$4.8M grant will train 1,000 for green-energy jobs

January 6, 2010

By Claudia Grisales
Austin American-Statesman

The Central Texas area’s green work force is getting a boost from a different kind of green.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett announced a $4 click over here now.8 million grant Wednesday to train 1,000 local workers for jobs in the energy efficiency and renewable energy industries.

"Green’s the word in Austin, and today greenbacks are on their way to further strengthen our commitment to clean energy," said Doggett, D-Austin. "Green jobs have the ability to not only transform the way we do business, but re-power America; this training will provide workers with the nuts and bolts to construct a thriving clean energy economy right here in Central Texas."

The grant is a significant gain for the region’s green work force, as community and business leaders continue to eye plans to grow the sector in Central Texas, which has lost jobs in manufacturing and other key industries in the downturn.

The Central Texas plan, funded by the federal economic stimulus program, will train 1,000 workers for jobs at solar power plants in Austin and San Antonio and projects in nearby cities and states. The training will prepare workers for a variety of jobs, including in solar installation.

The grant will go to Austin’s Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, which is sponsored by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 520.

Gilbert Ferrales, training director for the JATC, said the training will provide workers with immediate employment opportunities in Central Texas.

The Austin IBEW will partner with ImagineSolar LLC, an Austin-based company that does job training for the solar energy industry, and the Austin Workforce Investment Board.

The training will begin as early as March and take place at JATC’s training facility in Southeast Austin over the following months.

"This grant represents a major step forward in developing the solar energy industry for Central Texas," said Michael Kuhn, president and chief executive of ImagineSolar.

The region got one of 25 grants totaling nearly $100 million from federal stimulus funds announced Wednesday by the Labor Department.

It’s part of a larger $500 million federal initiative to train workers for careers in energy efficiency and renewable energy industries.

"Our outstanding award recipients were selected because their proposed projects will connect workers to career pathways in green industries and occupations through diverse partnerships," Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said in a statement Wednesday.

cgrisales(at)statesman.com; 912-5933

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The Rich, the Poor, and the AE Generation Plan

December 25, 2009

By Nora Ankrum
Austin Chronicle

As 2010 draws near, so does the passage of the Austin Energy Generation Plan, expected to go before City Council for a vote early next year. The new plan will attempt to establish the right mix of traditional and renewable energy resources to power most of Austin’s homes and businesses through 2020. Announced in August, the plan recommended by Austin Energy staff succeeds in fulfilling the expectations of the Austin Climate Protection Plan, even surpassing them on many counts. But in these harsh economic times, that good news has been somewhat overshadowed by concerns over the plan’s financial implications, especially for AE’s most vulnerable customers – low-income ratepayers.

Regardless of the plan council ultimately approves, electricity bills are expected to rise over the next decade. In fact, according to data from Pace Consulting – hired by AE to analyze more than a dozen potential generation plan scenarios – the cost of doing nothing actually could be higher than the costs associated with AE’s recommended plan. But no one knows the volatile energy industry’s future for certain, a fact AE General Manager Roger Duncan repeated steadily this fall during public discussions of the available choices.

Those discussions left social service groups such as Meals on Wheels and More wondering not only how to protect the low-income community they serve but how to keep themselves afloat while doing it. "We’re very mindful of being green … but we do a whole lotta cookin’," says MOWAM President Dan Pruett. "Our utility bills are going to go up significantly. … Does that mean we can provide fewer meals for people that need assistance? Maybe."

The Coalition for Clean, Affordable, Reliable Energy, which formed in response to the generation plan, has also weighed in. While composed primarily of commercial and industrial interests such as Freescale and AMD – as well as more unusual players, including the Seton and St. David’s hospitals and the Lake Travis Independent School District (as an "affiliate") – CCARE has found common ground with some social service organizations. It’s even enlisted the Catholic Diocese of Austin – the group most vocal on the plan’s potential impact on poor people – as its "social justice conscience."

CCARE and the Diocese have recommended postponing the plan until other upcoming factors shake out, including a rider that will show up on bills next fall to cover fees owed to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Next fall also marks the beginning of a yearlong cost-of-service study to precede a 2012 "rate case" during which, among other things, City Council can adjust the rates assigned to different customer "classes." According to AE spokesman Ed Clark, City Council could establish a rate specifically for low-income customers, a possibility cited by Diocese Chancellor Ron Walker as a particularly good reason to wait.*

But not all who work with the disadvantaged agree. Bee Moorhead, executive director of faith-based advocacy group Texas Impact, says she hopes AE will "act swiftly" both to implement a generation plan and to "incorporate a proactive plan" addressing low-income consumers. "If we don’t do them both, we’re not really fixing either issue," she says. "The most vicious thing that can happen in this debate is to end up saying, ‘So it’s poor people’s fault that we can’t fix the climate.’ Now … they can feel guilty for having ruined the whole creation. Great. That’s a great theology."

