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City sets ambitious solar goal, path to zero carbon pollution from Austin Energy by 2030

Some of the Affordable Energy Resolution community supporters celebrate with Councilman Chris Riley, who was the lead sponsor of the resolution.  Photo by Al Braden.

Some of the Affordable Energy Resolution community supporters celebrate with Councilman Chris Riley, who was the lead sponsor of the resolution. Photo by Al Braden.

A diverse coalition of groups representing workers, people of faith, low-income residents, clean energy supporters and environmental advocates united in their of goal of expanding affordable clean energy and protections to public health cheered the Austin City Council for adopting the Affordable Energy Resolution late Thursday evening.

The resolution comes after years of community-led work to study Austin Energy’s portfolio and generation plan, identify opportunities to strengthen the municipal utility’s clean energy and climate commitments while meeting the needs of low-income communities and after community members demonstrated strong demand for more affordable clean energy and less pollution on a reasonable but aggressive timeline.

The Affordable Energy Plan calls for Austin Energy to generate more than 60 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025 and eliminate carbon pollution from its generator fleet by 2030. It directs the utility phase out the Decker gas-fired power plant by investing in 600 megawatts of solar power, enough to power more than 100,000 homes.

“Solar is now cheaper than building a new natural gas plant. Our analysis shows that 600 megawatts of solar will save Austin Energy between $12 and $33 million per year,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group. “We’re grateful for the strong leadership shown by Council Members Chris Riley, Mike Martinez, Kathie Tovo, Laura Morrison and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole.”

The landmark resolution also takes significant steps to expand local solar power.  It doubles Austin’s local solar goal to 200 megawatts, with half of that goal reserved for distributed residential and commercial solar projects. And the resolution expands access to rooftop solar projects by including solar leasing as an option for residents and businesses and by refining Austin Energy’s innovative value of solar tariff.

“Local solar creates local jobs.  The Austin solar industry already employs more than 800 people and many of those jobs are in solar installation and can’t be outsourced,” said Kaiba White of Solar Austin.  “Money spent on local solar goes back into our local economy.  Allowing people from all walks of life to benefit from solar is a win-win for Austin.”

A separate resolution was also passed to establish a task force to make recommendations on expanding the utility’s energy savings goal and ensuring that energy efficiency services are provided to people of all income levels. Energy efficiency is the most easily deployed, lowest-cost option for meeting energy needs and will be a critical component of meeting climate goals for the utility.

The City of Austin has long been a leader in Texas and nationally. The City announced its plans to power all city buildings and operations with Texas wind power in 2012, and earlier in 2014 Austin Energy announced a new solar power project at the lowest cost in U.S. history. In June 2014, the Austin City Council became first elected body in the nation to endorse the goals of the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed plan to curb carbon pollution that drives climate disruption.

“The impacts of a rapidly changing climate are clear in Central Texas and as a progressive community we have a moral obligation to lead in reducing our carbon footprint while providing clean, affordable electricity to our people, businesses and churches,” said Reverend John Elford with the University United Methodist Church of Austin. “This resolution sets us on a path to meet both those needs.”

The Decker natural gas-fired power plant is a major contributor to smog pollution in Travis County. Replacing the plant with clean solar power will cut smog and improve air quality for the more than one million residents in the county, protecting children, seniors and people suffering from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

“In its opposition to this resolution, Austin Energy continued the tradition of marginalizing the communities near Decker by citing money as a primary concern at the expense public health. By passing this resolution, City Council members have finally recognized that every Austinite should have the right to clean air. That this is an issue of justice and that it is an issue of equality,” said Mayte Salazar-Ordonez, a volunteer leader with Austin Beyond Coal.

As Austin Energy develops its plan to meet the goals of the Affordable Energy Resolution, building new gas- or coal-fired power plants will not be an option, representing an opportunity to move beyond traditional power plants and further tap Texas’s renewable energy potential.

The coalition will now look to secure timely retirement of the Fayette coal-fired power plant to meet the city’s carbon pollution elimination goal as well as to cut the soot, smog and mercury pollution coming from the plant that impacts local communities, farms and waterways. Nationwide, 178 coal-fired power plants have been announced for retirement as clean energy solutions like wind, solar and energy efficiency have cut air pollution, lowered costs for consumers and created jobs.

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World Cup 2014 BrasilThe FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil has so far been the biggest and most expensive tournament in soccer history. With ticket sales almost reaching full capacity and an estimate of over 500,000 visitors from around the world, the economic impact of this year’s World Cup has reached an all-time high. However, keeping this incredible event eco-friendly has been a daunting task with large amounts of pressure from environmental protection agencies around the world.

