Groundbreaking Goals Hiding in Plain Sight

Colin MeehanYou probably saw today’s announcement on the formation of “Clean Energy for Austin”, a group of businesses, faith groups, low-income advocates and environmentalists that have come together to support the Austin City Council as it works to pass a forward-thinking plan for our utility. 

With  more than 70 local businesses big and small, 18 non-profits and 200 individuals in this new group, it’s pretty clear that the generation plan has strong and broad support in Austin. Some of the reasons you’ve already heard:

  • To protect customers from rising fossil fuel costs and regulatory risk
  • To bring the booming green jobs market to Austin
  • To add flexibility to Austin generation planning process

But you don’t often hear two of the most compelling reasons: energy efficiency and transparency. 

Energy Efficiency
At Austin Energy’s recommendation, the city council will commit to 800 MW of energy efficiency and a thorough study to evaluate whether it can meet a more aggressive goal of 1,000 MW of energy efficiency within the next 10 years. Everyone, even those who think we should wait before planning for the future, agrees that investments in energy efficiency are the most cost-effective moves we can make. Austin Energy has already shown that these investments pay off – the utility set (and met) a goal of 700 MW of energy efficiency over the last 10 years, saving Austinites the cost of an entire new power plant. 

Energy efficiency is one of the best reasons to start working toward Austin Energy’s goals immediately: the new programs needed to meet this goal will take time to ramp up. At the same time, setting this goal will ensure that the programs already in place continue and even expand. Austin Energy has already expanded its eligibility for low-income weatherization services from households with incomes of 125% of the poverty level to 200% of the poverty level, but that could go back down once federal funding is exhausted. Approving this plan will ensure not only the current level of coverage but the potential for expansion of those low-income programs to households earning up to 400% of the poverty level.

Throughout the development of this plan, Austin Energy adopted a level of transparency unprecedented among public utilities. It reached beyond the normal large industrial consumer base historically involved in U.S. utility planning processes to include stakeholders from several communities. Minority business owners, home builders, environmentalists, the faith community and low-income advocates have all had the opportunity to work with Austin Energy and the Mayor’s Generation Task Force to develop priorities for the generation planning process. 

Austin Energy even went a step further by performing the same modeling and analysis on several stakeholder-proposed scenarios that it performed on its own scenarios. This is the first time I know of that the public has had a chance to propose investment strategies that the utility would take so seriously that it would fully analyze them and actually incorporate some of them into its final recommendation.

Most importantly, though, we need to ensure that the future process is even more open and transparent.  Clearly some stakeholders –particularly the low-income and faith communities – did not receive the same level of outreach as others, but that will change with the utility’s latest recommendations. Representation for low-income and residential consumers will be required in any future generation planning advisory group. Any significant investments will need to go through the City’s Electric Utilities and Resource Management Commissions before being brought to City Council for a vote twice.  This level of transparency and community involvement would make Austin Energy a leader in open governance in the U.S. and is, in my mind, one of the best reasons to support city council and Austin Energy as they take on this plan.

In the end, this plan does a lot of good for the citizens of Austin: it helps protect us against rising fossil fuel prices; it will ensure that Austin is a big part of the green economy; by planning ahead and doing regular evaluation, it gives our city the flexibility to make changes as needed. I could go on (and I will if you ever see me talking about it) but I really think the two things that get overlooked in these discussions are that energy efficiency goal and the big commitment Austin Energy is making to open governance. I’ll challenge anyone to find a utility with a more open, inclusive and transparent planning process than the one Austin Energy has had over the last two years or the one we will have when the city council approves the recommendations.

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