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Posts Tagged ‘Austin Energy’

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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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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CommunitySolar_v3eCommunity solar at Austin Energy is one step closer to being a reality. After months of negotiations, Austin Energy signed a 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with PowerFin Partners for a solar farm of up to 3.2 megawatts that is to be the first stage of the utility’s planned community solar program. The east Austin site selected by Austin Energy for the project offers some challenges, which is why the negotiations took some time, but now the project can begin. Local solar installers at Native and Greenbelt Solar will do the installation work, when the time comes.

Community solar is eagerly awaited by environmental and affordability advocates because it has the potential to fill a gaps in Austin Energy’s existing solar programs. These gaps are caused by a couple primary factors.

The first gap is low-income residents. While solar costs have dropped dramatically in recent years and solar is undoubtedly a good long-term investment, it still requires either an up-front investment or the credit worthiness to secure a loan or lease. Low-income residents will almost certainly not have cash on hand to buy a solar system and are also much less likely to qualify for a loan or lease because of poor credit scores and/or insufficient income. If the program is structured properly, community solar can provide affordable energy at a fixed rate for decades.

The second gap is people whose homes aren’t suitable for solar. There are many factors that can make a home unsuitable for solar. Many homes have little roof space that is facing south or west, the best orientation for solar. Other homes are shaded by trees or even other buildings. Trees provide cooling benefits in hot Texas summers, increase property values, clean our air, and make our streets and communities more livable, so cutting them down just to make way for solar isn’t a good option. Community solar is a much better solution.

Austin Energy has yet to announce how the community solar program will be structured. Community solar projects across the country come in many forms. Some offer customers the opportunity to purchase or lease a portion of a system. Others offer subscriptions to the energy produced from a portion of the system, at a fixed cost. Whatever program design Austin Energy comes up with, hopefully it will reflect the benefits of solar – low costs and fixed pricing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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solar panelsLate last week, Austin Energy announced that it will bring contracts for two large new solar projects to City Council for approval at the March 20th meeting.  The contracts that Austin Energy is poised to sign, after Council approval, are for 150 megawatts of solar power from SunEdison and the price agreed to is nothing short of phenomenal.  At less than 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, Austin will have solar energy for the same price as electricity from natural gas generators.

Austin Energy predicts that this solar project will actually LOWER RATES slightly.  That’s right folks – we’re getting clean renewable energy AND lower bills.

These new solar facilities will be completed by 2016, and will provide Austin Energy with power for 25 years.  That’s 25 years of electricity at a fixed cost, something that simply can’t be obtained from a gas or coal plant.  When natural gas prices go up, so does that “Power Supply Adjustment Fee” on bills.  The beauty of wind and solar projects as that there are no fuel costs, so consumers are protected from unexpected price hikes.

Austin Energy should be commended for it’s excellent work in seeking competitive bids for this project and for capitalizing on an opportunity to contract for more than the 25 to 50 megawatts it initially planned for when it became clear that prices were lower than expected.  This significant Austin Energy solar expansion is big news, not just for the utility and the city, but for the state of Texas.

Show your utility some love on Facebook and Twitter (@austinenergy) for a job well done.  Use the hashtag #solarsaves.

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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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Austin Energy Ratepayers Rally for a Transition to Affordable Renewable Energy Photo by Al Braden

Austin Energy Ratepayers Rally for an Accelerated Transition to Affordable Renewable Energy
Photo by Al Braden

Read this post, then click here if you want to submit comments online to Austin Energy.

With 2 stakeholder meetings behind us and the final one ahead this afternoon, a lot of people are wondering what the purpose of of updating the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan is if we aren’t going to update the goals in it.

To be fair, Austin Energy has done a decent job of providing information about how it is progressing with achieving current goals, and giving people an opportunity to share their views and ask questions.

What is so disconcerting though, is that Austin Energy has attempted to craft the whole update to exclude what is arguably the most important elements of the Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan – setting new goals for carbon reduction and renewable energy.  We’re told we can submit proposals that will be analyzed and considered for some future update, but that there’s not enough time to update those goals now.  Not enough time?  We’re only 2 months in to 2014 and Austin Energy has been talking about this update since mid 2013.  Let’s hope Austin Energy is more nimble than its giving itself credit for.

2014-02-26-Front-Page-Austin American-Statesman

Read the excellent coverage we got in the Austin American-Statesman yesterday.

When it comes to solar energy, this idea that no new goals will be set is especially frustrating because the issue has been postponed for 2 years now.  Increasing Austin Energy’s solar goal was on the table during the 2012 rate case, but Austin Energy wanted the issue studied.  So City Council established the Austin Local Solar Advisory Committee (LSAC) to study options for a way forward for solar in Austin.  The LSAC recommended several changes, including doubling the 2020 solar goal to 400 megawatts.   It’s important to note that the LSAC analysis showed that increasing the goal would actually result in net savings to Austin Energy ratepayers, as well as a net of $300 million in economic benefits to the Austin area.  When we tried to get that recommendation adopted in 2013, Austin Energy said it would be best taken up in the 2014 Generation Plan update, so City Council split the difference and passed a resolution recommending that the goal be adopted.  Now Austin Energy says that it doesn’t intend to update any of it’s goals as part of this process.  I’m starting to feel like the kid in the car on a long road trip and mom and dad just keep saying “we’re almost there.”  After you hear that a few times, you just stop believing.