World Cup 2014 Eco Stadium

World Cup 2014 Eco Stadium

This year’s World Cup has exceeded CO2 emissions of the last World Cup in South Africa by over 1 million tons of CO2 with a total of 2.7 million tons. According to a study done by FIFA, and estimated 60% of the CO2 emissions are produced by transportation of personnel, equipment, teams, and fans coming from all over the world. Measures have been made to help prevent and offset the environmental impact such as building stadiums that run on solar power, rainwater collection facilities, and a large recycling program, but with any event on a scale and this grand is always a large environmental toll.

World Cup 2014 - I Take Care of My DestinationUNEP and Brazil’s Ministries of Environment, Sports, Tourism, and Social Development have teamed up to create and promote Green Passport Tours which promotes sustainable tourism specifically for World Cup 2014. FIFA’s head of corporate social responsibility, Federico Addiechi, pledges to offset 100% of the 2.7 million tons of CO2 emissions starting next summer with programs in reforestation and investment in wind energy and hydroelectric power.

Even with the changes that have been made to create a more sustainable World Cup, significant environmental improvements need to be made when hosting an event like the Olympics or World Cup; which emissions can equate to having 560,000 cars on the road for a year or the burning of 1.46 million tons of coal. Aside from emissions, the materials that were needed to improve Brazil’s infrastructure, build the stadiums and other buildings, power all telecommunications and TVs around the world, which has reached up to 3.2 billion viewers according to Bloomberg, also added to the degradation of the environment. With over $4 billion in untaxed revenue FIFA received for this World Cup alone, more time and money should be allocated towards the sustainability of our environment.

Environmental improvements for future World Cups have great potential if more leadership and requirements from FIFA were to be made. With hosting the World Cup being highly desirable for countries around the world, requiring more and stricter environmental standards for the host country would drastically improve environmental quality for these events. FIFA holds great power with its sponsors and host country and has the ability to use that leverage with changes such as requiring an amount of funding specifically for environmental health, eco architectural standards for all new stadiums, positioning all new stadiums to be near public transportation for less vehicle carbon emissions, or requiring an environmental advisor to assist the planning process for stadiums, hospitality and transportation.

All of these changes have the potential of making a large positive impact on the environment along with creating more awareness to the importance of sustainability. With great the support of FIFA, the World Cup could become an event not just for the love of soccer, but for new sustainable ideas that could be showcased to the world.

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Texas Leads Nation in Generation of Wind Power, Lags in Solar Power

PC Earthday Texas AnnouncementAs Earth Day approaches, Texas environmental groups are urging state leaders to jump at a rare chance to lead the nation in using renewable energy technologies that U.N. climate scientists say are increasingly inexpensive antidotes to climate change.

“Even Citigroup is climbing on the renewables bandwagon,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “The company says that the ‘Age of Renewables’ is upon us.”

Smith quoted a recent Citigroup analysis, which said that solar, wind and other renewable energy sources are becoming cost-competitive as gas prices remain high and volatile. The report also predicted that renewables will continue to gain market share from nuclear and coal power.

Study after study has shown there is serious methane leakage during the process of drilling, fracking and processing natural gas and oil,” said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club. “Methane emissions are cooking our climate, and they are a public health threat. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Railroad Commission and ultimately the Legislature need to step up and adopt tough regulations, inspections and enforcement to prevent methane emissions.”

Last week, the International Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. panel of hundreds of climate scientists, issued its fifth and most dire report, warning that greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than ever. The report said that only concerted action to bring down emissions in the next 15 years will keep global warming to the level the international community has agreed to – an average 3.6 degrees above preindustrial temperatures.

But it also said renewable energy is an increasingly feasible and affordable alternative to fossil fuel-generated power, the culprit in rising greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable energy technologies have shown “substantial improvements,” “cost reductions” and the ability to be deployed “at significant scale,” according to the report. They also have “accounted for just over half of the new electricity generating capacity added globally in 2012, led by growth in wind, hydro and solar power.”

“Texas gets more power from wind than any other state in the nation,” Smith said. “Our climate makes solar power ideal. We need to take advantage of our natural ability to lead the nation in reducing the severity of the coming crisis.”

Texas’s wind farms already have generated as much as 38 percent of the electrical power on the ERCOT grid, according to a recent media report. That reflects the highest power output by wind turbines in the country.

Although Texas is rich in solar resources, it lags behind other states in solar-generated power, in part because the state legislature has not supplied the kind of incentives provided to the fossil fuel industry. Texas ranks 13th in the nation for the amount of power generated by solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (http://www.seia.org/state-solar-policy/texas).

Austin Energy, though, just agreed to what the Austin-American Statesman described as one of the largest solar projects in the world, which will more than double the solar capacity in Austin. The article pointed out that Austin Energy’s contract with Sun Edison is inexpensive – about 4.8 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity coming from two West Texas sites.

