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Archive for the ‘Austin Energy’ Category

Janis and Evan Bookout speaking in support of renewable energy to protect the climate (Photo courtesy of Al Braden, www.albradenphoto.com)

Yesterday morning, Austinites took time out of their day to show up at City Hall and let the Austin City Council know that we expect real leadership when it comes to adopting an updated Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan.  Many joined us in a call for carbon-free by 2030, and 75% renewable energy by 2027 goals.  The other common theme we are supporting is the need for additional programs to make the benefits of distributed solar accessible to low-income residents, renters and those in multifamily housing.

Join us at the public hearing on August 10 to call for a rapid transition to clean, renewable energy, while improving equity.

This process started last November with the creation of the Electric Utility Commission Resource Planning Working Group (which was partially appointed by Austin Energy).  But after months of meetings, the working group recommendations (which have been endorsed by Austin Energy) fall well short of leadership on either climate protection or energy equity.  The recommendations call for only 65% renewable energy by 2027, limited or no increases for energy efficiency, local solar and energy storage goals, and no solid commitments to improve access to distributed solar.

Thankfully, the Austin City Council is the board of directors for Austin Energy, so we all get a chance to weigh in with our elected officials to call for a plan that represents Austin values – doing right by our planet and our neighbors

That’s what the public hearing is for, so please mark your calendar.

At least 32 U.S. cities have committed to a 100 percent renewable energy goal and 5 have already achieved this goal.  If Austin is to claim leadership on combating climate change, a commitment to 100% carbon-free energy is needed.  This, of course, implies that all of Austin Energy’s fossil fuel generators would need to be retired.  That would include the natural gas-fired power plants at Decker Creek and Sand Hill, both located on the east side of Austin.  This would improve air quality in the city and end our utility’s contribution to fracking, which is responsible for groundwater contamination, air pollution (including methane – a powerful greenhouse gas), earthquakes and destroyed roads in Texas and other states.  With all of these harmful side effects of energy production, it is those with the fewest options and opportunities – those with the least among us – who are hardest hit.  It’s on all of us – as Austinites – to stop contributing to these negative outcomes as quickly as possible.

Daniel Llanes, of PODER – People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, speaking in support of a transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy to protect the climate; and for greater and more diverse public input (Photo courtesy of Al Braden, www.albradenphoto.com)

As we transition to clean energy, we can and should ensure that the benefits flow to everyone in our community.  As the price of solar energy has increased, more residents and businesses are going solar to reduce their bills and their impact on the environment. There is now financing available for those who can’t pay up front, making solar accessible to middle-income residents.  That’s good news, but solar has still been out of reach for those with poor credit, renters and those living in multifamily housing (either apartments or condominiums).  Making solar accessible for these populations is challenging, but utilities, governments and non-profits around the country are digging in to find solutions.  San Antonio’s CPS Energy already has a successful solar program, called Solar Host, which is accessible to low-income residents.  What we want is for Austin Energy to take on these challenges and embrace new solutions.  Local solar goals should be expanded and incentive budgets maintained to make solar an option for Austinites at all income levels and in all types of housing.

If these ideas speak to your values, please come to the public hearing on August 10 to speak your mind.

Goals are only useful if they are high enough to spur innovation and action beyond what is already happening.  We want Austin to be ambitious in taking on climate change and equity.

Here’s what we’re asking for (3rd column):

 

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Mayor Adler speaking about the Austin Energy rate case settlement on Aug 25, 2016. Council Members Casar and Pool also spoke at the press conference focused on environmental aspects of the rate case. Photo by Dave Cortez.

As of yesterday afternoon, Austin Energy’s rate case officially concluded with a unanimous vote of the City Council.  The result – lower bills for everyone and commitments to address two key environmental objectives.  The utility agreed to develop a financial, legal and technical plan that will allow its portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project to retire at the end of 2022.  And the utility agreed to address the need for compensating commercial customers with solar installations for the energy they produce.  These commitments provide a path forward to transition away from burning coal and toward renewable energy.

