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Austin Energy’s REACH program falls behind its carbon emissions goals

Friday, November 19, 2021 by Willow Higgins

Austin Energy announced last week that it is significantly behind its goals for reducing carbon emissions this year, citing operational and market factors. While the utility hopes to make up some of the gap between now and the end of the year, it may fall short of the 1.28 million metric tons of carbon it hoped to reduce this year.

The city’s REACH program which stands for Reduce Emissions Affordably for Climate Health – is a carbon pricing program designed to disincentivize fossil fuel use. The program aims to reduce the city’s carbon emissions, which primarily come from the Fayette coal power plant, by 30 percent between March 2020 and the end of 2022. The amount the utility has fallen behind this year will roll over into next year’s goals, the last year of the program in its current form.

The update, briefed to the city’s Electric Utility Commission on Nov. 8, came shortly after Austin Energy announced another major blow to the city’s climate goals: It will not be able to stop doing business with the Fayette coal power plant as it had hoped. Negotiations between the power plant and Austin Energy stalled after they were not able to agree on exit terms that fit the city’s budget and timeline.

Erika Bierschbach, who briefed the commission on the REACH program status, cited a few primary factors that contributed to this year’s emissions levels.

“I think it would be an understatement to say that this has been a challenging year, and I’m here to explain how it’s been challenging in more ways than one for us (and) for REACH,” Bierschbach said. The first setback was an abnormally high amount of rainfall; the Fayette power plant experienced a “hurricane level” of rain between late spring and early summer, causing the pond levels to rise more than they should. The power plant asked for assistance in evaporating the water, but in turn, the REACH operation was suspended between mid-May and mid-August.

Bierschbach also cited an abnormally high coal pile this year – which can lead to operational limits, safety concerns and inventory concerns – and abnormally high gas prices, which shifts the utility market and impacts carbon pricing. Austin Energy also overestimated power outages this year, a projection that did not work in its favor, as power outages force energy reduction.

“The combination of these things is what really has suspended REACH and was difficult for us to be able to completely use the strategy every month throughout the year,” Bierschbach explained. 

At the time of the briefing, REACH met just under half of its goal for 2021, and has about a month and a half to make up as much as it can. One energy unit is currently experiencing an outage and will be until mid-December, which will help make up some of the gap.

“One of the issues with REACH, which I think we’re showing here, is that there are operational limitations, as well as market conditions that don’t always allow me to use that budget as I would like,” Bierschbach said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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