Texas is the No. 1 contributor of greenhouse gases in the nation. Texas emitted nearly 450 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2012, according to the most recent EPA statistics. The next highest contributor, Indiana, generated about 150 million metric tons in 2012. Earlier this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry also proposed that Texas agree to take high-level radioactive waste from the Los Alamos national Laboratory in New Mexico.

“Gov. Perry’s proposal means a high level of risk for the state and its taxpayers,” said Karen Hadden, executive director of the Austin-based SEED Coalition. “Short-term exposure to waste can cause death, cancer, or birth defects. Almost every other state that has looked at this kind of proposal has said it is too risky and turned it away at the border.”

Smith added, “Texas faces both calamity and great possibility. More than most states, Texas is looking at catastrophic impacts from climate change. We’re already experiencing historic drought that has wreaked havoc on communities, businesses and the economy. But more than most states, we’re also in a position to reverse our reliance on the energy sources that cause climate change.”

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2014-04-10 Austin City HallThis afternoon, Austin City Council passed a resolution establishing a community wide goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  This is one of the most ambitions emissions reduction goals in the world and was passed in response to the recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s (IPCC) most recent reports, which indicate that climate change is progressing more rapidly than projected.

The resolution will set in motion a process of updating the city’s current Climate Protection Plan to include all emissions from the Austin community, not only those from city departments – a major improvement over the existing Austin Climate Protection Plan.

Austin Climate Protection Plan ResolutionThe resolution also acknowledged that cutting emissions in the near term will have greater impact on reducing climate change, than emissions cuts closer to the 2050 deadline.  This is because carbon dioxide emissions will continue to impact the global climate centuries after they enter the atmosphere.

The ultimate goal of having net zero greenhouse gas emissions was established to ignite creative ideas in the community and to serve as an inspiration to other cities.  Austin has long been considered a leader in renewable energy and other environmental efforts, but Council recognized that other cities were now establishing more aggressive emissions reductions targets and took this opportunity to help Austin maintain its leadership role.

The resolution called for public participation in developing the new Austin Climate Protection Plan and established that boards and commissions, as well as other technical advisory groups should be consulted.  The first deadline established in the resolution is September 1, 2014, when the City Manager will be responsible for presenting City Council with a framework for meeting short and long term emissions reductions goals.  The final community wide Climate Protection Plan is to be presented to City Council by March 1, 2015.  By then the new 10-1 City Council will be in place.

In the meantime, the Austin Energy Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plan update will continue and could include improvements to Austin Energy’s climate protection goals.  The Austin Energy Resource Generation Task Force will have it’s first meeting at 3:30pm on Wednesday, April 16.  That meeting, and all subsequent Task Force meetings will be open to the public.

Councilman Riley sponsored the resolution with Councilman Spelman and Mayor Pro Tem Cole as co-sponsors.  The resolution passed on a 6 to 0 vote, which only Mayor Leffingwell voting against it.  The resolution passes with no fanfare, but the sponsors will host a press conference with community leaders tomorrow morning to announce this encouraging progress.

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“Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems.” IPCC WGII AR5

IPCC

The opening session of IPCC meeting in Yokohama.
Photo by Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP, Getty Images

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released Part 2 of its Assessment Report showing that work to limit the effects of climate change must begin now.  Part  1 came out in September 2013 and showed indisputable evidence that climate change is real, it is happening today, and human influence is the root cause. The report is the fifth such report that has come from the UN.

This week, government officials and top climate scientists are meeting in Berlin to review a 29-page draft from working group 3 of the UN’s IPCC. This third document is expected to be released later this month.

The scope of the second report takes a broad look at how climate change is impacting the Earth’s oceans, coasts, atmosphere, animals, humans and human societies. The report then examines how we must adapt to manage risks associated with climate change.

This is a stern warning coming from the world’s scientific community, and there is little doubt from the experts about the solution: cut pollution from fossil fuels and prepare for the risks associated with a warming world.

The document warns of side effects from a warming world over the next century. There is a high level of consensus from the scientific community that there will be a rise in sea level from melting glaciers, which threatens coastal cities and low-lying nations. There will also be an increase of drier areas, resulting in increased wildfires and drought.

Part of the problem with climate change is that scientists don’t have a crystal ball to predict how the environment will respond to a rise in temperatures. They are trying to predict effects of climate change over the course of decades. Scientists are anticipating that forests ecosystems could collapse and wetland ecosystems could disintegrate. They are expecting that water systems worldwide will be effected from more flooding in many places and drought in drier regions. Of course, the effects won’t be uniform everywhere.

