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Reporter’s Notebook: Solutions and such

Monday, November 27, 2017 by Austin Monitor

That got a little prickly… The Texas Health and Science University earned the recommendation of the Planning Commission at its Nov. 14 meeting to rezone in order to construct a library next door to the acupuncture school as well as dormitories in a single-family neighborhood. “(The school is) getting overrun with foreign students,” said agent Jim Wittliff at the meeting. “Very strange, they’re coming from China.” The item had been pulled by Commissioner Karen McGraw, who believed the development was too intense for the area. Commissioner James Schissler said that if the neighborhood was not speaking against the request, the commission should not be making up reasons to undermine it. Commissioner Tom Nuckols, who shared McGraw’s view, said he did not think that Schissler’s comment was constructive. “I never make excuses,” he said. “I have concerns over infrastructure that are valid.” The commission voted 8-2 to approve staff’s recommendation, with McGraw and Nuckols dissenting.

How “become” arts… The Austin Animal Center might be getting art, courtesy of the city’s Art in Public Places program and artist Jimmy Luu. At the most recent meeting of the Animal Advisory Commission, Luu said he drew inspiration from the campus itself, its history and from questions about its future “within a rapidly changing city.” He explained the site was once home to the Montopolis Drive-In Theater and later, in 1961, the state built the east campus of the Texas Blind, Deaf, and Orphan School there. The city of Austin purchased the land in 2011 and it is now home to the city’s animal shelter. The art piece, which will be a wall in several pieces that spells out the word “BECOME” and encourages interaction, will be presented as a final design for review and approval early next year, with hopes to install the project the middle of next year. Luu explained that there is already an “earth work” at the center also created by him, a decade earlier. That landscape art spells out the word “ONWARD” in 30-foot-high letters. That piece, he said, was an exploration of how people interact with letters that they cannot read (it can only be read from a plane) but can experience as a body. The new artwork will be in a different section of the property and Art in Public Places has budgeted $55,700 for the project.

A potential solution for Austin to operate on all renewable energy?… On Nov. 13, longtime Austin environmental advocate and Austin Energy critic Paul Robbins approached the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee with the request that City Council begin researching opportunities that would allow it to increase its goal of providing 65 percent of Austin’s energy through renewable sources by 2027 to 100 percent. He took his cue to ask the city to strive for complete green energy from the public opinion expressed during a City Council meeting in August when the resolution to commit Austin to 65 percent renewable energy was passed. However, he explained that in order to achieve this lofty goal, the city is going to have to expand beyond conventional sources of renewable energy. “It will have to move beyond solar cells and windmills,” Robbins said. “Otherwise how would you explain when the lights go out when there’s not enough wind?” Solar and wind energy rely directly on natural forces and are not yet dispatchable on a wide scale, meaning they cannot be employed on demand. To prove that current methods were not the answer to a fully sustainable green model, he presented the committee with the example of the Roserock Solar Facility. This facility sells solar electricity to the city of Austin, but is only able to provide 43 percent of rated power during summer peak demand and 4 percent during winter peak demand. Robbins’ suggestion for a viable renewable energy source was to research compressed air energy storage or concentrated solar power as an alternative, which he believes could create the economies of scale required to power the city. Robert Cullick, the marketing and communications director for Austin Energy, told the Austin Monitor, “compressed air energy storage is not a technology that anyone has proved economical to be deployed.” Robbins acknowledged that if one compares dispatchable (on demand) renewable energy costs to non-renewable energy prices, it is obvious that fees must come down before green energy can become viable on a citywide scale. “It’s not prime time yet,” Robbins told the Monitor. He explained that he is simply encouraging Council to explore how Austin can move the market toward more renewable energy sources in the future. “If the Council is really serious about this, they need to get down into the weeds and figure out what Austin needs to do,” he said. To encourage the city to increase its urgency to find a fully renewable solution, he asked the committee to prioritize the investigation of cost-effective dispatchable renewable energy on its 2018 agenda.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jessi Devenyns, Elizabeth Pagano and Joseph Caterine.

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