Robbins: Austin’s energy goals laudable but counter to laws of physics

Scientists and policymakers who study global warming are understandably panicked by the deterioration of the earth’s climate. Rising temperatures, increasing drought ironically contrasted with increased incidents of major floods, reduced agricultural output, and dying forests are all predicted as the damage spreads. In worst-case scenarios, billions of people could be at risk of a reduced quality of life, or much worse.

Many activists are desperate for action to eliminate fossil fuel use associated with carbon emissions. I share their frustration. Unfortunately, desperation does not breed good policy, and you cannot legislate physics.

An unfortunate attempt at such legislation occurred at the Aug. 28 City Council meeting, where advocates for clean energy won a commitment for 100 percent carbon-free electricity for Austin’s municipal utility by 2030 (assuming it is “affordable”). Currently Austin gets 23 percent of its energy from renewables.

As an advocate of clean energy for 37 years, it pains me to question this laudable goal, but without cost-effective energy storage, I do not see a way to technically achieve it.

Some people believe that Austin should retire or sell off its fossil assets and only buy renewable power. This scenario would have the Texas electric grid (ERCOT) sell Austin all the capacity to balance these intermittent power sources.

The problem with the theory is that Austinites may have to pay dearly for their idealism. Privately owned “merchant” plants can charge what the market will bear. Wealth would likely be sucked out of Austin, wealth that could go toward the purchase of clean energy equipment in homes and commercial buildings, among other things.

Also, the “affordability goal” for Austin Energy exempts fuel, so most renewable energy contracts will be loopholed since they are paid for in the fuel charge.

The essence of the carbon-free resolution came from a report issued by the council-appointed Generation Task Force. I invite anyone interested in Austin’s future to read this report. It is largely undocumented and has numerous flaws and contradictions.

  • In one place, the report advocates careful estimation of natural gas prices to ensure that a new gas generator is economic, while in another it advocates complete elimination of fossil fuel.
  • The report does not define if nuclear energy is carbon free.
  • The report has arbitrary or undocumented goals for increased energy efficiency, energy storage and solar energy.
  • Even if these arbitrary and undocumented goals are carried out, they are so small that they will not even compensate for the utility’s average growth rate, much less the fossil fuel we currently use.
  • Its section promoting more assistance to low-income customers is so flawed that it defines a household making over $95,000 per year as “working poor.”
  • The report’s obsession with solar energy from West Texas ignores the use of wind from the Texas coast, which is currently less expensive and generates considerable power during summer peak demand.

Fellow environmentalists have questioned why I would be so ardent opposing this supposedly benign resolution and in questioning the Task Force Report. It is because if clean energy supporters are to maintain credibility with the public, we need to explain the costs, benefits, and the current and future capabilities of the technologies as well as the environmental consequences of the current system.

For the next phase of Austin’s clean energy development, programs rather than arbitrary goals should be the norm. My own short list:

  • Create a storage “partnership” with other Texas utilities to develop various technologies while defraying some or most of the economic risk;
  • Create an “on-bill financing” program, similar to what has been done in four other states, to finance clean energy on customers’ electric bills instead of financing new power plants;
  • Since the current Generation Task Force is not inclined to continue to refine its report, appoint a sequel that will come up with a real energy plan for Austin’s future.

Robbins lives in Austin and has been an environmental activist for 37 years.

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