Scientists are also noting that there could be some localized positive effects from climate change. They say that there will be fewer deaths from severe cold, but scientists are also anticipating more deaths due to heat. Some parts of the planet may become better suited for agriculture, especially in higher altitudes, but lower crop yields in other areas will outweigh those benefits. Also, scientist predict that fish and aquatic life will move around as ocean temperatures rise. However, there could be effects, both good and bad, that scientists are not expecting.

The experts are warning the world’s leaders that in order to prevent the worst consequences of climate change we need to reduce pollution, and inaction today will reduce the world’s options for managing the worst effects of climate change.

The level of carbon dioxide is up 41 percent since the Industrial Revolution nearly 200 years ago, and it could double in a matter of decades if the present trend continues.

Unfortunately, here in the US, climate deniers have hijacked the Republican Party and have stalled any meaningful debate about what we are going to do to combat climate change.

“There are those who say we can’t afford to act,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic.”

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2014-03-17 EUC and RMC Hearing on Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection PlanAustin Energy customers turned out in force to support renewable energy last night.  Over 100 people packed the Shudde Fath Conference room at Austin Energy headquarters for a joint hearing in front of the Electric Utility and Resource Management commissions.  Not prepared for the enthusiastic turnout, Austin Energy staff provided additional chairs, but many attendees were left with standing room only.

Over 50 people signed up to speak at the hearing, which extended well past the scheduled ending time of 8:00 pm to about 9:30 pm, forcing some to leave before they had a chance to voice their concerns.

Citizens expressed passionate concern about climate change, water availability, water contamination, air quality, health, job creation and equity.  The common theme was overwhelming support for a rapid transition away from polluting fossil fuels to clean energy resources, including wind, solar, energy efficiency and energy storage.

Climate change was brought front and center as an issue that cannot be ignored and which demands immediate action.  The commissions heard from numerous citizens that Austin will be judged by future generations based on what we do to mitigate our impact on the climate.

One point of contention between Austin Energy and advocates has been whether or not goals, including the carbon reduction and renewable energy goals, will be expanded as part of this update of the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan.  Austin Energy’s current goals were set as a starting point, but they aren’t nearly strong enough to protect our climate.  Last night, with climate change already impacting our communities, Austin Energy ratepayers spoke clearly in favor of substantially expanding those goals.

With the ongoing drought still weighing on many minds, the connection between water and energy was repeatedly brought up throughout the evening.  Citizens talked about water used in generating electricity at the Fayette coal plan and the billions of gallons used in Texas fracking jobs each year.

Austin Energy’s recent announcement of the 100-150 megawatt solar deal up for City Council approval this week added to the enthusiasm about renewable energy.  That project will provide Austin Energy with energy at around 5 cents per kilowatt-hour and is projected to slightly reduce customer bills.  Many ratepayers made the point that since wind and solar are already affordable, Austin Energy should support calls for increasing its renewable energy goals and should continue purchasing more wind and solar.

Click here if you want to watch the archived video recording of the meeting.

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2014-03-10 Climate change means less guacamole - WikimediaWhen we think of the effects of climate change, we typically think of rising sea level, heat waves, drought and volatile weather. What we don’t often think about is guacamole. Or to be more specific, foods that are in danger because of climate change.

In its 2014 annual report, the popular Mexican food chain Chipotle warned investors that, “Increasing weather volatility or other long-term changes in global weather patterns, including any changes associated with global climate change, could have a significant impact on the price or availability of some of our ingredients”. The report went on to add “in the event of cost increases with respect to one or more of our raw ingredients, we may choose to temporarily suspend serving menu items, such as guacamole or one or more of our salsas, rather than paying the increased cost for the ingredients”.

While Chipotle would be largely affected by a drop in avocado production, which is expected to drop by 40% over the next three decades, other crops are in danger too, such as almonds, walnuts, oranges and grapes. A common thread between all of these crops is that they are grown in California, which has been through a particularly brutal drought this year. While California has always been susceptible to droughts, climate change is making them worse and more frequent and can be expected to do so to an even greater extent in the future.

In November of this past year, news outlets reported on a leaked draft of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report noted that food production could drop as much as 2% per decade in the coming century compared to production estimates before climate change. All the while, the population on the planet is expected to reach between 8 and 11 billion people by 2100.

The bottom line is that climate change has effects beyond the most salient weather changes – climate change can negatively affect our ability to produce food. This is particularly dangerous as the diets of the world’s citizens become more similar – scientists note that this makes our food supply even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.  A decreased ability to produce food can cause increased food prices, limited access to fresh food, global food shortages, and in turn, political turmoil.

Can we really afford to not address climate change?

