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.