Austin Mayors on Electricity Rates, Planning & Renewables

by Mike Sloan. May 11, 2012.

Here’s a look at the last 3 elected Mayors of Austin on 3 metrics for managing the City’s electric utility (Austin Energy) over the course of city budgets they were responsible for, from the time they arrived on the job until they left/leave (Voters will decide May 12 if they want Lee another 3 years).

It is clear that during the tenure of both Kirk Watson and Will Wynn, Austin’s electric rates improved relative to the Texas average, extra savings were socked away into utility reserve accounts, and renewable energy installations ramped up dramatically.

The trends under Lee Leffingwell show sharply different trends to date.

Some of the reasons for this are beyond Lee’s control (e.g. falling natural gas prices), but some items are controllable (e.g. Austin Energy’s priorities for spending) and certainly how the City communicates with the public on these important issues is a responsibility of the Mayor.

If interested in how the numbers above were calculated, review the links below:

Improvement in Electric Rate: Austin -vs-Texas

Money added to AE Financial Reserves

How much Renewable Energy installations Grew

Reviewing the details shows that FY2007 was a particularly good year for Austin Energy. Starting in 2008 (3 months after the start of Austin’s 2008 fiscal year) Marc Ott took over as City Manager. Since that time circumstances for Austin have changed, both in the economy, and how the city has responded.

Austin has faced tough times before. Mayor Kirk Watson & City Manager Jesus Garza faced challenges in dealing with the movement toward electric deregulation in the late 1990′s and the tech crash in the early 2000′s. Austin Energy underwent significant austerity measures at that time and survived those events stronger than before.

At the beginning of the 2008 economic crash, Austin Energy was in the midst of an enormous spending spree — literally billions committed toward spending on fuel and hedging contracts, coal plant upgrades, new gas plants, infrastructure like a new call center and billing system, and a $2.3 Billion “wood burner”contract widely opposed in the community including by Leffingwell mayoral opponent Brigid Shea (letter from 2008  is attached) .

The following summary compares Will Wynn’s last city budget to the latest by Lee Leffingwell.   As the changes between Austin Energy’s 2012 and 2009 budgets show, while overall utility spending has continued at a very high level, selective cuts have been made, primarily to programs which reduce utility revenue by reducing customer’s bills.

Energy Efficiency and Rooftop Solar appear to be lower priorities for Austin now than in the past.

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