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Photo by Max Anderson

Photo by Max Anderson

Above All Else had their world premiere to a full audience at South by Southwest in Austin on Monday, March 10, 2014. The film takes an intimate look at a group of landowners and activists in East Texas who tried to stop construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which carries tar sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The film focuses on David Daniel, a former circus performer who settled down with his family in the woods of East Texas. David and his family wanted to settle down for a quiet life in the country when something unexpected happens: TransCanada tells him they want to put a pipeline through his property. David begins to build a tree-sit on his property with the help of organizers from the Tar Sands Blockade. The film takes a personal look at how David begins to rally his neighbors and allies to try and stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

Photo by Vanessa Ramos

Photo by Vanessa Ramos

After the film John Fiege, director, his crew and several people featured in the film answered questions about the film from a lively audience.  Julia Trigg Crawford, one of the landowners featured in the film, said, “It is an unbelievable travesty what happened with David. They’ve taken away his First Amendment right.”

John Fiege and his crew made an excellent film that tells the personal stories of individuals who risked financial ruin, their personal safety, and the security of their families. Above All Else will give anyone interested in the Keystone XL and tar sands issue a different perspective of the fight on the ground.

Above All Else will have two more showings at SXSW this week. The next showing is today, March 11, at SXSatellite: Alamo Village from 4:30 PM to 6:04 PM. The final showing will be Saturday, March 15, at the Topfer Theatre at ZACH from 2:00 PM to 3:34 PM. Check out the Above All Else website and the film’s SXSW page.

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Senator Brian Schatz will lead the Talkathon  Photo by Audrey McAvoy, AP

Senator Brian Schatz (D – Hawaii) will lead the Talkathon
Photo by Audrey McAvoy, AP

Tonight, 28 US Senators will stay up discussing climate change all night to get Congress to ‘wake up’ to the realities of the issue.

The so-called talkathon is scheduled to begin after Senate’s last votes today and continue until 9 AM tomorrow morning. During the night the Senators, comprised of 26 Democrats and 2 Independents, will be tweeting from the talkathon using the hashtag #Up4Climate, hoping to get the attention of Congress and the American people.

The talkathon is organized by the Climate Action Task Force, a group launched in January whose goal is to take an aggressive stance on climate in Congress, and led by Brian Schatz (D – Hawaii).

You can follow the Senate’s Climate Change Talkathon on Twitter with the hashtag #Up4Climate and sign the Climate Action Task Force’s petition here.

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Blog post by Vanessa Ramos and Max Anderson

2014-03-07 No KXL Austin March

KXL protesters march to the Austin Club
Photo by Kaiba White

The heat has been turning up on the State Department and President Obama this past week from KXL Dissent. Nearly 400 youth were arrested while protesting against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in front of the White House this past weekend, which was the largest youth act of non-violent civil disobedience at the White House in more than a generation. On Monday, nine people were arrested at the State Department building in San Francisco during a youth led protest of the Keystone XL pipeline. The momentum to stop this climate-killing pipeline has been building all across the country, and yesterday people in Austin made their stand against toxic tar sands.

People gathered at the south gates of the Texas Capitol and marched to Austin Club to have a welcoming demonstration for Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer, who was in town to give a speech promoting the Keystone XL pipeline, among other things.  Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Austin Climate Action Network, and Environment Texas organized the event, but opposition to the pipeline extends well beyond environmental groups and includes many conservative landowners.

Banner pointing to the Austin Club Photo by Kaiba White

Banner pointing to the Austin Club
Photo by Kaiba White

Banners hung from the parking garage next door to the Austin Club greeted the protesters.  People carried signs and marched to the sounds of djembe, pots and pans, cornet and chanting.

Attendees for Ambassador Doer’s luncheon had to walk through the crowd of about 30 chanting protesters who formed a picket line in front of the entrance.

2014-03-07 No KXL Austin ProtestYesterday marked the end of the public comment period with the State Department for the Keystone XL pipeline. This was the last chance for citizens to officially weigh in on the issue. President Obama still has 60 more days to hear from the different government departments as to whether they think the pipeline will be in our national interest. President Obama is expected to make a final decision on whether or not to approve the pipeline by the middle of summer.

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hands raisedGood governance advocates got a win at City Hall today when the Austin City Council approved a resolution to create the Austin Generation Resource Planning Task Force.  The task force will examine energy options and make recommendations regarding the 2014 update to the Austin Energy Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plan, which will be approved by City Council later this year.

A similar task force was instrumental in developing the original Austin Energy Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plan, which was approved in 2010 and advocates representing a variety of interests where dismayed to discover that a task force wasn’t part of the panned process this time around.  Luckily though, City Council saw the need for greater public involvement and worked quickly to approve a task force.  The resolution was sponsored by Council Members Tovo, Spelman and Morrison and passed on a 6 to 0 vote (Mayor Leffingwell was absent).

