Mayor Leffingwell's electricity town hall … pretty darn positive

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re: The Mayor's forum on Austin's Electricity Plan, 2010-2021.

At the end of the evening last night, Roger Duncan said it best: having public input in the planning process for Austin's citizen-owned utility really does bring out the finest result.

BOR readers may need to suspend their disbelief for just a moment about local politics, but c'mon – let's gather round. Austinites are fortunate to have leaders such Roger. Big admiration to those folks in City government “showing up” and doing their best to deliver the best result for the rest of us.

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Town Hall Report

Last night's Forum was well attended (300+ people), putting Austinites on a good path towards future engagement, wherein we communicate more and better about local electricity issues.

Moderator Jim Walker did a great job of asking meaningful questions, keeping the input moving across the expert panel, and maintaining focus and good humor. Rather than sparring, the panelists took careful steps to clarify their likes and dislikes about the Plan (more http://burntorangereport.com/d… which I think I can distill:

Cyrus Reed, Sierra Club (eco)

Wants to get moving on the plan as some of its goals (esp. saving Austinites money through energy efficiency, see below) are ambitious. Cyrus also wants to enhance public input in the coming decade, create an affordability metric for lowest income customers, and set Austin on the greenest most productive path possible.

Carol B, Texas Rose (low income)

Wants Austin Energy to do a better job of monitoring how electricity bill increases are affecting Austin's lowest income customers, and wait to begin work on achieving environmental goals until after an affordability metric for lowest income customers has been established.

Roger Wood, Freescale (industrial)

Wants to delay the total plan until he and others in the “biggest employer community” have a clearer understanding of the plan's financial impacts. Roger says his group http://www.ccarenergy.org/ needs better data than they were given during the scenario review process to arrive at a proper analysis. Roger believes Austin Energy should get moving on the things that benefit the community most, but hold off on instituting a total plan that may not be well-enough informed yet, financially.

Philip Schmandt, business lawyer (citizen leader)

Believes the goal of the plan should be three fold: i) to establish a vision for Austin Energy that meets City Council's goals, ii) to design that vision according to what makes AE  and its business model most competitive now and in future decades, iii) to design a plan that is realistically feasible and continues AE's mission of providing affordable/reliable, clean electricity and excellent customer service. He feels confident the current plan meets these criteria.

Joe Beal, frmr General Manager @ the LCRA (energy consultant)

Believes AE is well-positioned to lead on green, but should move carefully in regards to energy planning and changing market conditions.

Michael Cration, Smarte Building (energy efficiency consultant)

Seconded the idea that AE might be able to make its best energy efficiency gains by creating programs to improve building performance in apartment complexes, and generally supports all the views above.

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Things I Liked

1) Citizen Input.

Citizens present were invited to input questions to the panel via file card, text, or email. (Unfortunately we ran out of time and only got to a few of the 117 questions submitted!) The event will be rebroadcast will be several times later this week, schedule here: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/cha…

2) Leadership Ethic.

AE General Manager Roger Duncan kicked-off the evening by citing the Austin Climate Protection Plan's commitment to make “Austin Energy the leading utility in the nation for greenhouse gas reductions.” http://www.austinchronicle.com… (1)

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Things I Learned

1) Philip's perspective.

Philip Schmandt points out AE's future viability, in terms of its business model, is a critical concern — and that the current plan to further diversify AE's electricity generation portfolio this decade will move AE toward solving its business model problems.

2) The Mayor hires well.

While I sense reluctance on his part to get “too involved” in this process, Mayor Leffingwell did very well by Amy Everhart and crew for this event, facilitating some very good and very open community dialogue.

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What was Missing

> I wish this question had been asked — “More $$ than what?”  

For some reason the Austin American Statesman continues to report Austin Energy's green plan “costs 20% more” than a “do nothing” option… Isn't this a gross mischaracterization? I spent some time trying to highlight this last week. (Help!) Here's three reasons why I think the Statesman's off-base on this one:


  1. AE is currently spending more $$ than it's making. Roger D said clearly last night, “Costs are exceeding revenue.” That trend will continue for at least the next few years and unless AE raises bills, the utility will go under. There are no future scenarios where bills do not go up. Perhaps I'm confused, or perhaps staff at the Statesman is confused — but my understanding is the only way for bills to “remain flat” as the Statesman says, is for AE to go out of business… There's a lot of data here, so correct me if I'm wrong.

  2. Pollution will almost inevitably become more expensive by 2021. AE's current plan is in large part about trying to prevent future cost shocks related to its use of heavy-polluting electricity generation resources (i.e. our coal plant). As community costs linked to NOx, heavy metals, and CO2 pollution are added into electricity prices, via health and environmental regulations, Austin will have to adjust. Keep in mind, Austin is particularly vulnerable as our coal plant is one of the worst polluters in the entire state, sorry world (more here and here and here on that). In other words, it's a reasonable assumption that bills will go up (in the pollution costs category), esp. for Austin, as long as we continue relying on coal for baseload. The new plan aims to begin transistion away from coal in a manner that's commensurate with industry expectations about future pollution costs.  

  3. So yes – bills will go up no matter what, but here's another thing the Statesman keeps leaving out. AE's strategy (as a green leader) is to add A LOT more energy efficiency. In fact, AE plans on having one of the most aggressive energy efficiency programs yet seen in the world. As such, Austinites will have more opportunities to reduce total electricity usage this decade. Keep in mind, it's not uncommon for customers to reduce total usage by 30%, and some are getting 50+% bill reductions http://eewaitsfornoman.blogspo… with smart energy efficiency investments. How 'bout some reporting on that, Statesman? In what ways would AE's green plan benefit consumer bills if it reaches its energy efficiency goals?

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All in all a very positive meeting. I'm glad I went.

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Notes

(1) Under Mayor Wynn and a previous City Council, Austin's Climate Protection Plan states its goal “to make Austin the leading city in the nation in the fight against climate change.” Some of us citizens are calling for renewal of that leadership goal by our new council, via http://www.thepetitionsite.com… . Please consider participating.

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Your comments appreciated.

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