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Posts Tagged ‘austin city council’

It’s a new era for the Austin City Council in more ways than one.  Not only does the Council have geographic representation for the first time ever, but the almost entirely new Council (Kathie Tovo is the only returning member) has proposed a significant overhaul to the way in which the body does its job.  These changes were presented at a press conference with all 10 Council members and Mayor Adler last Thursday.

Austin City Council press conference. Photo by Kaiba White 1/8/15.

Austin City Council press conference. Photo by Kaiba White 1/8/15.

The proposed changes are in response to several often repeated complaints.  The first is that Council meetings are unreasonably long – an average of 9 and a half hours in 2014, according to a city auditor report.  This results in some Council decisions being made late at night after a full day on dais.  The second complaint is that there is little to no certainty about when any specific item will be taken up at Council meetings.  Coupled with the long meetings, this means that members of the public who wish to speak on an item have a difficult time doing so because can’t spend all day at a Council meeting.

A third concern is that by the time an item comes up at a Council meeting most, if not all members have already made their decisions and that speaking for or against an item isn’t likely to change the outcome of the vote.  This perception (along with the time commitment required to participate) likely discourages many from showing up to share their views.

IMG_6859Council’s proposals are intended to address these complaints head on by expanding opportunity for public input earlier in the process and reducing the length of Council meetings.

Instead of most items going directly to the full Council for consideration, most items would first be assigned to a committee and would receive a public hearing in committee.  The larger number of proposed Council Committees should reduce the length of any one meeting and make it more feasible for members of the public to participate.  Time sensitive items or items that don’t receive timely attention in their assigned committee could still be sent directly to the full Council.  And even if an item received a hearing in committee, any 4 Council members could still request a second hearing before the full Council.

Council has also proposed to assign certain topics, such as zoning to meetings that will focus on those issues, in order to allow members of the public to more easily hone in on which meetings they want to attend.  Executive sessions would generally be reserved for a special meetings to keep meetings flowing and waste less of the public’s time.

As advocates of good government, Public Citizen supports these proposals and has just a few suggestions:

  1. The Council Committee on Austin Energy should remain a committee of the whole – with all Council members, including the mayor, serving on it.  Austin Energy is the City’s most valuable asset, accounts for a majority of budget allocations and contributes significant revenue to the city’s general fund, which pays for the bulk of the city’s services, such as parks, firefighters, and libraries.  In 2013, the public spoke clearly in favor of Council retaining control over Austin Energy, instead of transferring governing authority to an unelected board.  Since Council serves as the board of directors for Austin Energy, all Council members should be fully engaged in governing the utility.
  2. A subcommittee of the Committee on Austin Energy should be created to study and propose options for modernizing Austin Energy’s business model.  The mayor and several other Council members have indicated that they wish to find ways for Austin Energy to remain viable in the long run.  One significant challenge is an eventual future when many more customers will have their own solar systems on their homes and businesses and will purchase less energy from the utility, but will still rely on the utility to maintain a working power distribution grid.  Utilities in other states and countries are beginning to tackle the problem of retaining sufficient revenue while selling less electricity.  Establishing an Austin Energy Business Model subcommittee will ensure that Council is focused on ensuring the long-term financial stability of Austin’s most valuable asset.
  3. Council should stet an expected timeline for holding public hearings on items that are assigned to committees.  We suggest that a public hearing should be held within 30 days of an item being assigned to a committee.  This will ensure that the committee process fosters meaningful and timely public engagement, as it is intended to do.

Please email the Council members to let them know that you support their proposed changes and these suggestions from Public Citizen.

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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.

(more…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today, Thursday (April 11th) at 4 PM Austin City Council will vote on ordinance that would hand control of the city’s municipal utility, Austin Energy, to an unelected board chosen by corporate headhunters.  This change could open the door to industry insiders and special interests controlling Austin Energy, the city’s largest asset, valued at $3.9 billion.  It’s OUR utility and we should elect those who manage it.

There will be a first vote on this ordinance comes tomorrow despite great public outcry about the rushed nature of this plan, the failure to hold a real public hearing and the failure to acknowledge the millions of dollars wasted at other utilities, such as CPS Energy, at the hands of unelected boards.

A percentage of the profits of Austin Energy currently goes to fund programs for the city, but that funding could be at risk with an unelected board in charge.  Reduced funding could seriously jeopardize our parks, roads, libraries, clinics and public safety department.  There is also some concern that the move to make our public utility more of a corporate model could mean that our green energy and low-income programs are at risk.

