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Archive for the ‘Budget’ Category

Once again, Austin Energy has reduced solar incentives with less than 2 hours notice. This time, the changes will impact both residential and commercial customers.

As of 3pm today, the rebate for a residential solar installation is $1.10 per watt (down from $1.25) and the commercial performance based incentive (PBI) is $0.09 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) (down from $0.10).

You might well be asking why Austin Energy made these changes and why so suddenly.

The memo released by Austin Energy indicates that the decrease in the residential rebate was made because Austin Energy wanted to make sure that it didn’t exceed it’s budget for such rebates (the fiscal year ends in September). On the face, that sounds like a responsible move, but there was another option.  Austin Energy could have reasonably anticipated this budget shortfall because the same thing happened last year. It could have requested a larger solar rebate budget instead of trying to cut that budget by about 42% (a proposal that was changed due to public outcry).

The reason stated for reducing the commercial PBI is that Austin Energy doesn’t want to make commitments now that would force it to exceed it’s planned FY2015 budget. PBI incentives are paid for each kWh for 10 years, so this kind of foresight is needed, but, again, another option would be to ask for a larger budget for commercial solar in FY2015.

Before you get to thinking that our answer to everything is just “spend more,” let’s clarify that spending more now could be offset with spending less later and we’d get more solar for every dollar spent.

Here’s why – Right now, and through the end of 2016, the federal government offers a 30% solar investment tax credit. So, for anyone or any business with tax liability, the federal government basically pays you back for 30% of the cost of your solar installation. In essence, Austin Energy is getting a match (about 82%, assuming installations are $3.40/watt, which is what Austin Energy has been reporting as average) for its rebate expenses.  When the federal solar tax credit ends after 2016, Austin Energy may find that its solar rebate program isn’t quite as popular and it may need to spend more per watt to keep solar adoption growing, at least for a few years.

Spending more on solar rebates and the commercial PBI now could provide a buffer that will allow us to spend less in those post solar tax credit years.

Austin Energy says that it must make announcements about solar rebate and PBI levels without much notice because there would be a mad rush to get projects in under the higher incentive levels if solar contractors and customers knew ahead of time.  There is some logic in that, but what has suffered is any opportunity for public input on changes being made.  There is no set formula for reducing rebates, so Austin Energy simply adjusts the levels when and how it see fit.  This leaves no room for ensuring that these changes align with the priorities of of the city.

It was less than 2 years ago that payback times for residential solar installations in Austin were bouncing around in the 5 to 6 year range.  Now they’re at about 10 years and Austin Energy seems quite content with that change.

One option would be to establish a formulas that could be based on the capacity of residential and commercial solar installations or the average payback time, or some combination that would determine when and how Austin Energy’s incentives would be adjusted.

More importantly though, this problem of adjusting solar incentives to meet artificial budget targets, instead of trying to maximize solar adoption while federal rebates are still available would be minimized if Austin Energy had strong residential and commercial solar goals to achieve.  Austin Energy’s overall solar goal should be doubled to 400 megawatts (MW) by 2020.  Even more importantly, the local solar goal should be doubled to 200 MW and the residential and commercial solar goal to 100 MW.  Only with more ambitious goals will Austin Energy be forced to prioritize the expansion of solar.

You can help make this change happen: 

The Austin Generation Resource Planning Task Force, which has the job of making recommendations about Austin Energy’s energy plan for the coming 10 years, has 2 more meetings scheduled – 2:30 pm this Wednesday, June 18, and 2:30 pm next Monday, June 23, both in the bull pen at City Hall.  If you care about expanding Austin Energy’s solar goals as a way of keeping its solar programs robust, show up and speak at citizen communication at the start of the meeting.  Arrive a few minutes early to sign up because only the first 5 to sign up get to speak.  You will be limited to 3 minutes.  It won’t take you long and the task force really does want to hear from the public.

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After years in the making, this past Tuesday the Senate voted 68-32 in favor of the new Farm Bill, which is expected to be signed into law by President Obama in the next few days. While the nearly trillion dollar bill has received a lot of media attention on its relation to its cut of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which composes 80% of the bill’s budget, it’s crucial to look at the other 20% of the bill and its environmental implications.

Senate Votes On 2014 Farm Bill

Senate votes on 2014 Farm Bill
Photo by Alex Wong, Getty Images

The bill, for the most part, has drawn a lot of praise in regards to its environmental provisions . So-called ‘highlights’ of the bill include :

• Provisions for farmers to meet certain standards of environmental protection if they wish to be eligible to receive federal crop insurance
• Funding for farmers to create wildlife habitats on their land
• Funding for on-farm renewable energy
• Removal of so-called ‘anti-environmental’ riders

However, it is possible that one of the non-environmental provisions of the bill will have an unintended consequence – stripping soils of their nutrients and increasing runoff . Perhaps the most popular provision of the bill is the fact that it cuts ‘direct payments’ to farmers, or what many people have called “welfare for farmers” . These payments are subsidies for farmers based on how many acres of land they have, regardless of whether or not that land is farmed.

To cease what many see as handouts, the government as slashed this program and expanded its crop insurance program, one where the government pays the difference to farmers when slips in revenue and/or crop yield occur. While this is particularly useful in ensuring that there is ‘stable’ agricultural production, it also continues to incentivize producers (including many mega ‘agribusiness’ conglomerates) to produce as much as possible. Such large scale agricultural production can and has led to increased fertilizer runoff (causing aquatic ‘dead zones’ and contaminated drinking water ), nutrient-depleted soil and increased greenhouse gas emissions , due to insufficient environmental protection requirements.

(more…)

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Many of you probably remember our concern when Austin Energy proposed slashing the solar budget by 42% for fiscal year 2014 – which we’re now in. But public outcry and our meetings with Austin City Council members made a difference. The budget was fully restored and we can expect to have another great year for solar in Austin.  That was back in September.