When it comes to the overall renewable energy goal, Austin Energy’s resistance to increasing it as part of this process makes even less sense for 2 reasons.  First, renewable energy has become cheap energy.  Wind is our cheapest energy option and solar is now competitive with natural gas, but without the risks of rising fuel costs and pollution.  Second, Austin Energy has contracts that will allow it to meet it’s current 35% renewable energy goal 4 years early in 2016.  They should build on that success and expand the goal to 50% for 2020 and 60% for 2024.

For anyone who isn’t stuck at work or class from 1pm to 3pm today, I suggest going to the last of Austin Energy’s 3 scheduled stakeholder meetings.  Just don’t let them box you into a corner where the important issues are off the table.  Tell the leadership and staff there that you want all of the goals updated over the next few months.

If you can’t go, then click here to submit comments online to Austin Energy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Action:

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

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

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

Please sign up to attend one of the meetings.

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Remember sitting at home during February 2 of 2011 as the temperatures dropped and the power kept getting turned off. As millions of Texas sat in the cold and dark Luminant, Texas largest power generator, wasn’t able to get its power plants running along with other generators.

Luminant Energy Company, LLC’s, recently was fined $750,000 as part of a settlement agreement with the Public Utility Commission of Texas stemming from the alleged failure of several Luminant power generating units on February 2, 2011 (when record low temperatures caused a spike in power demand and rolling blackouts were implemented throughout the state).

That February other generation companies saw the cold front coming and got their plants up hot and running keeping this cold snap from being an even bigger disaster than it was.

In ERCOT the state’s power grid operator generation companies are under an obligation to run their power plants and a $750,000 fine in an almost $30 billion dollar market is not much of a fine at all.

Now things are looking dark, gloomy and a bit chilly for EFH Luminants parent company. In November 2013, Energy Future Holdings (EFH) made a decision not to file for bankruptcy saying they believe the company can reach a deal with creditors next spring to avoid a contentious court fight. But with a looming balloon debt payment of $3.8 billion next fall, and a subsidiary of EFH, things are stacking up against the beleaguered Dallas based company.

Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) member and Sierra Club Conservation Director, Cyrus Reed weighed in on this development in a statement, saying, “Hopefully, this rather modest fine will send a message to Luminant and other coal and gas generators that when they are paid money by ERCOT to be available in times of emergency — such as the freeze of February 2011 — they must be available. This means utility companies like Luminant must properly maintain their generating units so that breakdowns and emergencies don’t take place when people need electricity the most, such as times of extreme temperatures.”

David Power, Deputy Director of the Texas office of Public Citizen and also an ERCOT member said, “As ERCOT and the PUC consider further changes to ancillary services and potentially to the wholesale energy market, they must make sure that those paid for performance can realistically perform, or face stiff penalties. Texas doesn’t need new, expensive power plants to meet our needs and power our economy, but we do need responsible utilities following the letter of the law and taking responsibility for its assets. What did perform well in both in February and August 2011 was demand response, a method of reducing electricity demand, by large and small industrial and commercial entities.  As Texas considers changes to our market we should prioritize resources like demand response that we can depend on.”

For it’s part, a representative of Luminant said in an email to FierceEnergy that “with this settlement, Luminant resolves all alleged violations of ERCOT protocols and PUC rules from the cold weather event in 2011.The agreement represents an amicable settlement of disputed issues in which Luminant admits no violations.”The email continues, “The severe unprecedented cold in February, 2011 was a trying yet learning experience for ERCOT, the PUC, state lawmakers, electric generators and transmission and distribution companies. Some 225 generation resources in ERCOT, more than 40 percent of the total generation, experienced a trip, failed start or derate. Since 2011, Luminant has joined other generators, electric transmission firms and state agencies to take measures to better prepare for future extreme weather.”

But trouble just seems to keep cropping up:

A prior and unrelated Department of Justice Clean Air Act complaint that was recently unsealed alleged that Luminant made major modifications to Units 1, 2, and 3 at their Martin Lake coal plant in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 and continues to operate the plant without installing pollution controls for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The complaint also alleges that Luminant has improperly withheld information from the government requested by EPA under Section 114(a) of the Clean Air Act.

According to the claims, Luminant made “major modifications” at its Big Brown and Martin Lake coal plants that increased sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions without updating air pollution permits or installing pollution safeguards. The Clean Air Act requires plants to obtain permits and install modern pollution controls before making modifications that will increase emissions.

In regard to the DOJ lawsuit, Luminant made this statement via email to FierceEnergy: “There’s no change in our position.  We firmly believe that we have complied with all requirements of the Clean Air Act for the Big Brown and Martin Lake Power Plants and our other generation facilities and look forward to proving this in court.”

The company contends that the complaint has not been unsealed, but appears to be playing a game of semantics, saying, “The DOJ simply filed a version of its complaint with information that we agree can be public.”

This prime example of Texas business just leaves us out in the cold.

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