Austin’s Climate Commitment

On November 11, 2007, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, urgently stated — “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two or three years determines our future. This is our defining moment.” (1)

Two years ago, that was. And after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, no less. Mr. Pachauri was actually responding to criticism that his team of 2,000+ IPCC scientists had been too conservative in their analysis of climate change. Regarding their views on the next 90 years, the IPCC’s 4th assessment report stated (2),

1. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal”
2. “World temperatures could rise by btwn 2.0–11.5° F during the 21st century”
3. A 5° F rise, relative to 1980-1999 temperatures, suggests a 40%–70% extinction of all biology assessed.

Austin responded…

Austin’s Climate Commitment

In that same year Austin City Council responded positively to the crisis, unanimously approving a Climate Protection Plan with an appropriate goal, given the situation — to “make Austin the leading city in the nation in the fight against climate change.” (3) Local environs like me cheered…

But two years later Austin still gets 1/3rd of its electricity from a coal plant that happens to be one of the worst polluters — in the state (see footnote #4). Today, Austin’s 30 yr old coal plant generates 70% of the City’s CO2, creates a staggering array of toxic emissions, and is responsible for millions of dollars of health injury costs on an annual basis. Recently, Austin Energy proposed a next-11-years-plan, which calls for keeping the coal plant burning (2010 thru 2020) without any decisive plan for shutdown. But what’s most surprising: Austin Energy’s own data shows shutting down the coal plant by 2020 costs less than keeping it burning, on an annual basis. These cost forecasts come directly from data shown by the Pace group, Austin Energy’s planning consultant. Let me explain.


I. Quitting Coal Costs Less
The Pace group, a world leading energy consultant out of Houston, was hired by Austin Energy to create analyses of some 14 future electricity scenarios. Each scenario was reviewed by both Austin Energy and three citizen-led boards (Generation Task Force, Electric Utility Commission, Resource Management Commission). In a Nov. 10 2009 document (5), citizen review board chairpersons Philip Schmandt and Chris Herbert summarized their months long considering of all Pace’s reports by contrasting three key scenarios:

i) the “Strawman”
ii) the “Replace the Coal Plant by 2020”
iii) and the “Staff Recommendation”

“The Strawman” served as the starting point for all research and was never really considered a viable option. However, “Replace the Coal Plant” and “Staff Recommendation” do a good job of depicting where the City wants to go, thus consideration of the contrast is critical to decision making.

Replacing the Coal Plant by 2020 shows a 61% reduction in CO2, below 2005 levels by 2020, AND a lower average annual cost than the Staff Recommendation. The Staff Recommendation shows an 18% reduction in CO2, by 2020 below 2005 levels. Pace shows the average annual cost comparison of the two scenarios as follows(7):

“Total levelized net present value” of the Replace Coal scenario is 57.96 vs. 58.15 of Austin Energy’s Staff Recommended plan.

Summary? “Replace” costs less than “Staff” on an annual basis … and we get a whole lot more for our money.


II. Climate Urgency Toolbox
Talking climate change seems to have gone WAAAAY out of style, no? Confusing data, last week’s email scandal, defeatism, competition with other easier-to-digest crises, and etc. have taken the problem out of the headlines. I’ve been inspired by Roger Duncan, GM at Austin Energy, in a number of ways. A true world-changer, Mr. Duncan has shown an uncommon commitment to openness on the subject of the climate crisis. When I emailed for his opinion several weeks ago, Mr. Duncan responded within the day and with absolute candor. In hindsight, his response offers a great list of reasons why we should get started, right now, doing everything we can to resolve the issue. I offer the following as tool for your consideration, re: discussing climate with friends and neighbors (excerpted from Roger, written by me):

Austin’s coal plant is the state’s 5th worst emitter of CO2, releasing more than 13M tons annually, and responsible for 70% of our City’s total CO2 pollution.