Sun-in-fistJust yesterday, Austin City Council passed a resolution that expands the city’s commitment to development local solar.  Of our existing solar goal of 200 megawatts (MW) by 2020, half will now have to be locally sited and half of that local solar will have to be distributed systems that are owned or leased by customers.

That’s great news for local jobs, because there’s no way to outsource installation of small, local solar systems.  Someone has to be here to do a site inspection, file the paperwork with Austin Energy and actually install the system on someone’s room or in their yard.

City Council also instructed the City Manager to consider adopting the 400 MW by 2020 solar goal put forth by the Austin Local Solar Advisory Committee (LSAC) into the Generation Plan update next year.

We have Council Members Chris Riley, Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman to thank for leading this effort, but the resolution was adopted unanimously, and I know that others on the Council are eager to see solar thrive in Austin.  Send the City Council a thank you note.

With the help of the many people in Austin who are concerned about climate change, air pollution, water use, creating good local jobs, and keeping electric rates affordable, we’re going to make sure the 400 MW solar goal is included in the Generation Plan in 2014.

In the meantime, we can turn our focus to ensuring that solar owners continue to be credited a fair value for the energy they put out on the grid for the rest of us to use and that more attractive solar financing options are made available.  Better financing, options for solar leasing and a community solar program are all essential for expanding access to solar for lower and middle-income families and all of us who rent.

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Texas Capitol - north viewWith the regular session behind us and energy and environmental issues not likely to find a place in the special session, it’s a good time to look at what we accomplished.

Our wins came in two forms – bills that passed that will actually improve policy in Texas and bills that didn’t pass that would have taken policy in the wrong direction.

We made progress by helping to get bills passed that:

  • Expand funding for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) by about 40%;
  • Create a program within TERP to replace old diesel tractor trailer trucks used in and around ports and rail yards (these are some of the most polluting vehicles on the road);
  • Establish new incentives within TERP for purchasing plug-in electric cars; and
  • Assign authority to the Railroad Commission (RRC) to regulate small oil and gas lines (these lines, known as gathering lines, are prone to leaks); and
  • Allows commercial and industrial building owners to obtain low-cost, long-term private sector financing for water conservation and energy-efficiency improvements, including on-site renewable energy, such as solar.

We successfully helped to stop or improve bad legislation that would have:

  • Eliminated hearings on permits for new pollution sources (the contested case hearing process is crucial to limiting pollution increases);
  • Eliminated additional inspections for facilities with repeated pollution violations;
  • Weakened protections against utilities that violate market rules and safety guidelines;
  • Eliminated property tax breaks for wind farms, while continuing the policy for other industries;
  • Granted home owners associations (HOAs) authority to unreasonably restrict homeowners ability to install solar panels on their roofs; and
  • Permitted Austin City Council to turn control of Austin Energy over to an unelected board without a vote by the citizens of Austin.

We did lose ground on the issue of radioactive waste disposal.  Despite our considerable efforts, a bill passed that will allow more highly radioactive waste to be disposed of in the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) facility in west Texas.  Campaign contributions certainly played an important roll in getting the bill passed.

We were also disappointed by Governor Perry’s veto of the Ethics Commission sunset bill, which included several improvements, including a requirement that railroad commissioners resign before running for another office, as they are prone to do.  Read Carol’s post about this bill and the issue.

With the legislation over and Perry’s veto pen out of ink, we now shift our attention to organizing and advocating for a transition from polluting energy sources that send money out of our state to clean energy sources that can grow our economy.

We’re working to:

  • Promote solar energy at electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities;
  • Speed up the retirement of old, inefficient, polluting coal-fired power plants in east Texas;
  • Protect our climate and our port communities throughout the Gulf states from health hazards from new and expanded coal export facilities;
  • Fight permitting of the Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines in Texas;
  • Ensure full implementation of improvements made to TERP; and
  • Develop an environmental platform for the 2014 election cycle.

Our power comes from people like you getting involved – even in small ways, like writing an email or making a call.  If you want to help us work for a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable future, email me at [email protected]  And one of the best things you can do is to get your friends involved too.

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Statement of Keith Wrightson, Worker Safety and Health Advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

The West Fertilizer Company facility that exploded in a deadly blast Wednesday evening had not been inspected by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in at least 10 years. While we leave it to investigators to determine what exactly happened, we already know that this facility and ones like it operate with very little oversight, and that this is a problem.

Plant Explosion Texas

A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas after an explosion Wednesday April 17, 2013 (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

Records show that the facility in West, Texas, owned by Adair Grain Incorporated, has not been inspected by OSHA in the past 10 years.

In the past five years, only two Texas facilities in the same classification – that produce fertilizer using ammonia – have been inspected by OSHA, records show. The agency, with a budget of roughly $568 million, lacks the resources to regularly inspect these types of facilities, including the many with high danger levels. Often facilities do not see an inspector for decades at a time.

While OSHA’s budget had increased slightly in the past several years, it was recently reduced yet again by budget , which means fewer inspectors to monitor facilities like the West Fertilizer Company. Small budgets also make it even harder for the agency to issue new safety standards. The agency’s budget is similar to what it was several decades ago, but the size of the economy – and the number and complexity of workplaces to inspect – has grown tremendously.

Though total occupational deaths are far lower today than they were decades ago, more than 4,000 workers still die every year on the job in the United States, most in incidents that could have been prevented. Last night’s tragic explosion in Texas is a reminder of the work still ahead to make our nation’s workplaces safer.

Devoting only a miniscule portion of our budget to protecting workers is a policy choice – and it’s the wrong one.

Contact: Ben Somberg (202) 588-7742 or Keith Wrightson (202) 454-5139

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