On Wednesday evening, Austin Energy hosted its only planned in-person meeting on the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan update. The community came out to deliver a familiar message – Austin Energy must shut down its portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project. The power plant that is the Austin community’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, with Austin Energy’s one-third share emitting 3.15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available.
At a time when extreme heat has gripped Austin and much the world, residents are ready for Austin Energy to act in our best interest. Support for replacing fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy has never been higher. Many in attendance expressed frustration that Austin Energy is still running a coal-burning plant, even as we are suffering the effects of climate change caused by emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Austin Energy’s failure to make good on its 2014 commitment to shut down its portion of Fayette by the end of 2022 was the focus of the night. For years utility executives claimed negotiations were on track with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which co-owns the facility. But in November 2021, Austin Energy announced it had been unable to reach a deal that it considered affordable. Austin Energy General Manager Bob Khan and his team could not provide their definition of affordable. Nor could any Austin Energy staff remember the last meeting between Austin Energy and the LCRA to discuss closing Fayette.
Given Austin Energy’s long history of public opposition to shutting down Fayette, it looks like perhaps that opposition simply took on a different face. If there’s no accountability, it’s a good political move to say you want to shut down Fayette and quit burning coal. Austin Energy has received the credit for its commitment to closure and has suffered no adverse consequence of failing to deliver on a key promise. Ultimately, the responsibility for accountability falls to the Austin City Council. Until council members decide to exercise their authority as the governing and regulatory body of the city’s electric utility, Austin will continue to have coal on its hands.
Austin Energy has backed away significantly from public participation in this update. It isn’t working collaboratively with a community working group as for Resource Plan updates in the past, and it announced its only three public meetings just a week in advance.
What the utility has done is release a public survey as a way to gather input. While we disagree with the framing of the survey questions, if residents like you don’t take a moment to respond, Austin Energy will use the results to justify continuing to burn coal and gas. Flawed as it is, we encourage you to take the survey.
The following are our thoughts on two of the survey’s most critical questions:
- Question 2 asks you to prioritize affordability, cost stability, environmental sustainability and reliability — priorities best achieved with a transition to renewable energy. Coal and gas plants have been the most significant sources of unreliability on the Texas grid. Energy sources with no fuel costs – such as wind and solar – are more affordable and stable in price. By contrast, natural gas prices fluctuate wildly. In truth, the only one of these priorities genuinely at risk of being discarded or minimized is environmental sustainability. Austin Energy already let the 2022 retirement date for its Fayette coal plant pass without shutting it down. We encourage you to put environmental sustainability at the top of the list.
- Question 3 is problematic because it implies that carbon-free energy is more expensive than polluting energy. It’s not true. But responses to the question may guide the utility and Austin City Council as they decide what is a reasonable cost to shut down the coal-burning Fayette Power Project partly owned by Austin Energy. We encourage you to respond to this question with an amount your household can afford. The choice is paying to transition from fossil fuels, or for the costs of climate damage.
The Electric Utility Commission has established a Resource Planning Working Group, which will start meeting in September. Meetings will be open to the public and we’ll update this post when the working group’s website goes live.