Austin -vs- San Antonio: Green Power SmackDown!

by Robin Rather & Mike Sloan OCT 8, 2010.

In our last post, we looked at the surprising downslide of Austin Energy relative to others in Texas in terms of both affordability and renewable energy. Here we compare AE against CPS Energy, the San Antonio municipal utility.

Green Power SmackDown

Who’s Got Game?

In 2007, Austin City Council boldly adopted a Climate Protection Plan directive to “make Austin Energy the leading utility in the nation for greenhouse gas reductions” through aggressive leadership in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Now three years later…. Austin Energy is no longer the environmental leader in central Texas, let alone the nation.

The Tale of the Tape: San Antonio now leads on solar, wind, total renewables and demand reduction from their 2009 energy efficiency programs.  Austin retains a big lead for “cumulative” impact of their 30 years of efficiency efforts.

This year, Austin has little to show except for the lame “but they are bigger than we are” card. Even those words ring hollow. When adjusting for size — CPS is about 60% to 75% bigger than AE for factors like number of customers and sales volume — CPS still leads in wind power and total renewables.

Incredibly, it appears that the perennial green leader Austin Energy has been reduced to setting bold goals then fumbling the follow through. San Antonio is busting bigger, better moves despite more modest goals and a national green reputation that until recently was largely unknown.

The Beat Goes On With a Big Announcement

Just yesterday, CPS Energy made a major solar announcement: 30 MW of local solar projects to be added in the next two years – a significant commitment that some expect will lead solar developer SunEdison to locate a regional office in San Antonio.

In sharp contrast, Austin Energy has a freeze on new renewable energy contracts until an “Affordability Matrix” is adopted. Scheduled for completion in September, action has now been delayed by AE until December…. Or perhaps beyond?

Additionally, with Austin Energy having delay of the 30 MW Webberville solar project, Austin is certain to miss its Solar Goal of “30 MW by 2010”.

PowerSmack Analysis

Austin has lost green braggin’ rights even in its own backyard. During Austin City Manager Marc Ott’s tenure thus far, Austin has made little progress towards its climate goal and one could argue that Austin has gone backwards on renewables and affordability.

At the heart of this failure is a new-found misperception in Austin – including elements of City Hall – that green is too expensive.

PowerSmack asks: Too expensive compared to what? And what does San Antonio know that Austin doesn’t? San Antonio is a less affluent community than Austin (median household income: Austin ranks #17 in the nation; SA ranks #126) yet has more renewable energy capacity than Austin and it is investing $50 million into green tech research. Furthermore SA has lower electric rates, is operating in the black, and transfers a higher percentage of revenue to City Government than does Austin.

Perhaps being less affluent means the connection between affordability and green energy resources is more deeply understood in San Antonio.

With the “Mission Verde” plan initiated by Mayor Phil Hardberger in 2008 and amplified by current Mayor Julian Castro, San Antonio wholeheartedly embraces “green” as a template for community prosperity and economic growth. And SA appears to be putting its money where its mouth is.

One facet of “Mission Verde” recognizes that the greenest resources, such as energy efficiency, can be the most affordable. Combined with this commitment to common sense solutions is essential funding to make it a reality.

Show me the money: While both communities articulate energy efficiency as a priority, San Antonio’s commitment is backed up with dollars.

In addition, San Antonio has acted more quickly than Austin to address structural issues that enable their utility to act on City priorities:

Austin used to lead on “green”, and still gets public relations kudos for it. But the scoreboard shows a new reality, and some major challenges for Austin to get back on top.

Game-Changer?  New Leadership for Both Cities

By coincidence, both San Antonio and Austin have new electric utility leaders. CEO Doyle Beneby started at CPS on August 1. General Manager Larry Weis started at AE last Monday. Beneby came from a larger city (Chicago) and a huge private multi-state utility with 31,000 MW of power plants.  Austin’s Weis came from a small, rural community public power utility (Turlock Irrigation District, CA) with about 500 MW of power plants. Beneby gets a headstart in SA with plenty of momentum at his back. Weis will have to create his own momentum in Austin, given the stagnated environment at AE.

It will be fascinating to see how these two executives play the hand they are given in two cities so close in location but so culturally and economically different.

Will San Antonio beat Austin to the punch in a dream the capitol city has had for a decade? Or will Austin manage to jumpstart its way towards a clean energy future sooner rather than later?

This week’s Big Questions for Austin include:

  • How fast can the “affordability goal” be signed, sealed and delivered so that the Freeze can go away and AE’s generation plan finally gets started?
  • Will Austin Energy close any renewable energy deals before 2010 goes down as a total washout?
  • What does Weis need from the Council and the community to get AE’s “A game” unleashed?

PowerSmack believes it will take a fierce sense of urgency and unprecedented community-wide teamwork to help Weis play to win.

Kudos to San Antonio for its recent accomplishments. We hope they give Austin community leaders something to think about – and be inspired by.

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