In addition to providing greater transparency and public involvement in the update process, the task force will afford an opportunity to more thoroughly analyze the the energy options available. The full costs and benefits of Austin’s energy choices, including climate change, air quality, water use, water contamination, health impacts, local economic development, and short and long term impact on rates need to be considered.

The task force will also provide a value able opportunity to examine what goals are being set and what programs are being implemented in other cities and states that could be favorably applied to Austin Energy. Carbon reduction and renewable energy goals and community solar and energy efficiency and renewable energy programs for low income customers deserve a closer look. Likewise, the task force will be able to gather more information on energy sources that are viable in Texas, but have been underutilized, such as concentrating solar power (CSP), thermal energy storage, compressed air energy storage, and geothermal energy.

The task force will be appointed by the end of March and will have three months to complete its work.  It’s meetings will be open to the public, so all will be welcome to attend.

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KXL Climate ChangeThe deadline is fast approaching for the public’s last chance to register an official comment against the Keystone XL pipeline. The State Department’s public comment period will end on Friday, March 7th. Right now is your last chance to tell Secretary of State John Kerry that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in our national interest. Secretary Kerry’s opinion will weigh heavily in President Obama’s decision.

This is our final opportunity to officially weigh in on the decision. Submit a comment right now to tell the Obama Administration that the “game over for the climate” Keystone XL pipeline is NOT in our national interest.

Now President Obama must choose whether he wants to take us down the road of expanding the use of dirty fossil fuels, like tar sands, or fight for a sustainable future. The Keystone XL is central to increasing production of the Alberta tar sands, which will significantly add to carbon emissions. The massive infrastructure would lock us into dependence on this dirty fuel for decades to come. Last June, standing in the sweltering heat before an outdoor audience at Georgetown University, President Obama pledged that he would not approve the pipeline if it would “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Now, he should reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Keystone XL Youth Protest in Washington D.C. Photo credit: Nicholas Kammafp, Getty Images

March 2nd Keystone XL Youth Protest in Washington D.C
Photo credit: Nicholas Kammafp, Getty Images

From Coast-to-Coast People Are Standing Up Against Tar Sands 

  • Last Sunday, more than 1,200 youths from across the country marched from Georgetown University to the White House to protest the Keystone XL. Nearly 400 youths were arrested for zip-tying themselves to the White House fence and staging a mock oil spill. This protest is the largest youth act of non-violent civil disobedience in front of the White House in more than a generation.
  • On Monday, nine people were arrested at the State Department building in San Francisco during a youth led protest of the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • Last month, thousands of people got together and held more than 280 vigils in 49 states across the country to say NO to Keystone XL.

Crash the Keystone XL Party: No KXL in ATX

The momentum to stop this pipeline is building all across the country. On Friday, March 7th, Austin will join Washington D.C. and San Francisco in telling President Obama that we do not want the Keystone XL. Join us at 10:30 a.m. at the South Gates of the Texas Capitol (11th and Congress). Be sure to bring your signs, pots-n-pans, walking shoes and conviction to stop this climate killing pipeline.

This is our last chance to voice concerns to the State Department before the public comment period ends on March 7th. We need to get our message across to Secretary Kerry, because what he says could be one of the biggest determining factors in President Obama’s decision.

Submit your comment: Keystone XL is NOT in our national interest.

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Oil drilling site, with pond for fracking water, Cotulla, TX  Photo by Al Braden

Oil drilling site, w/ pond for fracking water, Cotulla, TX
Photo by Al Braden

The Eagle Ford Shale play in south Texas is the 400-mile-long area that has become home to one of the country’s biggest energy booms in the past six years. The thousands of oil and gas wells producing in the region have brought dangerous air pollution to residents.

The Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel released a new exposé titled, “Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil & Bad Air on the Texas Prairie,” last week. Their eight month investigation reveals the dangers that come with fracking in the form of toxic chemicals released into the air as a result of the complicit culture of the government of Texas. In case you just want to read the highlights of the report, the team was nice enough to summarize their major findings:

  • Texas’ air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford. Only five permanent air monitors are installed in the 20,000-square-mile region, and all are at the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.
  • Anadarko Brasada Cyro Gas Plant, Phase 1 of 3, Cotulla, TX. Photo by Al Braden

    Anadarko Brasada Cyro Gas Plant, Phase 1 of 3, Cotulla, TX.
    Photo by Al Braden

    Thousands of oil and gas facilities, including six of the nine production sites near the Buehrings’ house, are allowed to self-audit their emissions without reporting them to the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which regulates most air emissions, doesn’t even know some of these facilities exist. An internal agency document acknowledges that the rule allowing this practice “[c]annot be proven to be protective.”

