Cooper, Folberg & Snead: Renewable energy plan is the right thing to do

January 29, 2010

OTHER TAKES:
Austin American-Statesman

Sometimes, advancing the common good is hard. It costs more time, more money, and requires sacrifice. But when it comes to adding more renewable energy sources to Austin’s publicly owned utility, doing the right thing is easy.

The set of recommendations developed by Austin Energy Staff and the Generation Resource Planning Task Force will lower our city’s carbon emissions, will cost no more than if we don’t adopt the plan, and will reduce the impacts of future energy cost increases on most ratepayers, including low income people.

This is the conclusion that The Interfaith Environmental Network of Austin has reached after studying the Austin Energy Staff Recommended Plan and the Generation Planning Task Force recommendations which call for adding more clean energy sources to Austin Energy’s portfolio. Answering a common call to environmental stewardship in our faith traditions, we believe that these recommendations hold real promise to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, to restrain future energy costs, and to reduce the burden of energy costs on our poorest citizens.

The recommended plans were developed after a two-year public process with broad public involvement. The plan will reduce Austin Energy’s carbon emissions to 20 percent below our 2005 emission levels and increase our renewable energy production from 11 percent to 36 percent over the next decade. It gives us an action plan and timeline for meeting the goals outlined in Austin’s Climate Protection Plan, and will provide clear marching orders to a new General Manager of Austin Energy.

More importantly, shifting to renewable energy is the ethically right thing to do for the common good of our planet and community.. The benefits of this plan will extend across the globe, protecting ecosystems, endangered species and the poorest subsistence farmers alike from the impact of climate change. Our faith traditions share the common affirmation that humanity has a sacred responsibility to care for the earth and all that is within it. Transitioning to renewable energy sources embraces this sacred responsibility.

One of our primary concerns with any future energy plan is how low-income families will be impacted. We applaud the recommendation to develop a program to bring energy conservation improvements to lower the electricity bills of the most vulnerable of the poor–residents of rental properties. This and other measures to protect the poor make the plan worthy of our support.

Surprisingly, for all of these benefits, the recommended plan will probably not cost more than continuing with our current generation plan.. No one can predict with certainty what the price for electricity generated by coal, natural gas, wind, biomass, nuclear, or solar will be ten years from now, but the trends are clear. Carbon fuel costs are rising, and renewable generation costs are falling. Energy experts at Pace Consulting concluded that the recommended plan will cost about the same as doing nothing new, and may cost less because it will lower our risk of unexpected price increases from regulatory changes or increases in carbon fuel costs.

Despite the benefits of this plan, some in our community appear to oppose it. Why?

For one, there seems to be confusion about the relationship between energy generation policy and the upcoming electricity rate case in 2012. But these two issues are completely separate. Austin Energy has not increased base electricity rates since 1994 and the Pace Consulting report makes it clear that our overall electricity rates will have to increase by about 25 percent by 2020 no matter how we choose to generate our energy. Future rate increases will be about the same regardless of whether we use clean or dirty sources to generate electricity – so why wouldn’t we choose to be a clean energy community?

To our knowledge no one has proposed another plan that does a better job of controlling electricity costs and risk, protecting the poor, and lowering carbon emissions. The absence of a better plan makes it appear that some heavy energy users, like the members of the CCARE Coalition, resist the adoption of this clean energy plan simply to keep costs low in the short-term, or perhaps to gain leverage in the future electricity rate case. In conversations with Austin City Council members we have learned that some have threatened to get the State Legislature to deregulate our public utility, despite the fact that Austin Energy provides some of the cheapest electricity rates in the state.

We believe that the Austin City Council has an opportunity to show enlightened leadership on this issue. We pray that our City Council will approve the Austin Energy Generation Plan and the Task Force recommendations as the most responsible way to serve the common good of our community and to care for God’s creation.

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Allen Cooper, Friends Meeting of Austin (Quakers)and IEN Steering Committee Member

Rabbi Steven Folberg, Senior Rabbi, Congregation Beth Israel and IEN Steering Committee Member

Rev. Lou Snead, Pastor, Faith Presbyterian Church and IEN Steering Committee Member

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