July 09, 2014

By Lilly Rockwell
Austin American Statesman

Austin Energy should meet the goal by 2030, advisory task force says.

Austin Energy should become 100 percent carbon-emission free by 2030.

That's not a pie-in-the-sky environmentalist's dream.

It's a policy recommendation delivered by an Austin advisory task force charged with setting new renewable energy goals for the city's electric utility, though it was offered with a caveat: Do so as long as it doesn't cause rates to skyrocket.

The group, called the Austin Generation Resource Planning Task Force, was asked in February to find ways to accelerate the city's efforts to wean itself off carbon-emitting fuels such as coal and natural gas, which most scientists say contribute to climate change.

The task force is chaired by a former Austin Energy executive, Michael Osborne, and it includes people who work in the clean energy industry, as well as advocates for ratepayers and low-income residents.

In earlier discussions, Austin Energy was tasked with generating 35 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020. But the utility will meet that goal four years early — in 2016 — thanks to large solar and wind contracts and encouragement to customers to either install their own solar panels or participate in the utility's renewable energy service.

On Wednesday, the task force approved a draft report with more than a dozen recommendations that will eventually be sent to the Austin City Council. But first, it considered feedback from advocates for low-income residents, environmentalists and supporters of the renewable power industry, who largely gave the task force a thumbs-up on the recommendations.

"This sets us on a path to a clean energy future that is more affordable for all ratepayers and better for our community," said Dave Cortez, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal organizer.

The report lays out a blueprint for how the utility can achieve its carbon-free 2030 goal, making it one of the most aggressive utilities in the country in its efforts to back away from coal and natural gas. The suggestions included:

Fayette map
  • Eliminating two carbon-emitting plants.
  • Adopting an ordinance that would require local homebuilders to offer solar packages to buyers.
  • Making energy efficiency programs more affordable to low-income residents.

Last year, Austin Energy produced 4.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions through its coal and natural gas plants, according to the report. To bring that number to zero in 15 years, Austin Energy will have to stop using its coal plant in Fayette and the gas-powered Decker plant in East Austin. It suggests changing the ownership structure of the Fayette Power Plant — which the city co-owns with the Lower Colorado River Authority — to make it easier for Austin to sell or shut down its component. Some City Council members have supported cutting ties with the Fayette coal plant. But an analysis by Austin Energy earlier this year showed that option could be costly to ratepayers, with projected increases of 5 to 25 percent.

The task force also suggests that the gas-powered Decker plant, which was built in the 1970s, be shut down in favor of solar energy by 2016. Robert Cullick, an Austin Energy spokesman who attended the meeting, declined to comment on the Fayette proposal, and said the utility has no current plans to mothball the Decker plant, calling it "still a financially viable plant."

The report didn't address what to do about Sand Hill, Austin Energy's newest gas-powered plant. Osborne said just getting to 80 percent carbon-emission free by 2030 would be a noteworthy accomplishment.

"We can get a long way toward the council's goal of decarbonizing the electric utility much sooner than most people think," Osborne said. "We can do that with the removal of the coal and Decker plant, and how the rest of it works out — who knows?"

CONTACT LILLY ROCKWELL AT 512-445-3632.

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