The 2022 retirement date for Austin Energy’s portion of Fayette was established in the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025, but a detailed implementation plan is still lacking.  The agreement that Public Citizen and Sierra Club struck with Austin Energy as part of the rate case gives the utility until June 2017 to present a plan to the City Council.  And in the meantime, $5 million will be earmarked in Austin Energy Contingency Reserve as part of the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget to be used for repaying debt associated with Fayette.  What to do about the debt is expected to be a significant focus of the research Austin Energy will conduct between now and next June.  Austin Energy’s portion of Fayette is responsible for about 25% of Austin’s community-wide greenhouse gas emissions and about 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions, making retiring the plant a top priority for meeting Austin’s climate goals.  Additionally, the economics of producing power from coal are looking worse all the time, so retiring the plant will ultimately benefit ratepayers, as well as the environment.

The exact details of how to compensate commercial customers with solar will also be decided in the coming months, but a commitment to address this current policy shortfall was part of the rate case agreement.  We will continue to advocate for expansion of the Value of Solar (VoS) tariff to commercial customers.  The VoS, which was pioneered by Austin Energy and first implemented in 2012, is used to calculate bill credits for residential customers with solar.  This formula-based method allows for a transparent examination of the benefits that local solar provides and is structured to be cost-neutral to the utility.  Currently, the VoS doesn’t apply to commercial customers, nor are most commercial customers eligible for net metering (a method of one for one crediting energy produced for energy used).  As incentives continue to be phased out, it becomes even more critical that Austin Energy have good long-term policies in place to fairly compensate customers.  The rate case agreement ensures that the issue of compensating commercial customers for energy produced will be addressed as part of the FY 2018 budget.

We are pleased that the Austin City Council also chose to make adjustments to the residential rates that weren’t detailed in the agreement between Austin Energy and the other parties in the rate case.  Austin Energy had proposed changes that would have raised rates for those who use the least electricity, while reducing them for those who use the most.  We advised the Council that such a change would be contrary to established goals for reducing energy use and would unfairly burden those who had invested in energy efficiency.  In the end, Council agreed and new rates were adopted that will result in reduced bills for all residential customers (rate reductions for commercial customers were already ensured).  The new rate go into effect at the start of January 2017.

Public Citizen’s Texas office worked in partnership with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter for the past seven months to ensure that environmental priorities were reflected in Austin Energy’s rates and financial planning.  Thanks to the many Austinites, including city council members who supported our efforts.

 

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A rate case is fundamentally about determining how much money an electric utility needs to collect from ratepayers to pay for expenses (and make some return on investment), how those expenses will be divided among the different customer classes (residential, commercial, industrial), and how customers in those different rate classes will be billed.  It’s probably obvious that these decisions can impact affordability and equity among customers.  Rate cases can also have significant environmental impacts though.

The Austin Energy rate case is an opportunity to make changes that can allow the utility to transition away from fossil fuels and towards greater reliance on clean energy solutions, including solar energy at homes and businesses, energy efficiency, energy storage and demand response (temporarily reducing usage when energy demand and prices spike).  What the utility spends money on, what programs are offered, and how rates are designed have profound impacts on climate change, air quality, water pollution, water use, land use – all of which impact society in a variety of ways, including public health and vulnerability to natural disasters.  So, it might sound boring at first, but if you care about the environment or social equity, you should care about how your electric utility is doing business.

What we’re advocating for:

  • 2009-08-21-fayette

    Fayette Power Project

    Budget to allow Austin Energy’s portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project to retire.  It is responsible for 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions (and over 28% of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors).  It’s also a major source of other air pollution that causes and worsens respiratory diseases (sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides – which contributes to ground level ozone formation) and cause neurological disorders mercury.  And it requires over 5 billion gallons of water to operate.  The latest adopted plan for Austin Energy calls for the retirement of the utility’s portion of Fayette by 2023, and Austin Energy staff say its remaining debt associated with the plant must be paid off before it can be retired.  The plan calls for that money to be collected in a dedicated fund through annual budgeting, but that isn’t happening, putting the retirement plan at risk.  Please use our action page to email City Council about budgeting to retire Fayette.

