Tuesday, January 28, 2020 by Jo Clifton

AE, but not drivers, charging toward renewable goals

A report from the Office of the City Auditor states that Austin Energy is on track to reduce carbon emissions from utility operations so the city can meet its goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050. But auditors also found that the city may very well miss its overall goal because of Austinites’ failure to reduce transportation emissions.

Energy and transportation emissions make up an estimated 90 percent of Austin’s carbon emissions, auditors noted.

The report cites two goals adopted last August. The first is for municipal operations to be carbon neutral by 2020. The second and far more ambitious goal is for the Austin community, which includes Travis County, to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Auditors reported that the city-owned utility is making progress toward its goal of generating 65 percent of the city’s electric needs from renewable sources by 2027. “On average, Austin Energy’s energy generation was 37 percent renewable from October 2018 to July 2019,” according to the report. Austin Energy’s overall energy generation was 61 percent carbon-free during that time period, with 24 percent coming from nuclear power.

Austin Energy now projects that the addition of new wind power will raise its renewable percentage to 61 percent by 2021, auditors reported, six years ahead of schedule.

The audit states that in order to make significant progress toward the 2050 carbon neutrality goal, the community needs to adopt electric vehicles in greater numbers. The city does not have a comprehensive plan to increase electric vehicle adoption, but Council identified the need for such a plan in May 2019, with a resolution directing the city manager to include an analysis of transportation electrification and planning in the next update to the Austin community climate plan, which is expected to come out sometime this year.

Auditors point out some limitations and concerns, including the fact that not all vehicle classes include alternative electric vehicles available to replace gasoline-only cars. “Therefore, widespread adoption of electric vehicles is dependent on manufacturing, regional market availability and emerging technology.”

Auditors note that the city can provide programs and increase carbon awareness, “but ultimately key decisions of adoption will be up to the preference of private individuals and organizations.”

Auditors recommended that the Office of Sustainability consider offering rebates for electric vehicles, establish an electric vehicle-ready ordinance and encourage large employers to electrify their fleets.

The city of Columbus offers rebates for some companies’ employees to purchase electric vehicles, and the cities of San Jose, Atlanta and Boston have electric vehicle-ready ordinances. This means new parking construction must have a certain percentage of charging stations or at least provide electric connectivity for future charging stations, auditors noted.

In comparing Austin with other cities, Seattle stood out as a role model, with 93 percent of its utility power coming from renewable resources. Of course, as much as 90 percent of Seattle City Light’s energy comes from hydropower, which puts it at a great advantage over most other cities.

San Jose has a goal of reducing emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. But as of 2019, the California city was generating only 45 percent of its electricity from renewable resources. Los Angeles, which also owns its utility, has a goal of 100 percent carbon neutrality by 2050, but was using only 30 percent renewable resources in 2017.

San Antonio aspires to be a carbon-neutral community by 2050, but its utility only has a goal of 40 percent renewable resources by 2040 and only 22 percent of the utility’s power is currently from renewable resources.

On the other hand, Houston and Dallas have no communitywide carbon-neutral goals, according to the audit, and the cities do not own their utilities, so they do not have information on the renewable resources their investor-owned utilities use.

Management agreed with recommendations from auditors concerning electric vehicles, parking, and encouraging large employers to electrify their fleets. In addition to encouraging electric vehicle ownership, staffers will analyze options for public transit, shared mobility and logistics, auditors reported.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

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.

Office of the City Auditor: This city department is created by the city's charter in order to establish and ensure "accountability transparency, and a culture of continuous improvement in city operations."

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