Austin Mayoral Race: The Environmental Facts

by Mike Sloan. May 6, 2012.

While past accomplishments have deservedly earned Austin a reputation among the greenest of cities, what’s the straight scoop about the City’s current standing and trajectory on being green?

The following is a lengthy email exchange with the Austin Environmental Democrats regarding claims made in their endorsement flyer.

RESPONSE TO AUSTIN ENVIRONMENTAL DEMOCRATS

Dear Ted, Mary Ann and Austin Environmental Democrats:

Yesterday I received a mailer from your group endorsing Lee for Mayor (attached). I appreciate your group’s mission and your efforts to encourage Austinites to vote. However, I believe several of the bullets on the mailer are inaccurate. Voters should support any candidate they choose, but endorsing organizations should strive to be as factual as possible.

Thank you for replying and encouraging media review of your organization’s statements.

I have reviewed the back up for your statements. A lot of the problem stems from outdated info and the lag factor in current realities impacting a community’s reputation. It is true that Austin historically has been a leader in renewable energy and has earned a national reputation for green power leadership, but Austin’s leadership has declined substantially in recent years. I am copying a few leaders in the environmental community who may be able to weigh in on the accuracy of your claims and the accuracy of my comments.

I am a former Austin Energy employee, renewable energy consultant for 25 years & have chaired and served on City Task Forces related to Austin Energy. Comments re: the mailer are below.

“Austin will be the biggest city in the country to divest from a municipally-owned coal plant”
This statement seems “pants on fire” wrong for multiple reasons.

(1) Austin has taken no definitive action to divest from coal; Council has simply passed a resolution (attached) to study issues related to a possible future commitment to divest.

(2) San Antonio announced in 2011 they will close their Deely coal plant by 2018… San Antonio is a “bigger city” than Austin and has already taken definitive action to close “a municipally-owned coal plant”

(3) While divesting from Fayette is contentious locally (because of perceptions it is expensive to do so), it is not at all uncommon across the U.S. to divest from coal plants. More than 250 coal-fired generating units across the country are scheduled to retire — most are owned by big private utilities retiring coal plants primarily for economic reasons. This list of coal plant closures also shows San Antonio’s Deely plant.

(4) Underscoring that quitting coal can be in Austin’s economic best interest, a few related items:

  • Coal Use in ERCOT down 30% in January – Due to lower marginal costs, wind, solar & efficient gas plants (while gas fuel is cheap) all dispatch before old coal plants.
  • San Marcos contracts for Wind & Gas to LOWER future electric bills San Marcos is a wholesale customer of LCRA (which has a lot of coal in its mix) that recently signed a supplemental contract with NextEra that is expected to reduce San Marcos customers’ electric bills 1% to 3.5%. NextEra’s power plant fleet in Texas is 54% gas & 46% wind with no “baseload” coal or nuclear resources.

“Austin Energy is the #1 seller of green power in the nation”
This is incorrect, but often misquoted. There are many entities that sell far more green power than Austin both in regulated & de-regulated electric markets across the U.S.

Even when we focus on the sub-set of national green power sales that are VOLUNTARY and use TEXAS renewable resources, the most recent rankings (for 2009) show Austin Energy ranked # 5.

Texas Voluntary Renewable Energy for 2009 (MWh)

#1 CPS Energy (San Antonio) – 1,652,436
#2 FPL Energy (NextEra) – 1,104,836
#3 Community Energy – 1,102,046
#4 Reliant Energy – 954,889
#5 Austin Energy – 817,212
SOURCE: ERCOT REC Report data released May, 2011.

For many years, Austin Energy did rank #1 in Texas on this list (e.g. 2005-2007) but it has dropped in more recent years.

The essential caveats for Austin Energy’s claim to be #1 are that the comparison be limited to a “voluntary retail rate” offered by a “regulated utility”. In that category Austin Energy has a string of nine consecutive #1 national rankings. However, that run is likely to end later this month when the 2011 rankings are released by NREL, since Austin Energy kicked a lot of customers off GreenChoice last year (I was one of them).

The GreenChoice program is a bellwether for changes in the City’s attitudes on environmental policy. For years Austin’s GreenChoice program offered customers an outstanding value (GreenChoice was lower cost than AE’s conventional electric rate & offered the best customer value among all green rates in the country). Then about 2008 there were severe changes in the pricing structure for GreenChoice that have made it among the most expensive electric rate offerings in Texas. Go here for detail on GreenChoice.

One of the perverse aspects of Austin Energy’s rate proposal is that GreenChoice residential customers must pay for upgrades to extend the life of the Fayette Coal plant the same as customers who depend on coal to supply their power (even if a GreenChoice customer doesn’t want to extend the life of the Fayette coal plant, they don’t have a choice about paying for it.)