  • Maintain residential rates that encourage energy conservation and allow thrifty customers to keep their bills low.  Austin Energy has proposed to increase electric rates for those who use the least energy and reduce them for those who use the most.  For those trying to reduce their electric usage for environmental reasons or because their household budgets are strained, Austin Energy’s proposal will increase bills.  Austin Energy’s proposal will also make it more difficult to project from year to year how higher much summer rates will be from winter rates.  Both of these changes would reduce the incentive to conserve energy and invest in energy efficiency upgrade.  And these changes were proposed despite a study that Austin Energy commissioned that said that the existing rate structure is succeeding in encouraging conservation.  These proposed changes to how residential customers are billed would be a step backwards.
  • LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation - Meridian Solar

    LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation – Meridian Solar

    Adopt a policy to fairly compensate businesses for energy they produce from solar energy systems.  The City Council has adopted goals solar energy on homes and businesses, but Austin Energy’s current policy doesn’t include any way for most commercial customers to receive compensation for the energy they provide to the utility.  Incentives have temporarily filled that gap, but they are coming to an end.  The value of solar (VoS) rate is used to provide bill credits to residential customers, based on the calculated value of local distributed solar energy.  The same method should be used to compensate commercial customers.  Making this policy change will help grow solar adoption, while shifting away from incentives.

  • Ensure that enough money is collected to fully fund energy efficiency, solar energy and demand response programs.  Helping customers reduce their electric bills by making energy efficiency improvement or install solar energy systems doesn’t just benefit those customers who participate in those programs, it benefits all customers by allowing the utility to avoid purchasing expensive power that would drive all of our bills up.  The Energy Efficiency Services fee is used to collect money for this purpose.  With more people moving to Austin all the time, Austin Energy needs to ensure that budgets are set to match the need for local energy improvements.

Public Citizen and Sierra Club jointly participated in the Austin Energy rate case over the past several months, in an effort to push the utility to make environmentally sound decisions about both spending and billing customers.  That was just a warm-up for the real decision-making process though.  Because Austin Energy is owned by the city of Austin, the Austin City Council will make the final decisions about the rate case.  That’s where you come in.  City Council members, including Mayor Adler, need to hear from Austin Energy customers.  There will be a public hearing on Thursday, August 25th at 4:00 p.m. at City Hall.  Meet at 3:00 p.m. for a rally to support fair rates that meet Austin’s environmental goals.

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The hunt is on. The City of Austin is searching for a new general manager for Austin Energy. It should take this opportunity to find a visionary leader who can prepare our city-owned utility to remain prosperous as the electricity market changes.

This is a transformational time for electric utilities. The business model that served utilities so well throughout the 20th century – buy or produce energy at large, centralized facilities and profit by selling that energy to customers – won’t keep utilities afloat throughout the 21st century.

As solar prices continue to drop, more and more customers will choose to use solar at their homes and businesses, reducing the amount of energy that utilities, including Austin Energy, can sell. Declining battery prices will only add to the effect and will give customers an affordable off-grid option. And as energy prices and limits on carbon emissions increase, energy efficiency improvements will become even more attractive, further reducing the need for centrally produced energy.

The next leader of Austin Energy needs to recognize this new reality and be fully committed to reform Austin Energy’s business model to enable the utility to not only survive these changes, but to flourish in new energy markets they transform and develop. In addition to prioritizing a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy, she should be committed to innovating to incorporate energy efficiency, distributed energy (including solar), energy storage, and demand response into the utility’s business model. Austin Energy must find ways to provide and profit from a wide range of energy services that are compatible with a carbon-free future.

The new Austin Energy general manager will need to be someone who is capable of gaining the respect of the workforce and harnessing their collective abilities to provide excellent customer service, even as the definition of those services is changing. And she will need to ensure that all staff have the necessary technical skills to meet the utility’s needs and avoid costly mistakes, such as the billing system fiasco.

Navigating these changes while keeping the utility prosperous will require excellent financial acumen and experience setting transparent operating and capital budgets. Austin Energy is an important source of revenue for the city, so a strong commitment to public power will be critical. The general manager will need the knowledge and political savvy to continually convince the Texas Legislature that the utility is acting in the best interests of its customers in order to stave off deregulation.

The needed utility transformation will only occur with the blessing of the Austin City Council and the support of the community, so the next general manager must be willing and able to work collaboratively and respectfully with all parties, including public interest groups, citizen commissions, chambers of commerce, and research organizations. Concise, timely, and honest communication with the City Council and the public will be required.

The next Austin Energy general manager must have the ability to bring together diverse community interest groups and contentious parties to garner support for needed changes. As Austin continues to struggle with affordability, she must have experience and empathy in working with low and moderate income customers and be committed to reducing electric bills for this group with energy efficiency and distributed solar programs.