  • Companies that break the law are rarely fined. Of the 284 oil and gas industry-related complaints filed with the TCEQ by Eagle Ford residents between Jan. 1, 2010, and Nov. 19, 2013, only two resulted in fines despite 164 documented violations. The largest was just $14,250. (Pending enforcement actions could lead to six more fines).
  • The Texas legislature has cut the TCEQ’s budget by a third since the Eagle Ford boom began, from $555 million in 2008 to $372 million in 2014. At the same time, the amount allocated for air monitoring equipment dropped from $1.2 million to $579,000.
  • The Eagle Ford boom is feeding an ominous trend: A 100 percent statewide increase in unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production since 2009. Known as emission events, these releases are usually caused by human error or faulty equipment.
  • Residents of the mostly rural Eagle Ford counties are at a disadvantage even in Texas, because they haven’t been given air quality protections, such as more permanent monitors, provided to the wealthier, more suburban Barnett Shale region near Dallas-Fort Worth.

(more…)

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Updating the the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2020 to become the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2024 probably doesn’t sound super exciting, but there’s almost certainly some aspect of the choices that will soon be made on your behalf that you care about.

IMG_48691. Climate Change: I’m not going to try to convince anyone reading this that our planet’s climate is changing and that humans are largely responsible for that change.  Nor am I going to try to convince you that those changes are going to be largely detrimental to human prosperity.  But if you already recognize those two basic truths, then you will definitely want to listen up.  Austin Energy is proposing to not only run Austin’s portion of the Fayette coal plant until 2025, but also to dramatically increase its use of natural gas by adding a new 800 megawatt gas plant to its energy portfolio.  That’s bigger than Austin’s portion of Fayette.  And although natural gas emits less carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of energy production than burning coal, once the substantial impact of the roughly 3% of gas that leaks into the atmosphere during extraction, processing and transportation is accounted for, natural gas is almost as harmful to the climate as coal.  That’s because the primary component of natural gas, methane, is 87 times more powerful of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over 20 years.  Although many people focus on the 100 year time frame when talking about climate change, we can’t afford to ignore our more immediate future.  Central Texas has already experienced its share of climate impacts over the past few years in the form of drought, wildfires and floods.  We must stop those impacts from worsening at a greater rate than they already will be.  Natural gas isn’t going to save us.  Even without the massive problem of leaking methane, burning gas instead of coal only decreases our climate impact by about half, so it’s not a long term solution anyway – the best it could have been was a stopgap.  Instead of investing in infrastructure that won’t get us where we need to be, we can make better decisions now.

Attend one of Austin Energy’s stakeholder meetings this week and ask the staff to consider the full climate impacts of energy sources.

2. Jobs: Developing renewable energy sources creates 3 times as many jobs as developing fossil fuel energy sources per dollar invested.  Whereas a large chunk of the cost connected to a coal plan or a gas plant is for the coal and gas, the wind and sun are free.  So, instead of paying for the privilege of burning a limited resource, we can pay people to harness the energy from free and unlimited resources.

Across the U.S., solar energy jobs grew 20% from 2012 to 2013, compared to average job growth across all industries of 1.9%.  A large percentage of that growth was in Texas, but Texas still ranks 44th in solar jobs per capita.  Increasing Austin Energy’s solar goal will bring more jobs to Texas, but it’s increasing the local solar goal that will have the most impact on local job creation.  The Austin Local Solar Advisory Commission unanimously recommended that Austin Energy’s solar goal for 2020 be increased from 200 megawatts (MW) to 400 MW.  It also recommended that at least half of that solar development be local and at least half of that local solar be customer controlled (that’s what you see on residential and business rooftops and yards).  According to the LSAC’s calculations done using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Jobs and Economic Development Impact (JEDI) model, the $60 million it would take to develop that amount of local solar would bring the Austin area a net of $300 million in local economic benefits – wages, taxes, etc.  If Austin Energy adopts policies to give preference to local companies who hire local workers, our community can benefit even more.  On the other hand, we are currently sending $80 million to Montana each year for the coal we burn in the Fayette coal plant.

Tell Austin Energy that you support growing local jobs by increasing our solar goals, including the local and customer owned solar goals.

3. Water: If you live in central Texas, I don’t need to tell you that water is a huge issue – in fact it’s just a big issue for Texas that the Legislature, with voter approval appropriated $2 billion dollars to fund water projects, with 20% of those funds to be used on water conservation efforts.  We can’t make it rain more, so we are going to have to make some choices about what we want to use water for.  The Fayette coal plant, which Austin Energy owns one third of, needs about 5 billion gallons of water per year to operate.  And lest you start thinking natural gas plants are the answer, know that over 39 billion gallons of water was used in fracking jobs in Texas between January 2011 and May 2013.  Producers in the Eagle Ford Shale play are especially wasteful, using an average of 4.4 million gallons of water per well.  That’s water that can’t be used for domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural, or ecosystem uses.

