Austin, Texas' Ambitious Carbon Mitigation Targets, Results Provide Models for Cities

 Jake Stewart

Austin, Texas, has one of the most ambitious carbon mitigation targets for a U.S. city—to be carbon neutral by the year 2020—a target made all the more complex by the fact that Austin owns its own power company. With significant renewable resources available, and a progressive population and local government, the city of Austin has become a model for building the diverse package of renewable procurement, efficiency measures, and public outreach that can achieve substantial results in carbon emissions reductions. In order to get a clear shematic of this progressive model, VerdeXchange News was pleased to speak with Jake Stewart, the program manager of the Austin Energy Climate Protection Program, the agency tasked with the implementation of the city's green programs.

VerdeX: What are Austin Texas’ renewable energy goals?

Stewart: The primary goal for the municipality itself, meaning all of municipal operations, is to be carbon neutral by 2020. That will be sourced predominantly by in-house in renewables, but anything that needs to be offset will be offset. That includes fleets and municipal operations.

You have the utility plan, which sets the goal to create 700 megawatts in efficiency savings by 2015. That’s like creating a power plant worth of efficiency savings. We also have goals of 30 percent renewables by 2020 and building 100 megawatts of solar.

Extending to the community, there’s a whole separate plan that engages the community, building a consensus on how the community can reduce its carbon footprint in a way that has economic upside. We want to bring in green and clean tech companies in a Silicon Valley for renewable energy by making Austin very hospitable for those companies. That’s been true with solar companies. We have a solar rebate program, which has been really successful in other cities because it provides companies a way to bridge cost differential.

VerdeX: But it’s not always universally successful. The financial arrangements and commitments vary, and like most U.S. cities, there’s no feed-in tariff available. What are the incentives available to encourage installation of solar?

Stewart: Take efficiency, for example. Austin Energy is providing cash incentives and rebates directly to consumers, for example, for radium barrier and attic insulation. Austin Energy isn’t directly going to houses to do this, so there is a lot of space for efficiency contractors. By creating that space, the businesses will find their mobility.

Austin has been very consistently on a green direction. The worst thing you can have is instability in these kinds of things—where you’ve got one mayor who’s excited about it and one who isn’t. Fortunately, because of the populace we have in Austin, there’s a consistent direction towards green initiatives. That, more than anything, makes Austin extremely attractive, because it’s not just a peak in the radar. It’s a consistent trajectory.

VerdeX: As you mentioned, Austin Energy relies on an energy portfolio—not just solar or wind or biomass. Elaborate on the contents of the city’s energy portfolio.

Stewart: A lot of the portfolio approach is focused on energy efficiency. Demand-side management is the first priority (i.e., the low-hanging fruit). Green choice and offering consumers the option to buy green and buy direct to these renewable platforms has been a really successful program. We’re predominantly focused on wind, but to ensure the proper diversity in the portfolio approach, we’re setting a separate initiative to produce 100 megawatts of solar so that not all of our eggs are going into one basket.

You can create a green basket, but you have to make sure you’re diversified within that in order to keep creating growth across the platform. To a certain extent, that’s why Austin has been successful in the diversification portfolio approach—setting separate thresholds for each category.

There are a few landfill gas projects that we’re also including. That applies to efficiency and the renewable option. Austin Energy also sets a progressive beta testing platform. We’re not afraid of looking at new technologies and new initiatives. We have a project at our wastewater treatment facility that is looking at algae.

We’re also learning how to partner with our fleets, which are moving the biofuels right now. But my preference and onus is to move toward electrons. That’s the future. Right now, we can have biofuels and natural gas to transition, but particularly in our scenario, it makes a lot of sense to do electrons. We can control electrons; we can clean electrons. In that sense, that provides a platform for a burgeoning industry. We just got a new hybrid electric bucket truck, which has not been tested that much. It’s market-ready, but you’re paying a little more. When I say “portfolio,” I mean that we’re willing to engage rational risks where it’s appropriate, to not only engage what’s out there, but also move the market in order to get where we need to go. The only way to move the market is by giving OEMs the feedback loop that says that we’re interested and that we are willing to put our money where our mouth is.

VerdeX: How does Austin Energy integrate with the rest of the city’s platform, in land use, planning, and public works?

Stewart: Austin Energy is basically set up similar to a co-op, but it’s much more accessible to the public than a co-op. That’s where Austin has distinguished itself—in the efforts it’s taken to engage the consumers, the effort it has taken to provide programs directly to the consumer and to listen to feedback in creating programs.
You can view Austin Energy as its own department. Ester Matthews is the director the Climate Change Program. She answers to Roger Duncan, who is the general manager of Austin Energy. The way it’s funded is different. Austin Energy creates revenue. But as far as departments, we work with water utilities. The Climate Protection Program was created as an umbrella organization over the city so that I can rove through all the departments and create links. As you know, in any city, great individual efforts need to be connected.