We’re looking for a talented, visionary leader who is committed to working for the public good. If that’s you, please apply.

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2015-10-15 Austin City CouncilThe Austin City Council voted today to approve an additional 100 to 150 megawatts of solar energy projects for Austin Energy for 2016 and directed Austin Energy to bring another 150 megawatts online by 2019. Together with the projects approved on October 1, Council has given the go-ahead for between 400 and 450 megawatts of new solar energy to be completed by the end of 2016.

At prices reported around 3.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, these solar energy projects are some of the cheapest ever reported. The prices will be fixed for contract periods of between 15 and 25 years.

This is a huge win for Austin Energy customers and the environment. It comes thanks to the dedicated efforts of many Austin residents and collaboration with our partners at the SEED Coalition, Climate Buddies, Texas Drought Project, Clean Water Action, the Faith Energy Action Team and many others.  We no longer have to choose between clean energy and saving money. The Council has made a decision that will keep bills low for years to come.

“When Warren Buffett received record-low solar prices, he proclaimed the victory to the world. Austin Energy received bid that are just as competitive, making this a golden opportunity,” said Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition. “Mayor Adler and the City Council have taken a financially sound path.”

Austin Energy’s solar purchases also represent a significant step toward achieving the climate protection goals adopted by the City Council, which include achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the entire Austin community by no later than 2050 and eliminating all carbon dioxide emissions from Austin Energy controlled sources by 2030.

“Our best scientists are sounding dire warnings about the imminent possibility that climate change will accelerate in the next few years. We need to do everything possible to head of the possibility of runaway climate change,” said Jere Lock of the Texas Drought Project. “Action taken by City Council today are a step in the right direction.”

“400 megawatts of solar will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 620,000 metric tons, which is over 11% of all emissions from Austin Energy. That is significant,” ” said Joep Meijer of Climate Buddies. “Solar will also allow Austin Energy to use its expensive gas plants less, saving customers money and reduce local air pollution.”

Although it runs less than 5% of the time, Austin Energy’s natural gas-fired Decker Creek Power Station is a significant source of location air pollution in Austin and is located right next to neighborhoods and schools in East Austin.  Because it is so old and inefficient, that plant is only turned on when high demand for electricity drives up prices.  The solar farms approved by the City Council will produce large amounts of energy when electricity demand is high on hot afternoons, so this offers Austin Energy an opportunity to retire the Decker plant.  In addition to being a major source of air pollution, the plant loses money most years, according to Austin Energy’s own data.

The increased use of solar energy will also protect and preserve Texas’s limited water resources.

“Austin’s decision to go big on solar is great news for our state’s water resources. Unlike solar, gas and coal plants require massive amounts of water to operate,” said David Foster of Clean Water Action. The extraction of natural gas through fracking has been proven to contaminate groundwater, and coal plants create millions of pounds of toxic coal ash each year, much of which finds its way into our water.”

The Austin City Council have made a great decision that brings Austin Energy closer to meeting the goal of eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from its power plants by 2030.  This process took eight months to complete and required two different Council resolutions before proposals were voted on in October.  Both of those resolutions were sponsored by Council Member Delia Garza and co-sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Leslie Pool, Greg Casar and Ann Kitchen.  The solar contracts approved today were also supported by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Sheri Gallo and Ora Houston.  Please send the Austin City Council members who voted “yes” an email to thank them for embracing solar energy.

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The Austin City Council voted 9-2 today to authorize Austin Energy to enter into contracts for up to 300 megawatts (MW) of new solar energy.  This decision comes as a result of the generation planning process that began in February 2014 and has included numerous studies, briefings, public hearings, and recommendations from citizen advisory groups and Austin Energy.  Those voting in support were Mayor Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Tovo and Council Members Garza, Pool, Casar, Kitchen, Gallo, Renteria and Houston.Go Green to Save Some Green - Affordable Solar for AustinAs consumer advocates, we cheer this wise decision by the Austin City Council because these solar contracts will provide energy at affordable rates for all Austin Energy customers.  While the utility will pay slightly more for this energy in the first few years than it would if it just purchased energy from the market, that dynamic will be short-lived and these solar contracts will offer more affordable rates than market purchases for most of the contract periods.  Solar contracts can be for up to 25 years and are at a fixed price of less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, offering an excellent opportunity to keep prices low and predictable for customers.

