By 2025, the city of Austin will produce more solar energy than most states in the U.S. do today … if Austin Energy can afford it.
The Affordable Energy Resolution passed by the Austin City Council on August 28 directs Austin Energy to procure 600 megawatts of solar power by 2025. That means that 65 percent of the city’s power will be drawn from renewable sources. The resolution also calls for Austin Energy to phase out all carbon pollution from its power plants by 2030 and close the Decker Creek Power Station, which runs on natural gas.
This a huge commitment to solar energy. The entire state of Texas generates 185 megawatts of solar energy (on a utility level; privately-owned solar panels may account for more), and once the resolution is fully in effect, Austin alone will generate more solar energy than almost any state in the nation does today, excepting California, Arizona, and New Jersey.
“Council’s approval of the Affordable Energy Resolution last week represents clear policy direction that our city is committed to both a carbon-free energy future and to keeping our rates affordable,” said Council member Chris Riley, who sponsored the resolution.
The problem is this: officials at Austin Energy don’t think it can be done. While the utility did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment for this story, officials there have publicly opposed sweeping solar energy investment in the recent past. In a press release put out two days before the Council vote, Austin Energy general manager Larry Weis said that extensive investment in solar power would raise rates for Austin Energy customers considerably.
“Notwithstanding any analyses we may conduct in the future, I can tell you that replacing Decker [the natural gas plant that will close under the Council resolution] with solar power contracts would be an economic disaster for ratepayers,” Weis said. “Austin Energy made $44 million from Decker in 2011. We cannot afford to lose that income without replacing it with rate increases or elimination of programs that do not produce income.”
Weiss also said that Austin Energy is committed to implementing green energy sources but that any investments must be methodical and come with a full business assessment first. The Affordable Energy Resolution includes a requirement that Austin Energy keep its rates from rising more than two percent per year, which Weiss said will not be possible.
“If the generation plan is adopted before running the business analysis, Austin Energy will have to come back to Council year after year to report that the plan it adopted conflicts with its affordability goals and cannot be implemented,” he said.
Supporters of the resolution disagree and cite their own financial analyses that come to vastly different conclusions.
“Solar is now cheaper than building a new natural gas plant,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group that promotes clean energy and other progressive causes. “Our analysis shows that 600 megawatts of solar will save Austin Energy between $12 and $33 million per year.”
Besides its ambitious 600 megawatt goal, the Affordable Energy Resolution also doubles Austin’s goal for local solar energy production. (Much of the 600 megawatts will come from solar energy contractors located outside of the city.) Austin will attempt to produce 200 megawatts of solar energy locally, for a maximum of 800 megawatts total if all goals are reached.
This will be accomplished through rebates for those who install solar panels and relaxed rules for solar leasing, whereby a company covers the cost of installing solar panels and the homeowner or business owner pays back that cost over time, plus interest, as they are realizing the energy savings the solar panels provide.
In addition to the Affordable Energy Resolution, Council passed a resolution sponsored by Council member Kathie Tovo to increase energy efficiency program offerings for low-income and low-moderate-income customers, while also creating a Low Income Consumer Advisory Task Force.
This resolution will help Austinites to afford efficiency improvements to their homes that will save energy across the grid.