"Delaying this until 2012 mostly hurts low-income people," says Solar Austin’s Cary Ferchill, who served on the council-appointed Austin Generation Resource Planning Task Force, one of three citizen bodies to make independent recommendations on the plan. The task force voted 5-4 in November to support AE’s proposal (with the caveat that the utility revisit in two years the option of quitting coal completely). Ferchill was in that majority; the three task force members in CCARE voted for a different scenario. However, the task force agreed unanimously on a set of additional recommendations to go to council. Many address disparity issues by setting guidelines for energy efficiency and distributed generation programs and by expanding AE programs already targeting low-income customers (see the full list of these recommendations with this story online at austinchronicle.com). "Those components don’t stand alone," says Ferchill. Suspending the plan would mean suspending those, too, he says.

According to Mark Zion, executive director of the Texas Public Power Association, AE’s policies regarding discounts, weatherization, deferred payment programs, and assistance through community-based organizations (see "AE Programs for Those in Need," left) "are among the most respectful for customers and among the most extensive in the state of Texas." The utility’s disconnection policy is also among the most generous: AE cuts service for nonpayment 45 to 50 days from the bill issuance date, while a TPPA survey of municipal utilities across Texas puts the average at just 29 days.

"In all fairness, they are touching some of the low-income," says Walker, but he hopes to see a policy shift – with appliance rebates, for example – toward more aggressively targeting those most in need. While Walker still supports postponing the plan, Pruett says he does support the plan with the task force’s recommendations. "My only reservation is we need to make sure – and they do address this in their recommendations – that organizations representing low-income folks, and lower-middle-income folks, really have input into the process."

* [Editor’s note: Following publication, we were informed by AE Manager Roger Duncan that according to Texas state law, electricity rates in fact cannot be set based on income level.]

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AE’s Coal Conundrum

November 20, 2009

Energy planners and the fight over Fayette

Austin Chronicle

"I think that we do need to ultimately close down those coal-fired power plants, but first we need to build the bridge to the new energy future." – Scientist/environmental activist Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers

Perched on the shore of Lake Fayette, a well-stocked reservoir boasting an abundance of largemouth bass, the Fayette Power Project, just east of La Grange, strikes a stately, even handsome figure, rising benignly above the lake’s serene waters – at least, as depicted in publicity photos. But beneath that distinguished surface, the Fayette coal plant, which provides about a third of Austin Energy’s electricity, is also responsible for 71% of the utility’s carbon dioxide emissions, an estimated 68% of its nitrous oxide emissions, and virtually 100% of its mercury and sulfur dioxide output. According to recent estimates of the National Research Council (based on 2005 data), the plant’s health impacts cost Texans $200 million to $300 million a year.

Admittedly, those figures should soon change for the better. AE is nearly finished installing "SO2 scrubbers," which are expected to take a big bite out of its sulfur dioxide emissions – good news for Austin, just 60 miles downwind. Sulfur dioxide is one of the culprits responsible for acid rain. The airborne compound aggravates heart disease and is no friend even to healthy lungs. It’s also expensive to clean up – AE’s price tag for the scrubbers comes to about $230 million.

While a quarter-of-a-billion dollars is not chump change by anyone’s standards, it’s especially hard to swallow for those Austinites – such as environmentalist Chris Searles – who’d prefer simply to retire Fayette for good. AE should be "investing in local clean-tech infrastructure and more West Texas wind," says Searles, "instead of in mitigating pollution to keep the coal plant running."

AE has been working for more than a year to establish the ideal mix of solar, wind, biomass, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power – known as the 2020 Generation Plan – to provide most of Austin’s electricity for the next decade. In August, AE made a proposal to City Council that surpasses many of the expectations of the Austin Climate Protection Plan, in part by ramping down use of Fayette by about a third (while "setting the stage for eventual sale or other disposition of Austin’s share"). As reported last week ("Cool Cities: AE Task Force," Nov. 13), the council-appointed Austin Generation Resource Planning Task Force voted recently to support that proposal in a 5-4 vote, with the added caveat that AE revisit the possibility of chucking Fayette sooner. The Electric Utility and Resource Management commissions took their final votes on the matter earlier this week, and both supported the task force’s recommendations. All four entities’ recommendations will inform City Council’s final decision; no date is set.

Swimming Upstream

Searles attended the Electric Utility Commission meeting along with energy consultant Mike Sloan, who served on the task force, and former ACPP Manager Jake Stewart. The three lobbied not on behalf of AE’s recommendation nor on behalf of a scenario that closes Fayette by the end of 2020, though that was the most aggressive plan considered among the original dozen or so analyzed by city-hired Pace Consulting. Instead, they argued for an even bolder plan, proposing to free AE from its dependence on coal by the end of 2014.

Known as Task Force Scenario No. 1, the plan was among four developed by the task force, though in the end it secured only one vote: Sloan’s. The plan’s backers haven’t lost hope. Searles and Stewart have launched a petition (www.budurl.com/austincpp) asking the city to "Recommit to Climate Protection," and Searles has been churning out blog posts about the plan on the Austin EcoNetwork and Burnt Orange Report websites. "I think if people knew more about the financial piece of it, then the support for it would grow really fast," he says.

