Austin Energy changes future plans for power plants, solar energy

After reaching a compromise with a local environmental group, Austin Energy has changed its long-term plan for future energy use.

The Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan will now include updates that alter the previous timelines and goals that called for Austin to utilize more renewable energy resources such as solar and wind power. Austin City Council approved the changes during its Dec. 11 meeting—the final meeting before the new 11-member council assumes City Hall.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell questioned the affordability of the plan when it was presented to City Council a week before the Dec. 11 vote. In an effort to curb any steep rate increases, City Council mandated an affordability goal to Austin Energy that prevents customer energy rates from increasing more than 2 percent each year.

Councilman Mike Martinez supported the plan at a rally prior to the Dec. 11 vote, explaining the new long-term plan can be affordable.

"We're putting every measure we can into this generation plan to make sure [it is affordable] and that we stick to our affordability policy," Martinez said. "We want to be green, we want to be clean but we also want to maintain affordability for our ratepayers. This policy does that."

How the plan will affect ratepayers' bills has not yet been determined or broken down, Martinez said.

Councilman Chris Riley sponsored a resolution that City Council passed Aug. 28 that would require Austin Energy to phase out Decker power plant and buy 600 MW of solar energy by 2017; about 1,000 homes can be powered by 1 MW. His plan also called for shutting down Decker by 2017.

However, the new plan projects Decker power plant will not be retired until the end of 2018. The new stipulations also require Austin Energy to purchase 110 MW of local solar by 2020 with 70 MW coming from customers—usually through residential rooftop panels.

Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, said the new plan does not trump Riley's but instead allows for more flexibility in the timelines for achieving each goal.

Updates to the plan also allow for a potential new natural gas plant to be built by 2018. Multiple residents spoke out against the new plant proposal before council's Dec. 11 deliberations. Even those speakers who called the plan a step forward for Austin said they do not agree with any stipulation that potentially allows the development of a new natural gas plant.

Two amendments made by Councilwoman Kathie Tovo sought to create protections before the city would grant final approval of any new natural gas plant. Her amendments emphasize the plan's Dec. 11 passage does not give Austin Energy any green light to develop a new gas plant. Instead, the new 11-member City Council—Tovo is the only returning member from the outgoing council—will grant final approval. Tovo also amended language to ensure any study that looks into the need for a new power plant is conducted independent from the city or public energy provider.

Rachel Stone, a clean energy attorney for Environment Texas, said a new natural gas–powered plant does not make sense during a looming drought given the vast amount of water needed to run such an operation.


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