REED: Austin can’t afford dirty energy

October 03, 2009

Austin American Statesman

There’s a healthy debate in Austin about where we are going to get our energy in the future, and how much of it should be clean energy. Some fear that Austin Energy’s recommended plan to get about 35 percent of its energy from renewable resources will have a painful impact on those least able to afford higher energy rates as well as institutions that provide services to those people.

The real question is whether we can afford not to invest in clean power. At a recent town hall meeting hosted by Austin Energy to discuss its plan, utility director Roger Duncan was asked whether the costs associated with the plan considered current and future pollution and health care costs from the coal-burning Fayette Power Plant? "No" was his answer.

Discussions about energy choices and costs ignore the real quality of life and pocketbook costs incurred from dirty energy – for example, the costs of developmental and brain disorders from mercury in our waterways, asthma in our children’s lungs and a planet that continues to cook as we burn coal for electricity. Consider that the asthma rate in Texas has more than doubled since 1980, and a 2004 Clean Air Task Force study estimated that 44 people die every year because of the emissions from Fayette coal plant.

(The study is available at

Austin gets most of its power from coal, natural gas and nuclear power, and is engaged in a public process to meet a directive to get at least 30 percent from renewable resources. After running a dozen scenarios, Austin Energy found energy costs are likely to go up by some 25 percent over the next 10 years no matter what.

Interestingly, the "do nothing" scenario was not the lowest cost scenario. Austin’s consultant found that it’s cheaper to invest in renewables than it is to do nothing as coal and natural gas costs continue to rise. Indeed, Austin’s bills rose 31 percent over the last nine years because of the high cost of natural gas.

Trends show that renewable energy becomes cheaper as technology improves whereas dirty energy becomes more expensive because of the cost of buying fuel and because pollution controls on these plants – for partially cleaning up mercury, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide – are costly and will become more so. In fact, the city’s model shows that coal in 2020 will be more expensive than wind.

We can and must design a clean energy plan that is responsive to the needs of all ratepayers, particularly those least able to afford it.

Energy efficiency programs must come first. By reducing consumption of electricity, energy use will decline as rates increase, resulting in lower bills. Austin Energy plans to reduce energy use by 800 megawatts over the next 10 years through energy efficiency.

The utility can go further and set a goal of at least 1,000 megawatts. That can include a commitment to make the accelerated weatherization program paid for by the federal stimulus monies permanent for those at 200 percent or less of the federal poverty line.

In addition, Austin can create a financial district to lend money to residents and businesses above the poverty line to make their homes and businesses energy efficient.

Similarly, Austin Energy can create a robust on-site solar program for businesses, schools, churches and homes. An analysis in San Antonio found that for about $200 million, 500 megawatts of solar could be put on San Antonio roofs by 2020. A similar goal in Austin would help create green jobs.

Finally, there is no reason not to take advantage of the wind power in Texas. Austin can bring online about 1,000 more megawatts of wind power over the coming years to meet energy demand and replace dirty fuels.

By combining energy efficiency programs and on-site solar in Austin with low-cost wind from East and West Texas, Austin Energy can keep the lights on, create jobs and keep electricity affordable. In the process, Austin Energy can end our dependence on the coal plant that is painful to our health and will soon be more and more costly to our pocketbooks.

Reed is conservation director at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and a member of the Austin Generation Resource Planning Task Force.

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