This addition of solar energy will bring the city and its electric utility closer to achieving the climate protection goals that Council has adopted.  Those goals are to achieve net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or earlier, if possible and to make all Austin Energy-controlled electric generating assets carbon-free by 2030.  The later goal will require retirement of the utility’s coal-fired Fayette Power Project and the natural gas-fired generators at the Decker Creek Power Station (Austin’s single largest source of air pollution) and the Sand Hill Energy Center.  In order to protect customers against fluctuating prices in the electricity market, Austin Energy will need new carbon-free energy sources to replace those coal and natural gas-fired power plants.  These new solar contracts will help enable that transition.

Even before Austin Energy begins retirement of its fossil fuel fleet, these new solar farms will displace dirty energy from the Texas electric grid.  Because they have no fuel cost, solar farms will take the place of the most inefficient (and most polluting) natural gas plants that currently provide Texas electric consumers with energy when demand is high in the afternoons and early evenings.  By placing solar installations in sunny west Texas, the utility (and its customers) will benefit from high energy production that will continue even as solar intensity is starting to decline in central Texas.

Austin Energy and other utilities have been able to obtain exceptionally low prices for solar contracts recently because solar companies are eager to complete projects before the impending decline of the federal solar investment tax credit from 30% to 10% for commercial projects at the end of 2016.  Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that development of new utility-scale solar projects will decline from a high of over 11 gigawatts (GW) in 2016 to just over 3 GW in 2017.  Installations are projected to slowly increase after 2017, but Bloomberg doesn’t project a return to the boom levels we are seeing now and will continue to see through 2016.

2015-09-15 Bloomberg - Utility-scale solar build forecast with and without ITC extension

This boom is exciting, but it means that some proposed projects won’t be able to be completed by the end of 2016.  Several companies, including First Solar are running out of capacity to produce enough solar panels to keep up with demand.  That’s great for solar manufacturers to have, but it means that utilities wanting to benefit from low prices need to get contracts signed right away.

The Austin City Council also voted today to postpone authorization for up to another 350 MW of solar energy until October 15 to give Austin Energy staff additional time to negotiate more favorable prices on those contracts.  Although the prices for those contracts are already competitive, they are closer to 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour and can likely be negotiated to closer to the first batch of contracts that was authorized today.  That will result in additional savings in the years to come.  Just as no savvy consumer walks on to a car lot and pays sticker price, utilities can and should use proposed energy prices as a starting point for negotiations.  We applaud the City Council for acting on the most affordable contracts now and for employing this strategy to get the best possible deals on the second batch of solar contracts.

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The Austin City Council will vote this Thursday (September 17) on a resolution to push Austin Energy one step closer to signing contracts for up to 600 megawatts of solar energy.  About 8,000 megawatts worth of proposals have been submitted, some at the lowest solar prices ever seen.

solar panels - photo from ShutterstockThese are exciting times for solar energy – in Texas and around the world.  Solar energy is finally cost competitive with fossil fuel-based energy.  Utilities that have shown little or no interest in “going green” or being socially responsible are investing in solar.  Luminant, Texas’ largest electric generating company, has traditionally invested in coal, but just last week, the company announced its first solar purchase.  And in Georgetown, Texas the electric utility has signed contracts for wind and solar energy that it will have a 100% renewable energy portfolio by 2017.  In the words of Georgetown Mayor Ross:

No, environmental zealots have not taken over our city council, and we’re not trying to make a statement about fracking or climate change. Our move to wind and solar is chiefly a business decision based on cost and price stability.

It is in this setting that the Austin Council will make its decision.  Despite the record low prices, Austin Energy has pushed back against contracting for the 600 megawatts of solar that the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025 calls for.  The plan set a goal of 600 megawatts by 2025, but also states that the utility should contract for up to that amount by 2017, if available and affordable.   Clearly it’s available.

The Electric Utility Commission (EUC), whose job it is to oversee Austin Energy, evaluated the impact on rates of contracting for 600 megawatts of solar.  The Commission found that it would reduce rates in all but the first couple years and recommended that Austin Energy present its best plan for achieving an additional 600 MW of solar by the end of 2017.  So, contracting for 600 megawatts of solar is also affordable.

