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Combating climate change in Austin to start at Austin Energy

Thursday, September 17, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

As the Office of Sustainability’s newly revised Climate Equity Plan makes its way through boards and commissions for public comment, its latest stop was the Electric Utility Commission on Sept. 14.

Zach Baumer, who is the program manager for the plan, told commissioners that while there are plenty of ways Austinites can help the city lower its carbon footprint, the largest driver behind reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions is Austin Energy.

According to data collected by the Office of Sustainability, the city-owned utility will be responsible for eliminating nearly 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2030, which is approximately half of the reduction needed from all sources in order to achieve Austin’s goal of net-zero communitywide greenhouse gases by 2050.

Austin Energy’s 2030 Resource Generation Plan aims for 93 percent carbon-free generation by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free generation by 2035. To arrive at this goal, the electric utility is investing in renewable wind and solar power sources and is committed to retiring carbon-generating assets and not investing in new ones.

“I have 100 percent confidence we are going to hit that,” Commissioner Cary Ferchill said. “We own the utility. We get to decide what we buy. We get to decide how we implement it.” However, Ferchill noted that transportation, the other large component needed to contribute to reduction efforts, is an area where Austin Energy has limited control.

According to a city audit earlier this year, energy and transportation emissions make up an estimated 90 percent of Austin’s carbon emissions. The Climate Equity Plan’s goal is to have residents use public transportation for 5 percent of all trips, which is an increase of 4.7 percent from 2018. There is also an effort to have people-powered transportation account for 4 percent of all trips.

Cars still factor into the equation with the plan aiming for 40 percent of total vehicle miles traveled to be in electric vehicles. To make vehicle electrification happen, the plan calls for equitably distributed vehicle charging stations. The plan anticipates that 37,000 electric vehicle chargers will be needed to meet this goal.

“If I had my way, we’d be 100 percent electrified transportation tomorrow,” said Ferchill. But, “We don’t really have a lot of leverage there.” He noted that achieving this goal relies largely on the community voluntarily adopting electric vehicles in greater numbers. The city does not have a comprehensive plan to increase electric vehicle adoption.

Baumer agreed that would take cooperation from local, state and federal level lawmakers in conjunction with a shift in how auto manufacturers produce cars. He said at this point, the vision plan accounts for the math necessary to achieve the aggressive carbon reduction goals but does not factor in cost models or implementation strategies.

If Council adopts the Climate Equity Plan in October, staff will begin developing specific plans for each of the goal areas, including transportation.

The commission noted that the city still has a significant amount of work in order to convert the vision plan into a reality. Nevertheless, they unanimously supported the vision to accelerate the city’s emission-reduction efforts, with a focus on ensuring racial equity.

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