This is your utility and we encourage you to come to City Hall this afternoon.  Speak if you can, or, if you prefer, donate your time to a friend.  While the “time certain” has been set for 4 pm, please don’t let that deter you.  Come even if you can’t arrive by 4 pm. City Council has been known to be hours late in getting started on an item. We’ll have food on hand.

The backup material (attachment 3 on item #11) includes the draft ordinance, the new report (which is an interesting compilation of data, but doesn’t support the concept of changing Austin Energy’s governance), and a list of 15 ways that the ordinance conflicts with the City Charter.

Even if you can’t attend, but can come by City Hall at some point in the day, please go by and register against agenda items #11 and #45 at the kiosks inside.

You can also call or email council members, specifically Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Sheryl Cole, Bill Spelman, Chris Riley and Mike Martinez, and ask them to halt this fast-tracked, undemocratic ordinance. Remind them that the utility is ours – not theirs to give away.

City Clerk 974-2210
E-mail all City Council Members at once: http://www.austintexas.gov/mail/all-council-members
Lee Leffingwell 974-2250 [email protected]
Sheryl Cole 974-2266 [email protected]
Chris Riley 974-2260 [email protected]
Mike Martinez 974-2264 [email protected]
Kathie Tovo 974-2255 [email protected]
Laura Morrison 974-2258 La[email protected]
Bill Spelman 974-2256 [email protected]

More info is online at www.CleanEnergyforAustin.org.

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Would you decide who manages your retirement account by closing your eyes and pointing?  Probably not.

Press Conference RE: Austin Energy Governance 2-13-13Yet, Austin City Council is moving forward with a rash plan to hand over the bulk of its power to govern and oversee Austin Energy to an appointed board.  A well thought-out Austin American-Statesman editorial reveals the fool-hardness of making such a substantial governance change without even studying if it is needed or if the proposed change would yield better results than the current system of governance by the City Council.

This is one of those times when we need to remember that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  City Council (and a couple of our state legislators) have been reacting out of fear that Austin Energy, or parts of it, could be deregulated.  But, in light of the recent settlement reached with the out-of-town ratepayers, that is unlikely to happen.  We need City Council to stare their fear in the face and make a rational, fact-based decision.  Panicking now could cost our utility and our city for years to come.

Our city’s most valuable asset should be accountable to us, the citizens of Austin and the customers it serves.  Elections don’t always turn out the way I wish and some appointees do their jobs well, but I’m a populist, so at the end of the day, I want the power in the hands of the people.  With elections, we give power to individuals to do jobs an with elections we can take that power away.  An appointed board wouldn’t have to be responsive to citizen concerns and could make the vast majority of decisions about how Austin Energy is run and what to prioritize.

If, after studying the pros and cons of governance by City Council vs. governance by a board, City Council still believes that they are not the best people to oversee Austin Energy, an elected board would be a better option than an appointed board.

Let’s keep the power in our hands.

Tell Austin City Council not to approve an appointed board.

 

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Although the taxi cab industry in Austin is not often considered a power player in politics, individuals, top executives and owners have spent thousands of dollars in this city council election cycle. In particular, the election for the Austin City Council Place 3 seat has seen substantial amounts of money flow into it from the taxi cab companies. The race is between incumbent Randi Shade and newcomer Kathie Tovo. With well over $210,000 raised by the candidates, the taxi companies have accounted for nearly $18,000 of that money.

The influx of money can be attributed to disagreements within the industry by management and cab drivers as described in the Austin American Statesman article by Ben Wear. In the article, General Manager of Austin Yellow Cab Edward Kargbo is quoted as saying that they donated to “council members who we have found to be open to sitting down and hearing both sides.” The main debate is over whether legacy permits should be issued by the city council. The permits would allow drivers with at least 5 years of experience to bypass the three major taxi companies in Austin. The taxi companies are worried that this would lead to a loss of control in the marketplace. In the Place 3 election, Tovo has stated she is in favor of legacy permits whereas Shade has said she is opposed to it.

The large proportion of money that the taxi industry has devoted to this campaign has some people worried like Electric Cab owner Chris Nielsen who has said that City Council members were influenced by donations by cab executives. From The Statesman:

Yellow Cab and Austin Cab were granted five-year franchises in May 2010 by the council. Both votes were unanimous, although Morrison and Riley were not present when the Austin Cab vote occurred. The taxi drivers association at the time argued that given its concerns over the taxi fees and other issues, the term of the franchises should have been much shorter than five years.