Austin Energy executives have argued that prices could fall further, but how much they will fall and how fast are unknowns.  The 30% federal solar investment tax credit declines to 10% at the end of 2016, so we can count on a price bump after that.  As solar prices continue to decline, they will eventually make up for that lost tax credit, but will that be in 18 months, as Austin Energy claims, or longer.  Solar companies are especially eager to get contracts right now, so that they can build up their portfolios before the tax credit is reduced.  Austin Energy ratepayers could be the beneficiaries of that eagerness, if the Austin City Council decides to take action.  If solar is even cheaper in 2018, Austin Energy can contract for more then.  Either way, this 600 megawatts of solar, which would supply about 12% of the energy the utility sells, would be an affordable source of energy during times when electricity use, and therefor prices, are highest.

Affordable solar prices should make it easy for the Council to support a big solar buy, especially given that converting to renewable energy is a key strategy in achieving the city’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, or earlier.  Climate change is happening now.  For any entity (such as the City of Austin) that claims that addressing the problem of climate change is a priority, passing up opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emission while also saving money isn’t an acceptable option.

If you live in Austin and would like to help get this resolution passed, please sign up to attend the City Council meeting on Thursday (September 17).

We are asking everyone to wear green to make it easy for the Council members to see how many clean energy supporters are there.  We’ll be there starting at 5:30, and will have stickers and talking points for everyone.  Parking is free with validation in the garage under City Hall.

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The Austin City Council’s vote last night to adopt the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025 brought to an end a year’s worth of work by numerous advocates and engaged members of the public.

While the result was disappointing, I find myself being immensely grateful for the many people who took time out of their schedules to stand up in support of the strongest renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy storage goals and in opposition to Austin Energy’s continued use of polluting fossil fuels.

Many of the people who we worked side-by-side with over the past year have spent years trying to improve Austin’s energy policies and their past work has been critical in getting us as far as we are now. Others who hadn’t been very involved in energy policy also got engaged. Some had to put in a lot of effort just to get educated on the complex facts that surround energy policy. What united us all was a common belief that not only is a transition to clean, renewable energy sources possible, but that it is the only responsible course of action.

We joined forces with people and organizations who are concerned about climate change, health impacts of air pollution and water pollution, water use, affordability, and equity. It is clear that when the costs of the many negative impacts of using fossil fuels – including the mining of coal, fracking for gas, and then burning those products – are taken into consideration, clean energy alternatives are by far the better deal. Even without those important costly externalities included in the equation, wind power, solar power, energy efficiency and demand response (strategically reducing energy use at key times) are now all more affordable than energy from a new gas plant.

For all those reasons, we made incredible progress with the policies that the Austin City Council adopted in the Affordable Energy Resolution on August 28. Unfortunately, as a result of losing a big piece of its political cover, Council passed a plan last night (December 11) that rolled back some of those gains and opened the door for Austin Energy to build a big new gas plant.

There’s a lot of misleading information going around, so let’s take a look at the numbers.

2014-12-12 Austin Energy Policies Comparison Table (Aug Resolution vs Dec Gen Plan 2014)

It was because of the many dedicated people that we worked with over the past year that we were able to achieve what we did in August and because of your help over the past few weeks and yesterday that we were able to preserves as much of those achievements as we did in the new Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025.  Thank you to everyone who contributed time and effort to this important endeavor.  We’ll need your help to keep things moving in the right direction in 2015.

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2014-09-29 Austin Mayoral Candiate Forum on AE Issues - YouTubeOn Monday, we concluded our series of Austin City Council and mayoral candidate forums.  Over the course of two and a half weeks, we heard a variety of views on Austin Energy issues from an astounding 54 candidates.  On top of that, 49 candidates submitted responses to our questionnaire on Austin Energy issues.

Many of our Austin supporters joined us in person for the forums, but for those of you who weren’t able to make it out to your district forum or the mayoral forum, we have posted all of the videos on a special Austin Elections page of our blog. Or you can view them directly on the Public Citizen’s Texas Office YouTube channel.

If you care about climate change, shutting down polluting power plants, expanding the use of solar energy, energy efficiency, preserving our water, or keeping electric bills affordable for low-income customers, you’ll want to check out the Austin Council candidate forum videos for your district and the mayoral race.  Get the information you need to make an educated vote on November 4.