Tell Austin Energy to focus investment on drought proof energy sources like wind and solar.

4. Health: Air pollution from burning coal and extracting natural gas are taking a real toll on human health in Texas.  The Fayette coal plant is responsible for over $55.5 million in health impacts from air pollution.  Those impacts include asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, heart attacks and the associated hospital visits and deaths.  Even so, Austin Energy has proposed running its portion of Fayette until 2025.

Lack of regulation over the natural gas industry, which has operations strewn across vast areas has resulted in a tragic disregard for human well being.  If you haven’t already, read this excellent piece of investigative journalism about how your fellow Texans are being assaulted with toxic chemicals in the Eagle Ford Shale area.  Instead of building a large new gas plant to drive up demand for dangerous fracking, Austin Energy should focus on growing its renewable energy portofolio with more wind and solar and perhaps some geothermal energy.

Air pollution is much more than an environmental issue – it’s a public health issue.  That’s why you find medical professionals and health advocates supporting a transition to clean energy.

Sign up for one of Austin Energy’s stakeholder meetings and ask them to give up their plans for a giant new gas plant and to examine more options for retiring the Fayette coal plant in an affordable way.

5. Affordable Energy: Wind and solar energy are competitive with coal and natural gas already.  Meanwhile, electricity from coal plants is going to get more expensive because of various regulations to limit pollution.  Natural gas prices are low now, but have fluctuated greatly over time, making a big bet on natural gas risky.  When natural gas prices go up, Austin Energy raises our fuel charge to recover those costs.  Since affordable wind and solar are available now and can assure us a predictable price for 10-20 years, why would we not make those energy sources our priority?  Austin Energy has done a great job getting good wind contracts to keep customer rates low and is set to achieve its 35% renewable energy goal 4 years early in 2016.

Tell Austin Energy to keep up its momentum by expanding the renewable energy goal to 50% for 2020 and 60% by 2024.

Take Action:

Austin Energy is holding 3 stakeholder meetings to gather public input on the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan update to 2024.

  • Tuesday, February 25: 10 am – 12 pm (noon)
  • Tuesday, February 25: 6 pm – 8 pm
  • Thursday, February 27: 1 pm – 3 pm

This is your chance to help determine how the money you pay for your electric bills is invested by our publicly owned utility.

Please sign up to attend one of the meetings.

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While we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing the words “natural”, “healthy” and “environmentally-friendly” thrown around in advertisements for a variety of consumer goods, it’s important to remember that household items are not the only things capable of being greenwashed – case in point, natural gas.

The word “natural” has been used to connote things such as ‘green’, ‘healthy’, ‘non-toxic’. Many people’s cursory understanding of natural gas is that if it’s “natural”, it must be good, right? Unfortunately the truth about natural gas is more complicated. While it is true that natural gas emits far less CO2 than coal upon combustion, there are a host of other ‘fine-print’ problems that come along with the switch, most notably, fugitive emissions.

Leaky pipes and valves allow methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to escape into the atmosphere.  Photo by Kevin Moloney, NYT

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, escapes from wells and leaky pipes and valves into the atmosphere.
Photo by Kevin Moloney, NYT.

Fugitive emissions are the emissions not intended to take place and that usually result from pressurized equipment leaks. While these leaks are relatively tiny, when expanded to a large enough scale the amount of methane being leaked into the atmosphere can have a large impact on climate. While the EPA originally reported that average leakage rate in natural gas production was somewhere around 1.5%, a collaborative study by scientist from several universities and government agencies released this past October revealed that the figure should be much closer to 3%. Even worse, there have been reports of methane leakage upwards of 12% at some production sites.

Many climate change mitigation plans focus on reducing CO2 emissions, but methane and its effects should not be overlooked. The IPCC has reported that over a 100-year period, methane is 35 times more potent of a heat-trapping gas than CO2. When looking at the effects of methane over 20 years, this figure jumps to 87. Suddenly, that comparatively small amount of methane being leaked out of wells, pipes and valves is incredibly important. In other words, 1 ton of methane being released into the atmosphere has the same heat-trapping effect over a 20 year period as releasing 87 tons of CO2.

20 Year Climate Impact of Natural Gas vs CoalWhile the CO2 emissions from burning natural gas are about half what is produced by burning coal plant to produce the same amount of power, after accounting for fugitive emissions and converting leaked methane into CO2 equivalent (using the IPCC 87x factor referenced earlier), natural gas climate change impact is almost as bad as coal.

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