The council’s response to the drivers’ concerns was to pass a resolution ordering the city’s staff to develop recommendations on a variety of issues involving taxis. In September, city staffers gave the council a briefing that included some immediate recommendations and items for further study.

Those recommendations included putting into the city code regulations for “low-speed electric vehicles,” a suggestion that has complicated the taxi dynamic this election season.

That proposed ordinance, which was to come before the council on April 21 , would allow the sole Austin company running those golf cart-like vehicles to potentially compete directly with taxis for short trips downtown. The company, Electric Cab of Austin, currently operates only as a shuttle contractor for hotels, rather than as a taxi service.

Two days before it was to come up, however, Shade raised concerns at a council work session about authorizing a new business while study of the overall taxi industry was ongoing. The council decided to table that matter for three to six months.

Electric Cab owner Chris Nielsen , who had flirted earlier in the year with running against Shade, claimed that she and other council members were influenced by the donations they had received from the cab executives. No, Shade said.

“It’s not the city’s job to create a special niche for one guy’s business,” she said.

Nielsen, still angry about the delay, said last week that on the May 14 election day he talked to Yellow Cab employees passing out Shade campaign fliers near the O. Henry Middle School polling place.

He said they told him they were from Houston and were paid by their company to travel to Austin and do the electioneering.

Not so, Shade said, after checking with Kargbo with Yellow Cab. Kargbo said that the Yellow Cab contingent did include employees from Houston, none of them drivers, and some nonemployees.

They were campaigning exclusively for Shade, he said.

Regarding Nielsen’s claim about the workers being on the Yellow Cab payroll during their Austin stay, Kargbo said: “That is 100 percent inaccurate. No one was paid to come up and do anything for Shade.”

With the election coming to a climax later this week, it is likely we are going to see even more money flow into the two campaigns. However, almost 12% of the money raised so far came from the taxi cab industry. It appears that of all the issues facing the city of Austin, the taxi cab debate is one of the most influential yet least talked about issues in the race. Yet the least talked about issue could be the one that decides the City Council Election for the Place 3 seat.

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For those in Austin who don’t know, the EGRSO (the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office… I had to look it up too) gets a substantial portion of its funding from the municipally-owned utility Austin Energy. What does this office do? From its city website:

[The EGRSO] implements the City of Austin Economic Development Policy as directed by the Austin City Council.

Essentially, the office provides grants and loans of city funds or services in order to promote economic development. Among its awardees are Facebook, LegalZoom, Heliovolt, Friday Night Lights, and the Home Depot Austin Technology Center.

Recently, the Electric Utility Commission voted unanimously to cut AE’s funding of the EGRSO, citing the fact that AE faces tough budget choices inside its own walls. Commissioner Shudde Fath wrote in the Business Journal that AE can no longer be the city’s cash cow.

EUC Chairman Phillip Schmandt released a statement on the matter yesterday:

I applaud EGRSO and its programs.  There are many great ideas in EGROS’ $10 Million budget.

But not every great idea should be funded with government money.

And more to the point, not every great idea should be funded from utility bills paid by our hard working customers who are struggling to make ends meet every month. (more…)

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YeeeeeeeeeeeeeeHaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Today is a great day. Not only is this the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, but Austin City Council just gave every Texan  a reason to celebrate: Mayor Lee Leffingwell and City Council passed the Austin Energy Generation Plan!

After two years of hard work, enormous inclusive cooperation and citizen participation, the council unanimously approved the proposed Austin Energy Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plan.

City hall attendants saw rigorous public approval–and some misguided contention–of the plan’s affordability and the process’ public participation during the public discussion. Council broke for citizen communications and an executive session before returning to approve the proposal.

Mayor Leffingwell spoke strongly in favor of the bill for both its environmental and economic responsibility, saying that global climate change will be the defining challenge of our era. Although it is a global problem, he said, Austin has a responsibility to do its part because “the sum of local policy is global policy.”

I caught up with Public Citizen’s David Power, Ryan Rittenhouse and Matt Johnson outside along with Sierra Club’s Cyrus Reed celebrating the fruition of their tireless efforts.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7kd71dD1pw]

Matt would like to thank all the members and supporters of the Clean Energy for Austin coalition for their hard work and dedication.