“Webberville is one of nation’s largest solar farms”
True. This was an outgrowth of a 2003 action (when Will Wynn was mayor) establishing a “Goal for Solar” of 30 MW by 2010. The project came on a little late to satisfy the 2010 goal, and because of the delay, Austin could have re-negotiated or re-bid a more competitive solar price, at least $50 million cheaper than the $250 million deal. (Note CPS Energy is completing a 30 MW solar project now with the same solar developer (Sun Edison) reported to be at a price about 10% to 20% cheaper than Austin’s Webberville project.)

“City Buildings are powered 100% by Clean Energy”
True. This was a recommendation dating back to the 1998 Sustainable Energy Task Force that I chaired. While it is good the City is leading by example, it would have been better had the City acted sooner before the GreenChoice price premium was modified to be expensive.

Biomass: a major difference between Lee & Brigid
My observation from closely tracking Austin Energy — both as a member of the 2009 Generation Resource Planning Task Force and since — is that Lee has largely deferred to city staff on electric issues and has endorsed more spending on smokestack technologies (coal plant upgrades, new gas plants, extensive gas fuel hedging, biomass) rather than on more cost effective efficiency & wind power (efficiency incentive funding is down 16% since Lee became mayor & Austin missed the scheduled addition of 200 MW of wind power last year and ended up having to buy a lot of very expensive replacement power from the ERCOT market in 2011)

My perception is that Lee thinks clean energy is more expensive than dirty energy and that “environment” and “economic development” are competing city interests. I think Brigid has a much better handle than Lee on utility issues in general, and especially on how affordability, environment, and economic growth can align together in Austin.

The 2008 “wood burner” contract illustrates this difference well, as Brigid was among the group of environmental leaders that tried to talk Lee & Council out of that $2.3 Billion deal (letter is attached), but to no avail.

Thank you for your interest in this discussion. Hopefully we can find agreement on what constitutes accurate information on these issues.

Mike Sloan
512-731-8740 (m)

EMAIL FROM AUSTIN ENVIRONMENTAL DEMOCRATS TO MEDIA

On 5/6/12 1:24 PM, “Austin Environmental Democrats” wrote:

Dear Politicfact Editor,
Gardner Selby’s auto response recommended I forward this to the politifact email address.

Dear Michael and Adam,
As I am doing this, I want to share the email chain below with you as well. Austin Environmental Democrats did a postcard mailing Friday supporting Mayor Leffingwell and the other incumbents. They were all endorsed by our membership on April 3rd.

We believe that Austin has an enviable environmental record and is a leader in the areas discussed below.

I am President of the Austin Environmental Democrats (AED). Mary Ann Neely is our Treasurer. AED is a chapter of Texas Environmental Democrats and was restarted this spring after being dormant for several years. The organizing committee includes Ken Flippen, Celia Isreal, Austin Adams, Jeb Boyt. AED quickly garnered more than 100 dues paying members and had its first monthly meeting yesterday. Council Member Chris Riley was our speaker. We intend AED to be a strong voice for environmental protection and leadership in Austin and in the Democratic Party. And we believe reelecting the current Mayor and Council incumbents is the best way to continue Austin’s environmental leadership.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions, at austinenvirodems@gmail.com but please copy ted@legaldigest.com . or call me at 512-657-5414.

Best, Ted Siff

On Sun, May 6, 2012 at 12:09 PM, Ted Siff wrote:
Hello Mike,

Thanks for contacting us regarding our AED mailer, and we’d welcome the opportunity to get fact-checked in the Statesman. We believe the Mayor & City Council have a strong environmental record, and we’d welcome any additional media attention. I’m including Gardner Selby in this whole email chain to hopefully interest him in this story.

Overall, we believe this report from Sustain Lane backs up our claim that Austin is the Clean Energy Capital of the World. http://www.sustainlane.us/articles/cleantech.jsp
Austin
San Jose
Berkeley
Pasadena
Boston
I’ve also listed more context below regarding each bullet point in our mailer.

Also, I hope you’ll follow Austin’s suggestion and sign the petition to keep environmentalists on the Democratic Executive Committee. It’s important that environmentalists have a seat at the table, and I hope that your environmental activism extends beyond municipal elections.

While we may disagree on who is the best choice for mayor, I look forward to working with you in the future to continue Austin’s environmental leadership.

