By Kaiba White
Austin has a dirty secret – or at least a truth that may not be common knowledge.
Two years ago on Nov. 1, Austin Energy broke its promise to shut down its portion of the polluting Fayette Power Project.
Thanks to Fayette, Austin has coal on its hands.
Fayette is a coal-burning power plant owned by Austin Energy and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). As long as this arrangement continues, the plant will remain a stain on Austin’s environmental record and an insurmountable barrier to achieving the city’s climate goals.
Fayette is running on dirty fuel and borrowed time. In 2014, the Austin City Council voted to accept Austin Energy’s recommendation to shut down its portion of Fayette by the end of 2022, a commitment reiterated in 2017 and 2020. It is now the final months of 2023, and Fayette is still running – with no end in sight.
Residents and advocates are frustrated by Austin Energy’s lack of progress toward closure. The explanation for why the utility broke its promise has been less than transparent.
When Austin Energy announced its portion of Fayette would continue operating past 2022, the utility said it could not reach an affordable exit agreement with LCRA. However, none of the details of LCRA’s exit terms have been revealed publicly, thanks to a nondisclosure agreement that Austin Energy signed. Whether the deal could have been made affordable by spreading the cost over decades, as other utilities have done, remains unanswered.
The Austin City Council has power that it should use. As a municipally owned utility, Austin Energy answers to the council. If Mayor Kirk Watson and City Council agree that coal causes unacceptable harm, they must try anew to shut down the plant.
The reasons to stop burning coal are the same as in 2014, but with the added urgency of a changing climate. Coal is fueling a crisis that has brought a continuous and often overwhelming wave of weather disasters to Texas and the world. Fayette is responsible for 80% of Austin Energy’s annual emissions and a third of Austin’s citywide emissions. It means that the broken promise that kept Fayette running will cause the city to fail on another promise: reducing most carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching net-zero communitywide carbon emissions by 2040, as outlined in the Austin Climate Equity Plan. It is impossible to reach our climate goals as long as Fayette burns coal.
Coal harms people. Burning coal releases pollutants into the air, land, and water. A 2019 report by the Environmental Integrity Project confirmed groundwater contamination near Fayette, and the likely culprit is coal ash. Coal-fired power plants are also linked to premature deaths because of air pollution.
It may surprise readers to learn that Fayette expenses aren’t subject to the City Council’s approval required for contracts or purchases over $72,000 per year. Austin Energy and the LCRA each have a 50% vote on the Fayette Management Committee, which sets budgets and capital expenditures that are simply buried in the utility’s budget after it has already committed to them. Why would our city keep spending money on a plant it says it wants to shut down?
Austin Energy is currently revamping its Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan, outlining how it will meet the city’s energy needs. It’s time for the City Council to act. As part of the plan, council members should exert financial oversight of Fayette, direct Austin Energy to stop its investments in the plant with an eye toward replacing it with cleaner energy sources – like wind, solar, and battery storage – that are already more affordable than coal.
Austin and our utility aren’t solely responsible for global climate change, but our hands aren’t clean. It will stay that way until the city washes Fayette’s coal dust from our hands.
Kaiba White is an energy policy and outreach specialist with Public Citizen, a nonprofit, consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., with an office in Austin.