VerdeX: What’s your relationship with the University of Texas and research institutions around Austin?

Stewart: The Clean Energy Incubator works with UT and local markets to create a platform and incubators for new clean tech companies. We work a lot with the University of Texas on projects like that in cities. They’re pretty heavily engaged. But as far as a direct relationship, it’s more cooperative than anything else.

VerdeX: Regarding the nexus of energy and water, what is the utilities’ water agenda?

Stewart: There are water efficiency rebates, for example, for low-flush toilets. It’s a different department but the same principal. You’re trying to level peak, but do it in a way that engages efficiency. What I’m trying to do and putting a lot of effort into is trying to make the energy/water connection. Over 50 percent of the energy that the city of Austin (and most municipalities) use is moving water from point A to point B. That’s either on the clean side or on the waste side. That means 50 percent of your utility footprint. You can’t talk about water without talking about energy, and I don’t think that connection has been made with a lot of folks. I’m trying to incorporate that into our climate protection program in a way that directly affects our carbon footprint, and also in our net-zero-energy building program, there are opportunities to include water in that.

VerdeX: If you were talking to the chair of the Energy Committee of the U.S. Senate, what would you want the federal government doing to assist Austin’s climate change efforts?

Lloyd Doggett, our Congressman, has been great as far as getting the word out. Cap-and-trade is critical because it creates a leveling for these industries. Coming out of the renewable industry, the biggest hindrance has been not that we need a great deal of subsidies, although there is some leveling that has to be done, but it’s been the stutter-step, the inconsistency which means that investments can’t be made out two years. I don’t know of any other industry that’s had to deal with that kind of stutter-step. Consistency and a long-term intent are worth more than any single subsidy that could be given. A vision of where the platform is going to be for the foreseeable future would be extremely valuable for this industry. We’ll adapt. We’ll figure out a way to find markets and make it work.

Secondly, we need the Apollo-type projects, a proverbial fist on the table that says, “We’re doing it this time. We’re putting our money where our mouth is.” The moon analogy is overused, but it’s good in the sense that that technology didn’t exist when Kennedy made that speech. It was only because there was that much willpower at the political level that everybody said, “This guy is for real, this is going to happen, let’s get into it.” They’re not specific asks, but they’re the types of things that I think will carry more weight than anything. Obviously the extension of the tax credits and the rebates are helpful, but intent and stability are what we need.

VerdeX: In what way is Austin Energy a model? And who do you look at as a model for Austin?

Stewart: Roger Duncan, the general manager of Austin Energy, deserves an enormous amount of credit for where Austin Energy is now. He is a visionary who “got it” early on. He launched the plug-in hybrid program, when here wasn’t one nationally. To move the OEMs, to be willing to pay for the differential and demonstrate them—those kinds of things carry a lot of weight. Internally, Roger deserves a lot of credit.

You’ve got cities here that are excelling in different areas. Seattle and Portland have done some really interesting initiatives. I think there’s an increase in communication between cities to say, “I really like what you did with that program, this didn’t work, this fell on its face.”

But there’s also a lot of opportunity, both at the federal level and the municipal level, for us to learn what Europe has done. They’ve been through a lot of the problems that we’re just now engaging. Take biofuels, for example. There’s been a lot of talk about food versus fuel. The E.U. has created a sustainability platform that sets criteria. We’re talking about doing something similar, so let’s not entirely reinvent this wheel. The same is true for some of the innovative stuff that’s happened in Germany, Denmark, and Belgium. Japan has done some great things in efficiency, too. There’s nothing like an island to make you efficient. When you can see the edges of where you live, you start thinking about things a lot differently.

VerdeX: If we talk again in a year, what will we talk about?

Stewart: I hope that we’ll see leadership at the federal level and that the municipalities are taking risks, doing it with the onus that the country is going to move in that direction anyway and they’ve just got to get going. I expect and I am hopeful that we’ll see an alignment of intent at the local and federal levels, if not at all the state levels. If we can connect those dots, the states will come along. I hope that the political climate has shifted enough in a year that we’re starting to see the massive investments and energy packages that reflect those needs at a local level. That would be the number one thing.

Secondly, I hope that we’ve made incredible progress in our goal towards carbon neutrality. We’re running pretty fast, and if we can make Austin a symbol that it can be done in a short timeline, then we’ll have been successful.