Congratulations! Go and celebrate Earth Day with jubilation!

###

By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Hoffman at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Thanks Donna!

Dozens of businesses and nonprofit organizations as well as more than 200 citizens have formed Clean Energy for Austin, a coalition whose purpose is to push Austin City Council to adopt a clean energy plan. Specifically, the coalition supports the passage of Austin Energy’s Resource and Climate Protection Plan and recommendations of a city task force created to examine the plan. Coalition members support the plan because of its emphasis on renewable energy and efficiency, green jobs creation and careful consideration of Austin’s low-income residents.

To date, more than 70 businesses, 18 non-profit organizations and more than 200 individuals have signed on in support of the energy plan through www.cleanenergyforaustin.org.

The energy plan is a road map for how Austin Energy, the city-owned electric utility, will meet the city’s energy needs over the next 10 years. It includes a substantial investment in energy efficiency and a variety of renewable energy resources like wind and solar, as well as new more efficient natural gas plants. In addition to diversifying its generation portfolio, Austin Energy wants to create a self-sustaining market for renewable technologies like solar rooftops and parking lots by 2020.

“A good business practice is to keep your options open when selecting suppliers,” said Steve Taylor of Applied Materials, a semiconductor manufacturer employing more than a thousand Austinites. “This plan allows for a diversity of different energy options, so it protects businesses – and residents – from long-term price spikes for any single power source because other energy supply options will be available and abundant. This plan also enhances Austin’s efforts to create green businesses and green jobs for years to come.”

The plan is the culmination of a nearly two-year public process of gathering input from multiple stakeholder groups, including businesses, environmental organizations, and groups serving low-income communities. Four representatives from the mayor’s Generation and Resource Planning Task Force, which analyzed more than a dozen scenarios of where Austin could get its power by 2020, are members of the coalition: Phillip Schmandt, chairman of Electric Utility Commission, Cary Ferchill, chair of Solar Austin, as well as non-profit members Public Citizen and Sierra Club.

“The great thing about the plan is its flexibility,” said Matthew Johnson, clean energy advocate with Public Citizen. “If costs for any resource type rise or fall dramatically over the next 10 years, Austin Energy would have the ability to change the plan, and do so with the help of community stakeholders. That’s the beauty of a diverse portfolio of resources. If Austin were locked into building a new coal or nuclear plant, our fate would be sealed.”

Energy efficiency, generally recognized as the cheapest energy resource, would be the main component of the plan. Austin Energy would take a more proactive and coordinated approach to reach low-income households with free weatherization to help lower their electric bills.

“Low-income communities need the most help with paying utility bills,” said Sunshine Mathon, design and development director of Foundation Communities, an Austin-based nonprofit affordable housing organization. “Austin has a long track record of having the lowest bills in Texas because of its commitment to conservation programs that help people lower their bills. My hope is that with the passage of this plan, those programs will not only expand but coordinate with other programs like bill assistance, neighborhood housing and community development.”

Coalition representatives also said that the plan reduces financial risk associated with overreliance on fossil fuels. The plan would enable Austin Energy to ramp down the Fayette coal plant more often, protecting the utility from pending carbon regulation.

“Whether or not you support greenhouse gas regulation, reducing the amount of carbon emissions that Austin is responsible for makes economic sense,” Johnson said. “That’s in addition to the improvements in air quality Austin and the surrounding region would experience. It’s a win-win.”

Austin’s City Council could vote on the plan in March, according to Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell. He has scheduled a Feb. 22 town hall meeting on Austin Energy’s Resource and Climate Protection Plan. Coalition members urge the public to visit www.cleanenergyforaustin.org and sign on as well as attend the town hall meeting to show their support.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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Last Thursday Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan briefed Austin City Council on the utility’s Resource and Climate Protection Plan.  This plan is the culmination of 18 months of input from the public, the creation of a generation resource task force of various stakeholders to review various energy plans and make recommendations, and support and input from both the Electric Utility Commission and the Resource Management Com­mis­sion — but it still isn’t the end of the line for the plan.  The generation plan will also be the subject of a city-wide town hall meeting February 22nd, and city council is expected to vote on some version of it in March.

