Adding renewable power doesn’t have to hurt poor, some say

State representative organizing forum Saturday to discuss concerns over Austin Energy plan.

October 12, 2009

By Marty Toohey
Austin American Statesman

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is organizing a community energy forum to hash out concerns raised by the Catholic Diocese of Austin that an Austin Energy plan to increase the use of renewable sources could hurt the poor.

The forum Saturday will discuss plans to triple the amount of green energy used by the utility.

Rodriguez and many of the city’s environmental activists say the diocese raised a worthwhile point – but also wrongly framed the issue as poor people versus green energy.

"As an Austin Energy customer, as someone who cares about the environment, as a Catholic, and as a state legislator who represents a largely low-income constituency," Rodriguez wrote on his campaign Web site, " … the idea that we must choose between having clean, affordable energy or protecting the poor is a false dilemma – one that’s especially disingenuous considering that the poor are disproportionately affected by the impacts of dirty energy."

Rodriguez, a Democrat who represents parts of eastern, southern and southeastern Travis County, said he hopes to attract an audience of churchgoers, officials and activists.

Rodriguez and some of the city’s environmental activists acknowledge that transitioning to more wind and solar energy could result in higher short-term electricity costs. But they also say the city could find ways to ensure the poor aren’t hurt by the change. Suggestions included shifting new costs toward Austinites who use the most electricity and spending more utility revenue to make homes energy efficient, thereby reducing bills.

In the meantime, they say, Austin Energy should not delay deciding on its Resource and Climate Protection Plan, as Monsignor Michael Mulvey, head of the Catholic Diocese of Austin, has called for. The plan would reduce Austin’s reliance on fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming.

"It’s late in the day, and we’re running out of time to make meaningful change," said Bee Moorhead, the executive director of Texas Impact, a statewide advocacy organization representing 17,000 church congregations and individuals. "The people who are most impacted by environmental degradation are lower-income."

Austin Energy’s plan calls for the city to get 35 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power, by 2020. Austin now gets about 12 percent of its electricity from those sources.

The plan also calls for Austin Energy to take steps such as helping more homeowners pay for weather stripping and better insulation, which utility officials say would lower the city’s demand for electricity.

The City Council, which serves as Austin Energy’s board of directors, is scheduled to vote on the plan late this year or early next year.

Diocese leaders began raising the alarm about the plan in mid-September. The sentiments were immediately echoed by Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to low-income people.

Mulvey wrote in a widely circulated letter that data he had gathered – data that some environmental activists say are incomplete and unreliable – showed electricity bills rising as much as 50 percent over the next five years.

Ron Walker, chancellor for the diocese, said its leaders have since held productive discussions with environmental-advocacy groups and Austin Energy officials.

But Walker said the energy plan should still be postponed until as late as 2012. He said that would give Austin Energy time to restructure its rates and determine the effects of proposed federal legislation on the cost of coal and natural gas.

"We definitely want to slow the conversation," Walker said. "But it sounds like, at this point, even if the plan goes through, we can get some planks in to address our concerns."

Most industry analysts say it’s a safe bet that energy prices will go up in the coming years. Worldwide demand is rising, and many expect the federal government to enact some sort of cap on carbon-emitting fuels, such as coal, which contribute to global warming.

Austin Energy estimates that the plan to add more renewable energy would raise bills for the average household 22 percent by 2020 under current rates.

"Our motto is to provide clean, reliable, affordable electricity," said Roger Duncan, the utility’s general manager, who announced last week that he will retire next spring. "We think what we’ve proposed is the best balance of those three things."

Jim Marston, head of the Texas chapter of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the diocese’s bill predictions are too high. He also noted that Austin Energy was recently awarded a $5.8 million federal stimulus grant to make low-income homes more energy efficient, and already has a robust energy-efficiency program that has spent millions in low-income grants and loans.

"We share the church’s concerns about low-income folks," Marston said. "If we’re worried about their bills, we should also lower their rates."

mtoohey (at) statesman.com; 445-3673

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