 megawatts of solar from a privately owned plant near Webberville, and purchase 100 megawatts from a plant that burns wood wastes in East Texas, Osborne said. In addition, local homes and businesses have installed another 20 megawatts of rooftop solar units.
“Right now close to 25 percent of the energy that Austin Energy provides (to its customers) all the time is generated from renewable sources and some days it’s over 50 percent,” Osborne said. “We have come a long way.”
Born in Amarillo, Osborne played in two rock-and-roll bands that entertained the local youth center’s Friday night dances when he was in junior high and high school. He played guitar, bass guitar and piano.
At The University of Texas at Austin, Osborne majored in aerospace engineering, then business (marketing) until he walked away one semester short of a degree after a business school dean denied him project credit for an advertising agency he had started on the side. After he withdrew from school, his agency focused on marketing such music venues as the long-gone Armadillo World Headquarters, Castle Creek and Mother Earth in the early 1970s. He also promoted a singer named Willie Nelson.
Then, influenced by architect, inventor and philosopher Buckminster Fuller, who believed in the importance of renewable energy, Osborne decided to take his marketing skills in another direction. He turned to the energy business in the late ‘70s, building passive solar homes and selling energy-saving wood stoves. In 1981, he developed the first wind energy project that sold energy to a utility in Texas. The project, built near Pampa in the Texas Panhandle, consisted of five 25-kilowatt wind turbines.
In 1983, he signed on as the first distributor in Texas for Solarex, a now-defunct maker of solar cells used then as power sources for such things as ranch gates, railroad signals and other places where stringing power lines was difficult or expensive. In the 90s, Osborne began focusing on wind energy. He ran the Texas operations for Zond Energy, which is now part of General Electric, the largest U.S. wind turbine maker.
In 2002 Osborne was hired on at Austin Energy, initially under a federal-state grant to write a long-term comprehensive energy plan. The plan, called Silver in the Mine, was published in 2003. Subsequently he worked with former general manager Roger Duncan in developing a successful national campaign to get the automakers to support mass production of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
For the past five years Osborne has had the title of special assistant to the general manager for energy development, with a number of responsibilities including meeting the 35 percent renewable energy goal.
“Michael Osborne is the primary force behind Austin Energy reaching its 35 percent renewable energy goal ahead of schedule,” Duncan said. “His vision and knowledge of wind and solar generation has been invaluable to AE. Austin owes him for our national leadership in renewables.”
Osborne’s current boss, Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis, praised his work as well.
“Michael is a real visionary, a dreamer with great ideas,” Weis said. “He has been a big help to me, especially when I first got here. He has been a good counselor and confidante, and a good friend.”
What’s next? One of the things Osborne is considering is writing a book on climate change and the growing need to unite the public to force development of a plan to deal with the issue.
‘People who deny climate change fail to recognize the combined statements of all of the national academies of science of every nation on Earth that it is real,” Osborne said. “Arguments by the deniers will not change the physics.”
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