Public Citizen didn’t host these forums on our own.  We were joined in this effort by the SEED Coalition (Sustainable Energy and Economic Development), Sierra Club, Solar Austin, Texas ROSE (Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy), Clean Water Action, Austin Climate Action Network, Texas Drought Project, First Unitarian Universalist Green Sanctuary Ministry, and the Wildflower Unitarian Universalist Church.  Many thanks to everyone who helped with the forums, especially former Austin Mayor Will Wynn for moderating the mayoral forum, Progress Texas deputy director Phillip Martin for moderating the districts 6 and 10 forum, and Treehouse for donating their space for the districts 5 & 8 forum.

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Former Austin Mayor Will Wynn will host a candidate forum for the current Austin mayoral candidates tonight.

The focus of the forum is Austin Energy issues.  Questions will cover topics including climate change, solar energy, affordability, and the retirement the city’s portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project.

When: Tonight (Monday, September 29), from 7:15 to 9:30 p.m (program from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m.)

Where: First Unitarian Universalist Church (4700 Grover Ave., 78756)

Like almost all of the City Council races this year, the mayoral race features long list of candidates.  6 have committed to participate in tonight’s forum.  They are:

  • Mike Martinez (Current Council Member)
  • Sheryl Cole (Current Mayor Pro Tem)
  • Steve Adler
  • Randall Stephens
  • Todd Phelps
  • David Orshalick

While there are many forums in Austin this election season, this is the only one to focus on the city’s largest asset, Austin Energy.  Find out what the candidates have in mind for Austin’s energy future.

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As Austin prepares to enter a new phase under 10-1 governance (10 Council members to represent geographic districts and 1 at-large mayor), many voters may find themselves overwhelmed with the large number of candidates to chose from.  A whopping 78 candidates filed to run for City Council this year.  District 3 alone has 12 candidates.

2014-08-21 Austin City Council and Mayoral Candidate Forums on Austin Energy - image for blogSo how do you, as a voter, choose between so many options?  We aren’t going to tell you who to vote for, but we are helping you get some of the information that you might want when making that important choice.  Along with some of our local allies, we are hosting a series of candidate forums focused on Austin Energy issues that are free and open to the public.

  • Districts 6 & 10: September 12, 6 – 9 p.m., First Presbyterian Church, 8001 Mesa Dr, Austin, TX 78731
  • Districts 2 & 3: September 19, 6 – 9 p.m., Austin JATC Electrical Training Center, 4000 Caven Rd, Austin, TX 78744
  • Districts 1 & 7: September 20, 12:30 – 3:30 p.m., Northwest Recreation Center, 2913 Northland Dr, Austin, TX 78757
  • Districts 4 & 9: September 22, 6 – 9 p.m., First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover Ave, Austin, TX 78756
  • Districts 5 & 8: September 23, 6 – 9 p.m., Treehouse, 4477 S. Lamar Blvd, #600, Austin, TX 78745
  • Mayoral: September 29, 7 – 10 p.m., First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover Ave, Austin, TX 78756

If you don’t know which district you are in, you can look it up. Type in only your street address. For example, if you live at 1234 Barton Springs Rd, Apt 44, type in only “1234 Barton Springs Rd.”

While there are many important issues facing Austin, we believe that governance of Austin Energy will remain one of the single most important responsibilities for any City Council member.  Valued at $3.8 billion, Austin Energy is the City’s most valuable asset.  In addition to providing power for the city, its residents and businesses, Austin Energy revenue to supports city operations such as parks, infrastructure, EMS, firefighters and libraries.

Candidates will be asked to respond to a series of questions relating to Austin Energy, including questions on climate change, energy sources, affordability and governance of the utility.  The public is invited to attend to learn more about the candidates.

Let us know that you’ll be at one or more of the forums.

Participating organizations are: Public Citizen, SEED Coalition (Sustainable Energy and Economic Development), Sierra Club, Solar Austin, Texas ROSE (Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy), Clean Water Action, Austin Climate Action Network, Texas Drought Project, First Unitarian Universalist Green Sanctuary Ministry, Wildflower Unitarian Universalist Church

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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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Today, Austin City Council will consider an historic energy proposal from Council Member Chris Riley that would save Austin millions while demonstrating an unprecedented commitment to renewable energy.

