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Activists ramp up campaign for renewables and against fossil fuels

Thursday, March 20, 2014 by Bill McCann

As Austin Energy begins to update its energy plan, local solar and environmental advocates have ramped up their three-year campaign to get the City of Austin to invest even more in renewable energy and to pull the plug on coal.

However, instead of pummeling Austin Energy to get their points across, many of the activists, at least for now, have begun using their own version of sweet talk, particularly since the utility is well on its way to meeting renewable energy goals that doubters incorrectly argued could not be met without bankrupting the utility.

The activist effort is being spearheaded by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign and Public Citizen, which have been busy working in recent weeks to get community groups and individuals organized and informed on the issues. Group leaders say they plan to stay deeply involved as Austin Energy moves through the energy planning process over the coming months.

Activists won points earlier this month when the Austin City Council backed their request to name a citizens task force to examine and make recommendations on the 2014 update of the city’s Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan. The Council is expected to consider appointment of the nine task force members at its work session March 25.

“Austin Energy is not our enemy,” said Dave Cortez, a leader of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “We appreciate what they have done in meeting goals and to open up the planning process to allow us to be heard. We want to see real change and we are working with a lot of people to get change to happen.”

The intensified campaign was evident this week when about 75 activists rallied Monday in front of Austin Energy offices, then took their arguments inside to a joint meeting of the Electric Utility Commission and the Resource Management Commission. Participants included members of local solar, consumer, environmental and church groups, students and even landowners from Fayette County worried about the effects of the  coal-fired Fayette Power Project of which Austin has part ownership.

The two advisory commissions met to hear from Austin Energy and from the public on the utility’s efforts to develop the resource plan update. The plan is the utility’s blueprint for achieving the city’s energy goals set by the City Council to be met by 2020. The updated plan is scheduled to be completed and presented to the Council for approval in September.

At the joint commission meeting, numerous speakers praised Austin Energy for what the utility has done so far in meeting the city’s current renewable energy goals. Then they asked for more, a lot more.

In what appeared to be a well-coordinated effort, speaker after speaker, about 40 in all, stepped to the microphones to raise concerns about climate change and urge Austin Energy and city leaders to set even higher goals for renewable energy and energy efficiency, while working to retire the city’s share of the Fayette plant near La Grange.

While a number of people spoke against Austin’s continued participation in the Fayette coal plant, perhaps the strongest words came from John Mikus, a Fayetteville property owner who said that many nearby residents had suffered effects, including contaminated wells and cases of cancer in 10 of 12 families living close to the plant. In addition, he said a local pecan farmer also has blamed acid rain from the plant for killing 500 acres of pecan trees.

Mikus said he is serving as unpaid counsel to a newly formed group called Texans for Responsible Energy and Water to try to influence state legislators and the Lower Colorado River Authority, which co-owns the plant with Austin, to shut the plant down.

In praising Austin as a leader in quality of life, Mikus said: “Austin should be able to boast that we have taken a stand (against the plant). Let’s stop the plant from burning coal and destroying people’s lives.”

Other speakers urged the city to reset its current 35 percent renewable energy goal for 2020 to 40 percent or even 50 percent; to double the solar goal from 200 megawatts to 400 megawatts; and to increase the peak demand savings goal from 800 megawatts to 1,000 megawatts.

Typical of the speakers was Austinite Jeff Crunk, who questioned whether the utility’s plan to build a natural gas-fired power plant is wise due to the unknowns about the future cost of gas. Instead, he said, the city would be smart to invest in more clean renewable energy. “The old model of cheap fossil fuel subsidizing renewable energy is no longer valid,” Crunk said. “Now it’s the other way around.”

Others noted that renewable energy, especially wind, is no longer the stepchild in the energy mix. They cited recent successes by Austin Energy to obtain long-term contracts for wind and solar generation at very competitive prices.

For example, late last month the City Council approved a wind-power purchase agreement that will be the cheapest wind energy that Austin Energy has ever purchased, in the range of 2.6 cents a kilowatt-hour. The agreement calls for Austin Energy to buy up to 300 megawatts of power from a project being built by Lincoln Renewable Energy LLC in the Texas Panhandle near Hereford. The project is expected to begin operation in late 2015 and will put Austin Energy over the top in meeting the city’s 2020 goal of having 35 percent of its electric generation from renewable energy.

And in recent days, Austin Energy announced that it has negotiated an agreement to purchase up to 150 megawatts of solar-generated power from SunEdison, which plans to build two solar farms in West Texas and put them in operation in 2016. The cost of the power would be in the range of 4.5 cents to 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, making it some of the cheapest solar power to date and competitive with other energy sources.

With the power from these new solar farms, Austin Energy would top its current 200-megawatt solar goal four years ahead of time. The City Council is scheduled to consider the solar contract today.

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