Mayor proposes ‘Energize Austin’ solar initiative

City would offer loans to homeowners for rooftop solar arrays.

October 21, 2009

By Marty Toohey
Austin American-Statesman

A new program, "Energize Austin," designed to make solar power available to more people, officially kicked off Tuesday as officials gathered at a solar-powered East Austin home.

Under a proposal from Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, the city government would begin offering low-interest loans to cover solar arrays on residential roofs or energy-efficiency improvements such as home weatherization.

The details of the loan program have yet to be worked out. But officials hope the program would allow homeowners to replace their monthly electric bills with a roughly equal charge on their property taxes. The charge would be used to repay the loan for the solar array, Leffingwell said.

"I know it’s unusual that we’ve got something that costs the user nothing and the lender nothing," Leffingwell said, but for a homeowner the new array "pays for itself."

A large enough rooftop solar array would essentially reduce an electricity bill to nothing, or close to nothing. But the city’s electric utility would lose revenue as a result.

Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan is an advocate of solar power but worries that if too many people install solar panels too quickly, the city could have trouble maintaining its grid unless it comes up with a new business model for the utility.

The city government has been promoting solar mainly by offering to pay part of homeowners’ installation costs. That subsidy money comes from fees collected from all electric-utility customers.

But the subsidy, or rebate, has proven so popular that the city has had trouble keeping up with demand – $3.3 million of the $4 million the city budgeted for this fiscal year was already committed by Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year.

Leffingwell and other officials said Tuesday that the loan program could be a better option for some people. For instance, a homeowner would not have to pay initial costs that can run into the tens of thousands. Some owners are leery of taking out loans to finance a solar power system because the loan would have to be repaid in full if they move, said Karl Rabago of Austin Energy.

"This removes that concern, because the loan would run with the house, not with the owner," Rabago said.

Solar advocates had mixed responses to the program. Cary Ferchill, president of nonprofit advocacy group Solar Austin, said similar programs have not dramatically altered the solar market in places such as Berkeley, which came up with idea. But, he said, "it’s a tool that allows people to bridge a difficult financial problem" and could help spread the technology.

mtoohey (at) statesman.com; 445-3673

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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

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.

REED: Austin can’t afford dirty energy

October 03, 2009

Commentary
CYRUS REED, LOCAL CONTRIBUTOR
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 http://www.catf.us/publications/view/24).

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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