The resolution calls for Austin Energy to bring more than 600 megawatts of solar power, enough to power more than 100,000 homes, to its portfolio, phase out the Decker gas-fired power plant and set goals to generate more than 60 percent of its power from renewable sources and eliminate its carbon pollution by 2030.

Councilman Riley spoke about the need to action at Tuesday's Affordable Energy Rally in front of City Hall.  Photo by Al Braden.

Councilman Riley spoke at Tuesday’s Affordable Energy Rally in front of City Hall. Photo by Al Braden.

In addition to the diverse support behind Council Member Chris Riley for his proposed Affordable Energy Resolution, Public Citizen’s analysis shows that a key component of the plan is economically sound.

An analysis of the cost of Austin Energy’s most recent solar Request for Proposals (RFP) and projected cost to generate electricity in ERCOT, the Texas grid, over time shows tremendous savings from investing in an additional 600 megawatts of solar for Austin. The cost analysis was conducted for Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group, using the same planning tools used by ERCOT and found that the solar power proposed in the Affordable Energy Resolution will save Austin consumers between $12.6 and $32 million per year on average compared to building a new natural gas-fired power plant, depending on fluctuations in the gas market.

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IMG_4488Even the best policies are rarely perfect from the onset.  Sometimes circumstances change and sometimes certain outcomes simply weren’t considered.  Either reality can result in a potentially great policy being only mediocre, or even bad. Part of what makes a great policy, is a willingness to make corrections as needed.

Austin Energy’s value of solar tariff (VoS) was the first effort of it’s kind.  Across most of the country, solar customers are billed for energy used, minus energy produced – a policy called net metering.  Instead, Austin Energy’s VoS establishes a monetary value for the energy produced from local solar installations.  Customers are billed for all of the energy they use at their regular tiered rates and are then credited for all the energy they produce at the VoS rate.

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Austin Energy solar customer have 2 meters, one to measure energy consumption and one to measure energy production.

The VOS was intended to ensure that both the solar customers and the utility were getting fair and accurate value for the energy that each was providing.  And, the incentive to reduce electric consumption that is provided by the tiered rates is maintained.  That’s because even if an energy hog offsets some of his use with solar, he will still be charged a higher rate for that consumption.  Solar is great, but using less energy is even better.  The VoS was a lofty new idea, adopted by a utility known for it’s renewable energy innovation.

A couple years into using the VoS, it is working, but needs a bit of perfecting.  On Monday evening, the Austin Electric Utility Commission (EUC) voted to support a few key changes, as proposed by Commissioner Clay Butler.

  1. Remove the year-end credit sweep, allowing credits to roll over until participant ceases to be AE customer – This will protect customers from having bill credits they have accrued from solar production taken from them.  Those credits can be used to offset energy use in future months or even years.
  2. Remove the 20 kW tariff cap – This will allow larger solar systems to be an economical choice for some customers.
  3. Set a floor on the VoS tariff tied to the residential electric rate – Setting a floor for the VoS will give customers some certainty of the value they can count on from their investment.  The VoS would still fluctuate, but not below a certain point. That exact point needs to be set, but tieing it to the second tier rate would preserve the incentive to conserve energy (to avoid higher rate tiers), while ensuring that VoS credits would be fairly valued in comparison to energy charges low and medium use customers.
  4. Allow leased system “hosts” to receive VoS credits – Leasing is an option that will help expand solar adoption.  Applying the VoS equally to all residential solar systems will help making leasing a viable option in Austin.
  5. Adopt 5 year rolling average in calculating annual VoS assessment – A rolling 5 year average for the VoS will smooth out the changes from year to year and therefor provide more stability for customers.
  6. The City Council and City Manager reject the price quote on the 25 year guaranteed fuel price ($5.28 per MMBtu ) proposed by Austin Energy for the 2015 rate assessment. – The projected future price of natural gas is the single most significant factor in the calculation of the VoS.  Projections of natural gas prices are notoriously wrong and under projecting those future prices results in a lower VoS and less value going to solar customers.

Austin Energy has already endorsed several these recommendations (#’s 1, 2, 4, and 5).  The next step will be for the Austin City Council to act on these recommendations. There will be opportunities for the public weigh in on these issues before Council as part of the budget process in August.

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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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