In Texas, the city of Austin has sold more renewable energy to residents and businesses than any other city in the nation. And not only are the costs of renewable energy there cheaper than oil and gas. But as Larry Schooler of member station KUT reports, the demand is so high that the city is holding a raffle to allow new customers in on the action.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The term “alternative energy” might bring up images of a car running on recycled cooking oil, or rooftops covered with solar panels. To be sure, biodiesel and photovoltaics have become more popular in recent years, attracting a devoted but fairly small following. Now, the city of Austin, Texas, is betting it can attract a wider audience for renewables. As Larry Schooler from member station KUT in Austin reports, the city’s utility has an unusual pitch to potential new customers.
[SOUND OF MECHANICAL GATE]
SCHOOLER: As you enter the Decker Power Plant in Northeast Austin, you can’t really tell you’re driving through what some call the epicenter of the renewable energy world.
[SOUND OF EQUIPMENT]
SCHOOLER: Machines hum and whir just as they would at any other power plant in the country.
[KEY CARD BEEP, DOOR OPENING]
SCHOOLER: But inside a small office building at Decker, Austin Energy’s James Jacobs is sitting on the front lines of a kind of renewable energy revolution.
Each of the past three years, Austin Energy has sold more renewable power than any other public utility in the country under what it calls the “Green Choice” program. That takes a lot of wind. James Jacobs pulls up a computer screen to show how the winds are blowing from the utility’s turbines.
JACOBS: If it’s blowing stronger, the less generation we have to provide. If the wind dies down, we have to make that generation up on other units.
SCHOOLER: Wind power pollutes less than the other, more conventional energy sources, like coal and natural gas. It’s a challenge for Austin Energy to bring wind from turbines hundreds of miles away in West Texas. There aren’t many transmission lines yet. But the utility’s electric operations manager, Wayne Morter, says the demand for more green power is growing. The utility has sold nearly all its renewable energy capacity.
MORTER: And the way our program’s designed, a customer can choose to buy that energy and fix the price pretty far into future and not be under the fuel charge fluctuation, which can go up some and can go down significantly over time.
SCHOOLER: That’s what has Morter and his Austin Energy colleagues especially excited. Austin customers who signed up for Green Choice when it began in 2000 are still paying now what they were paying then, less than two cents per kilowatt hour. By contrast, a conventional energy user is paying more than twice that.
The utility recently announced it was going to raffle off its last 1,400 residential and 200 business spots in Green Choice. Austin City Council member Brewster McCracken told reporters at the raffle announcement that now was the best time for utility customers to get in on the action.
MCCRACKEN: This is the first time since coal sparked the Industrial Revolution 300 years ago that a utility has gone out and competitively bid on coal, gas, and nuclear in the open market on one side, and that same utility has gone out on the open market and competitively bid on wind and solar on the other side, and the cheaper power after that open market competitive bidding was wind and solar.
SCHOOLER: At the Rhizome Collective in urban east Austin, Scott Kellogg is excited about the Green Choice raffle. He works and lives in this combination house and sustainable living center that relies solely on renewable energy.
SCHOOLER: Kellogg climbs onto his tin roof and points out a windmill made from bicycle parts and 30 solar panels used for energy.
KELLOGG: Any surplus power being produced by those solar panels that we’re not using feeds back in to the grid, which we get credited for on our utility bill. And if we’re using more power than the panels are producing at the moment, then we can still be drawing power off the city’s main grid.
SCHOOLER: But Kellogg and other renewable energy advocates realize that much of Austin – and, for that matter, the United States – still isn’t turning to renewable energy. The price break Austin residents can get from signing up for Green Choice could help. But geologist Rich Bonskowski of the U.S. Department of Energy says that market competitiveness could be short-lived. Oil and gas prices that spiked after the hurricanes of 2005 are starting to level off. More importantly, Bonskowski says renewable energy users are benefiting from some unusual advantages.
BONSKOWSKI: The current use of renewables does include some subsidization of the rates that they are able to get, for example, when electricity is produced with renewables. There is a rate break there that makes it a lot more feasible and, without that, or without tax incentives, it wouldn’t really be at the level it is right now.
SCHOOLER: In fact, wind energy executives say the reason they’re locking customers into those desirable 10-year contracts is because they get a tax break for doing so. Even so, the American Wind Energy Association says the industry is coming off its best year yet in terms of installing new renewable energy equipment. And Austin Energy already has plans to buy more renewable energy. The utility is betting that even an adjustment in price won’t dull growing enthusiasm for “going green.” For Living on Earth, I’m Larry Schooler in Austin.
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