If you believe the data that shows our permafrost is disappearing, our oceans are losing their ability to retain CO2, our Arctic lakes are emitting methane (a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2) instead of freezing in the winter, our arboreal forests are drying out and releasing more CO2 than they’re capturing, or that losing 3/5 of the world’s forests in the last 150 years to economic development might be a problem, or that the world’s oceans are cooking our corral reefs (“extinct by 2030”), or that American farmers will lose 30 to 63% of total grain yields by the end of this century if we don’t “fight” climate change — then you might agree it’s better to take bold action immediately to eliminate pollution rather than gamble on exacerbating any of the above factors.

If you believe any of the thousands of implications being shown by recent changes in our eco-sphere, or any of the very credible scientists predicting “total biological devastation” in less than 90 years — if we don’t stop polluting, then you know Austinites have no choice but to do everything we can to become the leaders the world needs.


III. Sidebar – Our Austin Community
Why is Austin Energy hesitating to implement an aggressive plan to replace its coal plant, or take action NOW to create the most rapid transition out of coal it possibly can — when the world needs it most? It seems there are perceived barriers to feasibility, however — my team believes those barriers are perceptions, not reality, as well as unsolved problems and unanswered questions that need our utmost attention. In this city of national climate leadership shouldn’t our 11 year electricity plan target reducing CO2 as rapidly as possible? Affordability and feasibility are fundamental concerns to all — they’re also the only challenges. I believe we have the talent and personal moxy to work together to synergize those areas create a more prosperous local economy. Thanks to Austin leaders in the past, Austinites have enjoyed an electric utility that creates globally influential programs, for more than 20 years. Now, in light of Pachauri’s comment the effort to manage electricity is more important than it has ever been. We Austinites need to acknowledge as a community that this is our defining moment — and agree to discuss moving forward as a whole.

This is whole conversation can be contentious. However, I’m inspired there as well. We’re going to move forward on climate action by responding to eachothers’ comments (especially bully skepticism) and reinvigorating the discussion about facts like those listed above. We’re going to solve Austin’s planning dilemma by sharing information, listening to each others’ world views and professional concerns, and remaining respectful.


IV. Wrap Up
As a Creation Care advocate and educator, I am certain every Austinite wants to do as much as she or he can for the environment — we just have different understandings of what’s possible. In regards to an 11 year plan, any 11 year plan, every reflective thinker knows a lot can happen in a decade: Google, cell phones, births, deaths… In regards to the near-unanimous scientific assertion of a climate crisis and the very closely related concerns over air pollution, shouldn’t Austinites aim for creating the world we want to live in? Clearly that’s one without a bleak future… In considering “the biggest challenge in the history of humankind” — shouldn’t we be driven not by fears but by our best efforts to solve the problem? Innovation and cooperation are what’s next. The lives of our children, and ourselves, appear to be at stake.


Local Actions You Can Take



> 1. Pachauri quoted from Nov. 2007 NYTimes article, “Alarming UN report on climate change too rosy, many say” —

> 2. IPCC 4th Assessment Report

> 3. Austin Climate Protection Program, good sumary of original doc —

> 4. re: my comment, “one of the worst polluters in the state,” — According to Neil Carman, PhD and Clean Air Program Director for the Texas State Sierra Club, “The Fayette Coal Power Plant has consistently ranked among the largest sources of air pollution in Texas among more than 2,000 industrial plants surveyed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. For the five year period 2003-2007, Fayette PP ranked #8 in criteria air emissions averaging 87,941,704 lbs a year.” Additionally, Fayette coal’s CO2 emissions are considered 38th worst in the country (overall) according to Environment Texas, and according to the National Research Council particulate and ozone pollution from the plant caused $200 to $300M in health injury costs during the year 2005. Suffice to say, Fayette’s pollution problems encompass not just greenhouse gas pollution, but airborne particulate emissions and heavy toxic emissions as well, including heavy metals such as Mercury, Lead, Chromium VI, and other compounds known to cause birth defects, cancer, kidney failure, and early death in humans.

> 6. Philip Schmandt, chair of Austin’s Generation Resource Planning Task Force & Austin’s Electric Utility Commission, Chris Herbert, chair of Austin Resource Management Commission. Their document, “Report from the Chairs of the Electric Utility Commission and Resource Management Commission Regarding the Austin Generation Resource Planning Task Force” can be found via

> 7. “Numbers” taken from “Exhibit D” of Phillip & Chris’s report (detail above).


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