Austin Energy has said that if today's federal carbon legislation goes into effect, it will double our coal plant's costs of operation. PACE, the City's energy consultant, estimates costs incurred would be even higher. Meanwhile, President Obama spoke last Friday: it's his intention to make dirty coal more expensive, ASAP. (video below) Carbon Monitoring for Action, a database reporting carbon emissions from over 54,000 power plants and power companies worldwide, tells us Austin's coal plant is Texas's 5th worst emitter of CO2. Our coal plant releases more than 13,000,000 tons of CO2 annually. (2) Because we share the plant with the LCRA, Austin is directly responsible for about 1/3 of those emissions. According to Austin Energy, shutting down our coal plant would reduce our City's CO2 footprint by 70%. It would also extricate Austin bill payers from multitudinous financial risks related to keeping the plant. (3)
Karl Rabago, VP for Distributed Energy Services @ Austin Energy, said at last week's Climate Protection meeting, “Conventional economic analysis tends to undervalue our grandchildren.” He also said, “it tends to devalue the future” and, “There are some kinds of insurance worth buying,” because “adjustment costs are too great.” To me this is exactly the opportunity that Austin's Quit Coal by 2014 scenario offers: 1) risk insurance on the huge financial gambles related to keeping the coal plant, & 2) the possibility of helping to solve the world's most pressing environmental, social, and economic crisis.
A final point from Karl, “Economists are great at valuing everything except natural welfare.” (4) Karl is a visionary. We are lucky to have Mr. Rabago in an executive role at Austin Energy, and hope to see him leading our City further in local, clean tech development as specified in Pace's 2014 scenario. Everyone knows Austin and the rest of the world has to find ways to transition out of today's environmental crises, now.
Karl's not alone! In 2007, Austin City Council passed a ground-breaking Climate Protection mandate. Its goal: to “make Austin the leading city in the nation in the fight against climate change.” (5) The question of course is, on what timeline? Other cities (Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Chicago) are leaping ahead of us, Austin is not the leader, and our current plan will in no way get us there.
Meanwhile, President Obama has said he believes those who lead in clean energy development will lead the world economy. If Austin keeps its coal plant, we lose. If Austin takes bold action now, our City becomes an international citadel, economically; a model for others to follow.
What benefits would living up to our own Climate Protection mandate bring in economic development? What economic and local health benefits would Austinites gain by becoming the world's first community to get off of coal? What economic benefits might we gain by becoming a true international superstar in eliminating greenhouse gasses from our electricity mix? What economic benefits might Austin Energy gain from positioning itself to sell, instead of purchase, carbon credits in the coming clean energy economy?
A good friend tells me all of Austin's current City Council members have stated publicly that “solving the climate crisis” is our most important challenge. Since May's elections, City Council has tackled texting while driving and voted yes on Water Treatment Plant #4 (a move Mayor Wynn would have probably questioned more holistically). (6) But what about “Austin's greatest challenge?”
Mayor Leffingwell is a GREAT GUY. I was lucky to meet him this weekend at Treefolk's 20th Anniversary “Tour de Trees” celebration. During his campaign, Mr. Leffingwell was particularly vocal about the need to take strong action in the climate crisis. So,
Mayor Leffingwell, please hear this as a VERY respectful question: if solving global warming is our “greatest challenge” then would paying 15% more for our electricity be too much to ask?
Please note, Pace's analysis shows that shutting down Austin's coal plant by 2014 and replacing it with local clean energy development would increase Austin Energy's costs only 5% above the current plan. (7)
I ask, not rhetorically, Which costs more? stopping global warming or waiting? Many believe our political leaders need to act TODAY to prevent massive, global, biological losses this century… (8) some say the Earth may lose 50% of its total biodiversity by 2100 AD if serious reductions in greenhouse gas pollution are not made.
Doing the Right Thing
I'm reminded of Treefolks. Saturday's event brought out Margaret Hoffman, the great City Council member (75'-77') who saved hundreds of local tree treasures from developers lusting after short term employment. . . Ms. Hoffman spoke of Austin's oldest tree, “It was only 700 years old so why not cut it down?” Mayor Leffingwell had a good chuckle along with the crowd.
What will Austin's legacy be? Austin's CO2 pollution ties us to a global phenomenon, it also presents world-class opportunities. (9) Where will Austin be in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years if we continue spending our money on pollution instead of the solution? What will life be like for our kids and grandkids based on the current plan? Shut the coal plant = instant Climate Protection. Let's invest in leading the world.
1. Powersmack, “Carbon Costs for Coal” — http://powersmack.org/carbon-c…
2. CARMA, “Highest CO2 Emitting Power Plants in the Region,” Detail 13,201 — http://carma.org/plant/detail/…
3. Please see my series via BurntOrangeReport or The Austin Eco Network, detailing our coal plant's vulnerabilities to fuel cost volatility, new regulation penalties, clunker maintenance (the plant is 30 years old), and more. An overview here: http://austineconetwork.com/co…
4. quotations taken from __ meeting
5. The Austin Climate Protection Plan — www.ci.austin.tx.us/acpp/downloads/acpplan_overview.pdf
6. Austin Chronicle, March 07, “Most critical is the water department, which Mayor Wynn said is responsible for about 50% of the electricity consumed by the municipal government. (Water efficiency and forestalling the need for a new water-treatment plant are thus key tools for energy efficiency.)” — http://www.austinchronicle.com…
7. PLEASE ALSO NOTE: Pace's “5% more” number is based on some interesting assumptions, such as fuel costs: Pace assumes Austin's natural gas fuel costs will decrease by $100M over the next 10 years and coal fuel costs will go down 30% and never increase over the next 10 years. Austin Energy's total fuel costs increased about 166% between the years 1998 and 2008 — http://powersmack.org/coal-fue…
8. RE: “global warming” a factoid, generally accepted: humans can expect total coral reef extinction worldwide by 2025 (15 years from now). Many scientists say we are entering the planet's 6th Great Extinction. Lester Brown, the world's foremost eco-economist, talks about how current species extinction rates are 1,000xs higher than they “should be.” And ecologists everywhere are concerned about the effects extinction will soon have on our interconnected biosphere, including our very own food chain — http://www.earth-policy.org/in…
9. On 10/24/09, 5,200+ communities held events to raise awareness re: the scientific assertion that — globally, citizens must work together immediately to lower CO2 from 391 parts per million to 350 parts per million in the atmosphere. See a gallery and learn more — http://www.350.org/