Thanks,
Ted Siff, President

Austin Environmental Democrats
512-657-5414

“Austin Energy is the #1 seller of green power in the nation.”
The Austin Business Journal reported this fact on May 9, 2011.
http://www.bizjournals.com/austin/news/2011/05/09/austin-energy-top-green-power-seller.html?ana=RSS&s=article_search&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+bizj_austin+%28Austin+Business+Journal%29

“Webberville is one of the nation’s largest solar farms.”
The first sentence of Statesman story on December 21, 2011 reads, “One of the country’s biggest solar arrays is now lighting up Austin.”
http://www.statesman.com/news/local/webberville-solar-array-begins-producing-power-2046802.html

“Austin will be the biggest city in the country to divest from a municipally-owned coal plant.”
The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has been touting this fact in their house party presentations, and given that Cyrus has been working hard on this campaign, I trust that the Sierra Club knows what they’re talking about.
You mention San Antonio, but I’m sure you’re aware that San Antonio will still use coal power, even after they move beyond coal the Dealy coal plant.
While Denver and other cities in the Northwest are also going coal-free, they didn’t own a municipally-owned coal plant. Therefore, Austin’s divestment from Fayette stands out as significant achievement. While there have been smaller cities like Shelby, OH.
You also mention that Austin’s divestment from Fayette is not finalized. That’s true, and we didn’t make the claim that it’s a done deal. That’s why the statement is written in the future tense, “will be”, and not in the past tense. Mayor Leffingwell and City Council have unanimously pledged to move beyond coal, and we look forward to working with the Sierra Club to hold City Council accountable to their pledge.
http://action.sierraclub.org/site/MessageViewer?em_id=221461.0&dlv_id=190059

“City buildings are powered by 100% clean energy.”
The Statesman on September 20, 2011 reported that Austin was moving its buildings to green energy.
http://www.statesman.com/news/local/today-austin-becomes-an-all-green-municipal-operation-1889084.html?printArticle=y

On Sun, May 6, 2012 at 10:19 AM, Austin Adams wrote:

Hi Mike. Ted and Mary Ann started the Austin Environmental Dems chapter and work independently of the Texas Environmental Dems (TED), which I chair. The SDEC of the state Democratic party has been trying to remove TED from the body since its formation around six years ago because they didn’t want a flood of “issues” based caucuses applying for admission. This has always been a threat, but the ante got upped significantly in the last nine months as the Rules Committee of the SDEC began an earnest push to change party rules to explicitly bar “issues based” caucuses from being on the SDEC. In light of this, I’ve been encouraging the formation of city/regional chapters of the group in order to show that we are active regionally and we now have active chapters in Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi. On an up note, the vote on the rule change was taken at last weekend’s SDEC meeting and was voted down by a slim margin, so we’re in the clear for the moment, but the people on the SDEC who wanted the rule change aren’t going to give up and will likely be taking another bite at the apple in the near future. Most likely at the state convention in June. There’s an online petition that I’ve created to voice your oppostion to kicking TED off of the SDEC which I’d greatly appreciate your signing and sharing with your networks.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dDc0WWdUanN1LTFWUWxjbWNZZlZBZ2c6MQ

I’ve cc’d the AED email address, which Ted and Mary Ann created for the group, so I’ll let you guys discuss any issues you have with their mailer.

Thanks, Austin

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Mike Sloan
Date: Sun, May 6, 2012 at 8:52 AM
Subject: FW: Austin Environmental Democrats
To: txenvironmentaldems@gmail.com
Cc: Austin EcoNetwork , Cyrus Reed , Luke Metzger

Thanks Luke…. I found txenvironmentaldems@gmail.com as an address for Austin Adams.

Ted Siff & Mary Ann Neely are listed as leaders for the local group, but there is no email or phone contact info I can find on their website.

Do any of you have info on how I may contact them.

Mike

—— Forwarded Message
From: Luke Metzger
Date: Sat, 5 May 2012 23:51:00 -0500
To: Cc: Cyrus Reed , Karen Hadden , Tom Smitty Smith , christopher searles , Bee Moorhead , Robin Schneider

Subject: Re: Austin Environmental Democrats

Yes, I know them and I’m sure they’d want to know of their errors. Its run by Austin Adams I think.

I’d also contact Gardner Selby at Politifact at the statesman.

On May 5, 2012, at 4:02 PM, Mike Sloan wrote:
Austin Environmental Democrats
Do any of you know this group, and do you think they would want to know if they are saying things that are not accurate.

I got a mailer today from this group endorsing Lee Leffingwell that made some claims that seem incorrect.

One was that “Austin will be the biggest city in the country to divest from a municipally-owned coal plant”… This struck me as wrong for a few reason. One being other cities including San Antonio have already committed to shutting down coal plants & two, I did not think Austin had done anything more than agree to study a possible date for divestiture.

They also say that “Austin Energy is the #1 seller of green power in the nation” which also is not true…. Austin last year ranked #5 in voluntary green power sales just in Texas… They have been #1 in sales of a voluntary renewable energy retail rate among regulated utilities for 9 years in a row, but they will almost certainly lose that ranking when the 2011 rankings are out. I suspect some of you also got booted off GreenChoice last year. Green Choice sales may have gone down — not up — and GreenChoice is among the most expensive electric rates now available in Texas & will be the most expensive rate if the proposed rate increase goes through.

Please advise if I should contact someone.

Mike

—— End of Forwarded Message

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