Austin becomes the largest US city to use only renewable energy

 

That mythical place called Austin, Texas — my home for nearly two decades — is used to getting accolades.

Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World, The Best City for (Young Adults, Small Businesses, Telecommuters and …. fill in the blank) is now also the largest municipality in the US to use only renewable energy.

All of the city’s public buildings, including water treatment plants and the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, are now powered by renewable energy from wind farms in West Texas. During the past nine years, the city’s publicly-owned utility Austin Energy has produced more renewable energy than any other city or municipality in the US and is on track to obtain 35% of its energy supply from renewables for all of its service area in 2020.

Why are Austinites willing to pay higher prices for energy? Well, for a couple reasons. Austin is a college town with a young population, a demographic open to environmental stewardship and into green energy. In addition, Austin has no rustbelt industries dependent on older fossil-fueled power plants. To the contrary, high-tech companies (hat-tip to Michael Dell of Dell who pioneered the sector in Austin in the 1980s) are supportive of the green energy push.

In addition, Austin Energy has a long track record in conservation programs and in pushing renewables. It introduced its first energy efficiency scheme in 1982, its green building program in 1991, and its first wind project in 1995. Today, businesses account for about half the power sold under the utility’s Greenchoice program (which allows customers the option to pay for power from green energy sources), with the city government and 13,000 residential customers making up the rest. Through the Greenchoice program, the utility lets customers know the costs of renewable energy up front and allows them to buy into the deal. Each time Austin Energy agrees to a new batch-deal for wind energy from a generating company, it offers customers a price as a proportion of that amount. Cost certainty and price transparency have proven to be a successful way to go, rather than hiding green energy costs in the overall bill.

Austin Energy recently signed new agreements that will boost its overall wind power use to more than 1,000 MW by 2020. The utility also has smaller contracts for power from biomass plants and solar farms.

While not every Austinite is going to volunteer to pay more for their power, and while some dirtier fuel sources (coal-fired plants) are going to be a major part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future, this transparent approach wins sufficient numbers of customers to Austin Energy’s green energy program each year to make it a real success.

Utilities in Houston and Dallas in Texas, as well as in Palo Alto and Sacramento (California), Portland (Oregon), Madison (Wisconsin), and Kalona (Iowa) have also driven high levels of participation in green energy programs.

With stronger state-level renewable requirements coming into play and with more cities laying out financial commitments for alternative energy sourcing, other cities and utilities across the US are likely to catch the green energy customer participation wave.

But on Planet Austin (so close to Texas, and yet so far out), we always like to think that we are #1.

~

Photo by Steve Snodgrass used under a Creative Commons license.
Stuart Hampton

British editorial veteran Stuart Hampton has been covering oil and gas companies for Hoover's since the Neogene-Quaternary period. Well, actually, since the early 1990s. For the best overview of the oil industry and its history he recommends Daniel Yergin's "The Prize." You can also follow Stuart on Twitter.

Read more articles by Stuart Hampton.

Comments

  1. What does the city of Austin do when the wind stops blowing and they lose power? If they are really using only renewable energy this will happen.

  2. Stuart Hampton says:

    @D,

    Good question. The City pays for the cost of renewable power for all of its public buildings in long term contracts for a specific amount of energy. While there may be weather variables which require the City of Austin to temporarily use power from Austin Energy’s fossil-fueled power plants, the renewables deficit will be erased by using extra wind energy over time to meet the 100% committment.

  3. @D,

    Wind power is put on the grid, and whatever sources supply the grid with power (usually a mix of things like coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, etc.) is what is pulled off.

    It is not like when the wind stops blowing the lights go out, though I am sure you jest here.

    The more clean, renewable energy on the grid the better.

  4. Harvey Stone says:

    Thanks, Stuart. I went to grad school at UT-Austin and loved the city. More so, I’ve respected the relentless move towards clean energy that Austin has taken. Today, the world economy still gets a lot of easy-to-access, affordable fossil fuels. But, in the next few decades, we’ll see far more dependence on hard-to-reach, expensive fossil fuels from the Big Four: tar sands extraction, Arctic drilling, fracking and mountaintop removal. All of those represent polluting energy that adds to climate stability, groundwater contamination, threats to national security and much more. Against that background, Austin’s municipal leadership is impressive. Next month, I’ll be leading a seminar at the National League of Cities conference, and I’ll definitely include Austin’s renewable energy achievement.
    Harvey Stone
    Author, MELTING DOWN
    http://www.harvey-stone.com

  5. Stuart Hampton says:

    @ Harvey,

    Thanks for your comments and your insights on the Big Four. I think you nailed it. Nice website, too. All the best.

  6. Stuart Hampton says:

    @ Jim,

    Thanks for your succinct clarifaction and clean energy advocacy.

  7. James A. Cooley says:

    Left unsaid is that we are paying a premium for those “green” energy deals and big rate hikes are now in the works — with the local citizens about to get soaked and not happy about it. Green energy is a scam that can only exist with massive government subsidies, tax gimmicks, and mandates. Austin’s citizens are the latest ones to get handed a higher bill becasue of it.

  8. @ James,

    Thanks for your comment.

    While I acknowledge the “massive government subsidies, tax gimmicks, and mandates” behind the green energy push, I am not ready to call it a scam. As someone who is old enough to have experienced the smogs of London as a young boy, greener energy solutions (reducing coal-fired plants) have proven health and environmental benefits.

    Green energy initiatives are not the root cause of the big rate hikes now facing Austin Energy consumers. Rather it has been the inability of the utility’s management and the City Council to make rate hikes on an incremental basis over time. There is just no excuse for not raising the base rate for 17 years in a city that is doubling in population every few decades.

  9. Green Energy is a scam despite your advocacy to the contrary. With political donors using green energy companies as political fund raising fronts so they can have 100′s of millions taxpayer dollars in loan guarantees as corrupt political payback for millions of dollars of political donations only to declare bankruptcy promptly thereafter. Check out Solyndra loan controversy – Wikipedia. The Austin leadership are more concerned with idealogy than with doing what best for the citizens of Austin. Every dollar that subsidies an industry and technology that simply cannot deliver an equal cost effective alternative is a dollar wasted. With BILLIONS in subsidies in place to keep these technology artificially viable the free markets no longer have the need or willingness to invest in the research and development for technologies that will actually be able replace fossil fuels WITHOUT subsidies in the future. As always, through Idealogy, Government destroys that which it claims to support.

  10. @ Victor,

    Thanks for you input and the passion you bring to the subject.

    I don’t agree with your take that government subsidies of expensive fledgling technologies are a waste, or a disincentive to the private sector.

    From a long term perspective, both government investment in research and infrastructure and the energy of the private sector are crucial to the success of any new technology. The billions and billions of government dollars invested in road building throughout the last century made the automobile a viable means of mass transportation and not just a rich guy’s toy for driving locally.

    The key (despite failures and corruption) is the right balance of public and private investment in the development of wind and solar power, not either/or.

  11. Water, solar, and wind.Oddly enough the most cmnlomoy found and under-utilized is probably methane. From human sewer systems to landfills, from animal production farms to compost production systems, there is a readily renewable source of methane. A number of folks consider methane to be less than environmentally friendly as its use does generate CO2. A number of folks consider it to be less than practical because one one source is likely to be a sole solution for an area/greater. A number of folks discount it because it is not necessarily a magic bullet that can be sold as the solution for use by all across the country, nor particularly by a private utility company. Still it exists and is not particularly being used for productive purposes.

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