The energy plan that Duncan (who will be retiring soon and we wish him the very best) presented  sets Austin on a path to reduce our carbon emissions 20% below 2005 levels by 2020 and get a total of 35% of our energy from renewable resources. It will meet council’s renewable energy goals, move Austin Energy towards becoming the leading utility in the nation in terms of clean energy and global warming solutions, and re-affirm the city’s commitment to the Climate Protection Plan, which has the laudable goal to establish a cap and reduction plan for the utility’s carbon dioxide emissions.  It is a flexible, living document that will allow council to evolve and adapt as conditions change. AND it will reduce the capacity factor of our Fayette Coal Plant to 60% and gets the ball rolling on figuring out the best way to shut it down(which you know makes me happy). Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, doesn’t it?

As we’ve come to expect over the years from our award winning utility, Austin Energy is taking an especially responsible and forward-thinking role with this new plan.  I’ve formed this opinion for a few reasons:

  1. They’re adopting aggressive renewable energy and efficiency goals as part of a larger, smart business plan.  Austin doesn’t need a new generation plan because we’re going to be strapped for energy by 2020; Austin Energy could rest on their laurels and do nothing for the next ten years and we’d be fine buying up excess energy on the open market as its power purchase agreements expire and gas plants age.  But if they did that, by the time 2020 rolled around Austin would be way behind the technological curve and very likely be stuck with higher rates as a result.  Austin Energy has picked up on the national trend that the traditional fuels we rely upon, such as coal, are quickly becoming financial liabilities even as solar and wind are becoming more and more cost effective.  This plan will allow the utility to reposition itself  for 2020 going forward so that in ten years we will have made the preparations necessary to take full advantage of the coming clean tech boom rather than be left scrambling and dependent on outdated energy sources.
  2. Austin Energy and the task force that helped formulate this plan were very careful to balance considerations of reliability, affordability, and clean (in terms of the environment and human health).  The city has the responsibility to make sure that everyone who lives here can afford their utility bills.  It doesn’t do any good to make the switch to a new clean economy if we do so on the backs of those that can least afford it.  But that couldn’t be farther from the case with this plan; this isn’t green for some, this is green for all.  Compared to other options, this plan will minimize the impact for those least able to pay their electricity bill, supports in-house economic development and the hiring of local contractors, and ensures that everyone will have a chance to play a role in moving our city and economy forward.  There’s been a lot of focus and attention on the utility’s estimate that the plan will raise rates in 2020 by approximately 22% or $21 a month, but what’s missing from that discussion is that even if Austin Energy doesn’t do anything between now and 2020 rates will go up by 15% or about $14 a month.  So do the math — for an extra $7 a month in ten years, we can build up a clean local economy that minimizes impacts on low-income consumers and creates avenues to new employment opportunities, improves public health, AND puts Austin in a prime position to start lowering rates by taking advantage of cheap renewable energy. OR we can save families $7 a month compared to today on their utility bills but lose out on new jobs and leave every citizen in the city of Austin at the mercy of high fossil fuel costs and coming federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.  Austin Energy is not only looking at what is most affordable now, but what is most affordable in the long term. Coal may be cheap and reliable energy now, but depending on it in the long term will get us into trouble in terms of cheap and affordable in 2020.
  3. Austin Energy is not only reaching for the low fruit of emissions reductions and energy efficiency, they’re building high-tech ladders to get at the really juicy stuff at the top of the tree. Let me explain. There are a number of ways Austin Energy could go about reducing emissions.  The easiest of these would be to buy renewable energy credits, or RECs. RECs and offsets are in essence a mechanism for utilities, businesses, and governmental bodies to pay someone else to clean up and still get the credit for it.  They’re a good and have a positive influence on society at large because they do encourage clean energy investment and development, but not necessarily in a nearby community (in fact almost certainly not).  It might be easier in the short run to pay someone else to be clean up, but then we miss out on all the delicious creamy gravy that comes along with renewable energy development.  If you buy RECs you don’t get new jobs and businesses in your community.  If you buy RECs your own people are still breathing the same amount of pollution.  But Austin Energy is taking the initiative to really get at the heart of the problem by cutting the amount of pollution coming out of the smokestacks we own.  For that, they should be applauded.

This is just my own personal take-away from listening to various people discuss the recommendation plan and hearing Roger Duncan’s presentation to council. You can learn a lot more about the process and final recommended plan by visiting AustinSmartEnergy.com or CleanEnergyforAustin.org. Join us after the jump for some fast facts on the various components of the plan, but for the real nitty gritty check out Duncan’s own powerpoint presentation.

