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Environmentalists swarm City Hall in push for carbon-free electricity

Friday, August 11, 2017 by Jack Craver

In what was clearly the largest turnout for a City Council meeting yet this year, hundreds of activists showed up at City Hall Thursday night to speak out on Austin Energy’s proposed update to its resource plan.

Following a rally in front of the building, green-clad environmental activists streamed into Council chambers until the room was declared to be at full capacity, forcing dozens more to watch the proceedings on the TVs in the lobby.

The public hearing followed a presentation by Austin Energy staff, which has endorsed a proposal by a working group of the Electric Utility Commission that commits the city-owned utility to generating 65 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2027. It also calls for rates to increase no more than 2 percent annually and for Austin’s rates to be in the bottom half of all Texas utilities.

Most of the speakers, however, showed up to urge Council to demand that the city-owned utility go further, by committing to 75 percent renewables by 2027 and 85 percent in 2030. At 85 percent, the utility’s generation mix would be entirely carbon-free, since about 15 percent of its current mix is nuclear.

“We’ve done what’s felt comfortable and not more,” said Kaiba White, of Public Citizen, of humanity’s efforts thus far to combat global warming. “There is no time to waste.”

Richard Franklin, a longtime Del Valle activist, said that he is already seeing the effects of climate change and pollution related to fossil fuels, from increased flooding to widespread asthma.

“People are losing their lives already,” he said, imploring Council to go completely carbon-free as soon as possible.

Many speakers pointed out that nearby Georgetown is already powered entirely by renewable sources.

A number of speakers supported the 65 percent goal as a reasonable compromise that balanced environmental and affordability objectives. The utility has estimated that rates will increase between 4 percent and 13.5 percent as a result of shifting even more aggressively away from coal and natural gas in favor of wind, solar and other non-fossil fuel sources. With the more aggressive goal, it has estimated rates will go up between 4 and 15.5 percent.

Janee Briesemeister, a longtime advocate for low-income ratepayers, warned that “increasing goals to levels that haven’t been studied is risky.” She also pointed out that Georgetown, unlike Austin, does not have massive municipally owned power plants that it must pay dearly to shut down.

Cary Ferchill, a member of the Electric Utility Commission, similarly urged Council to be wary of promising what isn’t possible. Doing so, he said, would likely “force the City Council into a gut-wrenching exercise to reverse course.”

Some others focused on increasing the amount of utility revenue devoted to “demand-side management” programs that help low-income families reduce their electric bills by adopting more energy-efficient appliances and weatherizing their homes, among other things.

Nancy Gomez, who works as an assistant property manager with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, described the savings that such programs help tenants achieve.

“Prove to us that the city still cares about the people who mop the floors and make the tacos,” she said.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who chairs the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, said after the meeting that she was unsure of which plan had Council’s support. She said that she was trying to get a sense of her colleague’s positions before pushing for a specific plan.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, however, said that she was “leaning” towards the more aggressive plan, along with pushing for setting aside more funding on low-income energy efficiency efforts.

Photo of Richard Franklin addressing the crowd at City Hall by Jack Craver

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