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Friday, August 18, 2017 by Jack Craver
Council approves ambitious renewable energy goals
City Council overwhelmingly approved a plan Thursday that sets big goals for Austin Energy, the municipally owned electric utility, to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels over the next decade.
The update to the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan builds upon the goals set when the plan was first approved in 2014 by calling for the utility to generate 65 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2027.
The last update of the generation plan called for it to achieve 55 percent renewable by 2025, which the utility has stated it is on track to achieve. Currently, about 32 percent of the energy generated by Austin Energy is from renewable sources.
The update that was approved largely mirrored one that was approved by a working group composed of environmentalists, affordability advocates and representatives of small and large businesses.
Council Member Leslie Pool, the chair of the Council committee that oversees the utility, acknowledged and thanked the environmental activists who showed up at City Hall last week, many calling on Council to adopt an even more aggressive plan.
“We are so fortunate that we are a community that debates stretch goals,” she said. “We challenge ourselves to do more.”
In a nod to that sentiment, Pool introduced a number of amendments urging the utility to strive for even greater renewable goals, including by developing models on how to get to 75 percent renewable sources by 2027, as many of last week’s speakers had urged.
Council Member Alison Alter made a point of defending the plan against those who described it as insufficient. “A larger but less feasible” goal, she said, might undermine the city’s ability to keep electricity costs low.
Alter also hinted at the possibility that a plan that is deemed too radical might put the city at risk of losing its utility as a result of action by Republicans in state government, many of whom have expressed interest in the past of privatizing Austin Energy.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who last week said that she was interested in pursuing more aggressive goals, agreed to change an amendment she offered stating Council’s “continued interest” in getting to the 75 percent goal. After Alter argued that that language might send mixed signals to the utility about what goals Council was endorsing, Tovo accepted a suggestion by Mayor Steve Adler that removed the specific percentage and simply stated Council’s interest in “reducing emissions as quickly as possible.”
Another last-minute amendment added by Council Member Delia Garza upped the amount of money the utility will spend on “demand-side management” programs aimed at helping low-income households, small businesses and other “hard-to-reach markets” reduce their energy bills through increased efficiency. The amendment also specified that a quarter of that money be set aside for weatherizing low-income homes.
Council Member Greg Casar commented that he would like to see more low-income people benefit from the solar rebate program that the utility offers. All ratepayers pay to fund the program, which offers incentives to property owners to install solar panels on their roofs, so the city needs to make sure that those with the greatest to gain from reducing their energy bills get access to it as well, said Casar.
Otherwise, said Casar, the fees Austinites are paying to fund the programs are “regressive” and may lend credence to “climate change deniers and fossil fuel lobby folks” who argue that the poor are hurt by renewable energy efforts.
“It’s low-income folks who suffer the most from climate change,” he said.
Council Member Ellen Troxclair cast the only dissenting vote against the plan, saying that she wished the city’s priority would be to make its electricity as affordable as possible, rather than as green as possible. Noting that the plan calls for Austin Energy rates to remain in the lower half of Texas utilities, she said the city could “do so much better.”
Adler echoed Alter’s comments about the plan, saying that it represented a balance between Council’s “commitment to affordability” and environmental stewardship.
The mayor recalled attending the Paris Climate Summit and being proud of the reputation Austin has as a leader in energy innovation. With both the free market and the federal government coming up short in the fight against climate change, he said, “It takes entities, cities like Austin to really lead the parade.”
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.