Monday, December 22, 2014

Doing it Right

It was the last meeting of the Austin City Council of 2014.  There were more than 200 items on the agenda.  And not only was it the last meeting for the year, it was the last meeting for the elected at large system with six council members and a Mayor.  The next time the Council would meet, there would be 10 members, each elected from their district only and a Mayor elected at large.

Of those 10 members, only one would have experience as a council member.

Of all the big issues, and there were a lot, the biggest was the issue of the generation plan for the City.  Back in July, the Generation Task Force had released their report.  Then in August,  Resolution 157 was adopted which embraced many of the Task Force Recommendations.  In response, the Utility, which had earlier indicated that the Recommendations would cost billions, offered a compromise which would accomplish much of the goals in Resolution 157 yet was deemed affordable because of the inclusion of 500 MW gas plant.  This 500 plan became the Utility's new position.

Working with the Utility, the Sierra Club agreed to the basics of the Utility plan with some major important changes and amendments.  The Sierra Club then attempted to smooth their deal with the rest of the broad environmental community and in doing so, improved the plan substantially.  Solar was increased to 950 and a 55% renewable energy target by 2025 was established.

After lots of amendments and drama, the amended plan was passed 6 to 1 with the always unhappy Mayor Leffingwell voting no.

The next day Public Citizen wrote:

New Austin Energy 10-Year Plan is a Step Backward, but Benefited from Community Involvement
The Austin City Council’s vote last night to adopt the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025 brought to an end a year’s worth of work by numerous advocates and engaged members of the public.

While the result was disappointing, I find myself being immensely grateful for the many people who took time out of their schedules to stand up in support of the strongest renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy storage goals and in opposition to Austin Energy’s continued use of polluting fossil fuels.

Many of the people who we worked side-by-side with over the past year have spent years trying to improve Austin’s energy policies and their past work has been critical in getting us as far as we are now. Others who hadn’t been very involved in energy policy also got engaged. Some had to put in a lot of effort just to get educated on the complex facts that surround energy policy. What united us all was a common belief that not only is a transition to clean, renewable energy sources possible, but that it is the only responsible course of action.
 We joined forces with people and organizations who are concerned about climate change, health impacts of air pollution and water pollution, water use, affordability, and equity. It is clear that when the costs of the many negative impacts of using fossil fuels – including the mining of coal, fracking for gas, and then burning those products – are taken into consideration, clean energy alternatives are by far the better deal. Even without those important costly externalities included in the equation, wind power, solar power, energy efficiency and demand response (strategically reducing energy use at key times) are now all more affordable than energy from a new gas plant.
For all those reasons, we made incredible progress with the policies that the Austin City Council adopted in the Affordable Energy Resolution on August 28. Unfortunately, as a result of losing a big piece of its political cover, Council passed a plan last night (December 11) that rolled back some of those gains and opened the door for Austin Energy to build a big new gas plant.
On the other hand, others saw it in a different light:

Austin adopts generation plan setting big renewable goals
 Mayor Lee Leffingwell votes no, citing cost implications
 Austin Energy plans to phase out two fossil fuel generating plants while more than quadrupling the municipal utility’s solar generation goals to 950 megawatts (MW) under an ambitious plan approved by Austin City Council, 6-1, last night. 
Under the plan, the utility will phase out its Decker natural gas plant and Fayette coal plants while speeding up its renewable energy generation goals by 2025 from 35 percent now to 55 percent. That goal exceeds the highest state goal, Hawaii’s, which is 40 percent for the same year. 
The adopted 2025 Austin Resource Generation Plan powers down Austin Energy’s most polluting fossil fuel plants while setting historic commitments to solar and other renewable energy. It also strengthens commitments to demand response (paying consumers for cutting peak demand energy use) and energy efficiency while starting energy storage investments.
It's hard not to notice that the new gas plant doesn't make the first three paragraphs of this report.

Upon its passage, the plan did not actually OK the gas plant, but it did provide a road map for it.  It was this study that became the most contentious element of the plan and was the most amended.  Activist successfully rebranded it as a gap study....a study to determine how the energy gap from retiring two fossil fuel plants could best be met. Another amendment required the Utility to consider its unique position as both a generator and retailer in its hiring of the consultant.

And it is this study, and the hiring of the consultant who would do the study that is now front and center in the generation plan debate and the action has now moved over to the Electric Utility Commission.

Nora Ankrum's Pioneers or Settlers piece in the Austin Chronicle does a good job of  telling the story. Her story closes:

"Everybody got really excited, upset, etc. about the Gen Plan, but it's a living breathing document that will change," says Reed. With little else guaranteed to happen under the plan in 2015 – aside from the issuance, likely this month, of an RFP for the gas plant study – there may be plenty of time for new rounds of dabbling, perhaps prompted by a brand new Council. Ulti­mate­ly, the plan is not so much about what's written in the document now, but how well it serves as a guidepost in the coming years. As Pipkin says, "It's really a framework of how we value and position energy as a part of our community ethos."

Apparently Act Three is a long one.

"It's important to be a leader not only in the sense of being the first person to do something but the first person to do something right,

Michael Osborne


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