According to Sloan’s task force minority report, the scrubbers’ $230 million price tag is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cost of dirty power. When you look at AE’s $2.5 billion capital improvement projects budget over the last 12 years, he points out, you see it has funneled a mere fraction into renewables ($3 million in the past decade), while investing enormous sums in a fossil-fuel-based infrastructure. It then had to spend hundreds of millions more on the fuel itself. When you compare those numbers to the $2.4 billion capital outlay required by AE’s plan – and its further savings on fuel costs – going green begins to look pretty cost-effective, says Sloan. So why not go even greener?

The more aggressively green plans do cost more in up-front investment. The scenario retiring Fayette in 2020 costs $3.9 billion. At $3.3 billion, Scenario No. 1 costs a little less than that because it substitutes cost-effective "demand-side management" (weatherization, rooftop solar, etc.) for more expensive resources like biomass – but supporters of more cautious scenarios charge that the plan is overly optimistic in this regard, relying too heavily on AE to spur private investment by customers. Still, what the more aggressive plans spend in the short term, they offset with long-term savings on fuel costs, which amount, for wind and solar, to zero. In addition, the plans protect ratepayers from future costs associated with carbon legislation and ever-tightening pollution regulations of the sort that require, say, millions of dollars on scrubbers.

But if you get rid of Fayette, responds AE General Manager Roger Duncan, "you’ve got to replace that energy – and there is nothing that you can replace it with, certainly in the short term, that’s going to be as cheap." AE would likely have to buy natural gas from the volatile market to balance out the variability of sun and wind, but Sloan says that right now, market prices are lower than AE’s average operating cost anyway. Regardless, he argues: "It’s better just to buy power for a few years from somebody else. … The dirty power we should rent and not own. We should focus on ownership in the things we really want." And as for Fayette providing a reliable source of baseload, Sloan says, upcoming changes in how the grid is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas will make that point moot.

Task force member Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, helped Sloan develop Scenario No. 1 but didn’t ultimately vote for it because of its "unknowns," such as heavy reliance on on-site solar. His first choice was the plan to retire Fayette in 2020, he says, but in the end he opted to "look for a consensus position to at least get us on the road toward getting out of the coal plant." Task force members Phillip Schmandt and Christine Herbert – who chair the Electric Utility Commission and the Resource Management Commission, respectively – wrote a report to council last week counting the 2020 scenario among the plans that are "realistic and feasible." While they ultimately support the task force’s recommendations, they wrote, "If City Council believes that the costs of coal or future costs of complying with global warming legislation or other regulations governing the burning of coal justify the additional capital expenses associated with [retiring Fayette in 2020], then this scenario should be selected."

The task force members representing commercial and industrial interests have been less sanguine about up-front costs. Ultimately, they voted to support a resource mix they developed themselves, dubbed Task Force Scenario No. 2. It boasts the least expensive capital outlay but hangs onto Fayette, likely losing out on long-term savings.

Justifying the Means

In hopes, perhaps, of easing sticker shock, AE’s plan leaves open to council the option of selling to the market the coal power it doesn’t use. While AE’s official proposal does not assume that the utility will sell off that power, Pace did run an analysis showing what the cost savings would be. When the task force members saw the glowing results, they wanted to know: What do other energy mixes look like when you sell excess generation? Pace ultimately analyzed several scenarios – though not Scenario No. 1 – with this assumption (see graph). Unsurprisingly, when you take Fayette entirely out of AE’s mix – therefore freeing up 100% of its power to be sold to the market – it looks pretty impressive. (See graph.)

Of course, selling the plant, rather than retiring it, arguably misses the entire point. "You’re still putting the same amount of emissions into the air as before," says Duncan, "and the whole idea of getting out of the plant … is to reduce the emissions." Still, a case can be made that selling Fayette – or some of its power – would secure that much more money for renewables. "I would feel comfortable with the idea that you just sell [the plant] off, because if you don’t, then maybe somebody else just builds a coal plant instead," says task force member Cary Ferchill of Solar Austin. "I don’t think we can control how much carbon is put into the atmosphere by the world. We can only control the amount that we put into the atmosphere. … I would say you just get rid of it because you don’t want the continued risk of having a carbon-producing facility."

"It’s an interesting argument," says Public Citizen’s Tom "Smitty" Smith, "but our biggest fear is the impact of the emissions … not only on our climate but on our nonattainment status." Not to mention, he adds, "the people who die prematurely as a result of our share of the emissions" and "the thousands of asthma cases that are triggered every year because of pollution."

Ultimately, the task force recommendation – with its proviso for revisiting the Fayette conundrum in two years – has earned the strongest support. Smith calls it "a big victory"; Schmandt and Herbert say it finds a "middle ground." But as an onlooker, Searles has been frustrated by the focus on the short-term. Scenario No. 1, he says, "shows much better financial management of the bill payers’ interest." The longer AE waits, "the more regulation comes online, making us invest yet more in pollution controls. Then we’re on the hook" for running the plant even longer, he says. "It’s this downward spiral."

Meanwhile, Searles worries that concerns over relatively minor differences in cost may be overshadowing what’s really important. "The whole idea that we’re in a climate crisis has disappeared from these considerations," he says. "That big picture has gone away."

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a "fair use" of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use", you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
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