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*Update: Greg Harman at the San Antonio Current just published a fantastic and very thorough recap of the twisted nuclear saga. Check it out!

Here’s part 2 in this year’s first annual Year in Review: Top Texas Vox Stories of 2009 series. Part 1 is just a hop, skip and scroll down.

3. San Antonio Nuclear Debacle/Amores Nucleares Telenovela

This year has been a doozy for nuclear power, with the highlight of course being the San Antonio situation.  Over the last 12 months San Antonio has ridden a wild wave of cost estimates, community meetings, protests, scandals, and misinformation.  But I’m getting ahead of myself. Remember when…

Last January, CPS Energy committed to spend $60 million more on the proposed expansion of the South Texas Nuclear Project, a decision which at that point brings the city utility’s total expenditures on units 3 & 4 to $267 million. Not long after that, Austin City Council took a look at participating in the expansion project but said “No way, that’s much too risky of an investment for us.” San Antonio decided that something magical (but mysterious) was different for them, despite our prediction in late April that the proposed reactors could actually cost as much as $22 Billion.  Mum was CPS’ word on a cost estimate at that time, but by June they announced that $13 Billion was a good, round number. We worried at this point that CPS was being overly optimistic, ignoring the history of the South Texas Project and other nukes around the nation and independent reports, but those concerns largely fell on deaf ears.

Then over the summer, CPS Energy launched a massive public outreach campaign, with meetings in every district — but kind of botched it.  Despite activists’ protests that CPS’ cost numbers were innacurate, the utiltiy refused to release their information or back up numbers, and many San Antonio citizens left the community meetings feeling disenchanted with the process and suspicious of CPS.

As a rising tide of activists and concerned citizens grew, eventually they formed the coalition group Energía Mía and worked together to halt CPS’ spending for more nuclear reactors. The group launched a string of protests and press conferences highlighting the many flaws of nuclear power and the San Antonio deal in particular.  Everyone was all geared up for a big showdown the last week in October, but then the cowpie really hit the rotating bladed device (let’s call it a windmill). For the next part, I’m going to pull from a previous post where I likened the whole situation to a geeky, policy version of a telenovela.

Previously, on Amores Nucleares:

With just days before San Antonio City Council was to vote to approve $400 million in bonds for new nuclear reactors, it was leaked that the project could actually cost $4 Billion more than CPS had been saying all summer (according to Toshiba, who would actually be building the plant). The vote was postponed, there was an impromptu press conference, and it came out that CPS staff had actually known about the cost increase for more than a week — Oops! Oh, and the “leak” wasn’t that CPS came out with the truth, an aide from the mayor’s office only found out after confronting CPS about a rumor he’d heard. But how did the mayor’s office find out? NRG, CPS’ partner in the project was the “Deepthroat”, because they were going to announce Toshiba’s $17 Billion cost estimate at a shareholder’s meeting soon after the city council vote and thought, geez, that could look really bad for CPS! Meanwhile, CPS reps flew to Japan in a hurry to figure things out. Steve Bartley, interim GM for CPS, resigned. Furious that CPS had hidden the ugly truth from City Council, the mayor demanded the resignation of two key CPS board members, and got City Council to vote unanimously that they get the boot. Chairwoman Aurora Geis agreed to go, but Steve Hennigan said “No Way, Jose.” THEN CPS completed an internal audit of the whole shebang to figure out what-the-hell-happened, which found that Steve Bartley was to blame, and everyone else was only guilty of failure in their “responsibility of prompt disclosure”. Then it came out the project could be even more way way expensive than anyone thought (except of course Energia Mia, Public Citizen, SEED Coalition, the Center for American Progress, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and analysts Arjun Makhijani, Clarence Johnson, Craig Severance, and Mark Cooper to name a few). And then those crazy cats all started suing each other.

So in the end, they told folks all summer long that the plant would cost $13 Billion, even though insiders knew since late June that it could very well be $4 Billion more. Latest update is that the plant could really cost $18.2 Billion! On December 31st, Toshiba provided CPS with another new estimate, which the utility will use to come up with their own new cost estimate mid-January. City council is slated to vote sometime after that, once and for all, on $400 million in bonds to continue the project.

But clearly, enough is enough. So if you live in San Antonio, tell City Council to stop throwing good money after bad, and to cut their losses before its too late. Tell them to vote “no” to nuclear bonds and start the year off fresh and free from the “ghost of nuclear projects past.”

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, cleaner cars, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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