Util­ity can­di­dates tout ex­pe­ri­ence, stress need to watch green costs

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO&STATE - By Marty Toohey AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN STAFF

The two men hop­ing to run Austin En­ergy met the pub­lic for the first time Wed­nes­day night and pledged to care­fully con­sider costs as they carry out a city plan to ag­gres­sively in­vest in re­new­able en­ergy.

Larry Weis and David Wright, both of whom run smaller util­i­ties in Cal­i­for­nia, said their ex­pe­ri­ences with the Golden State’s green en­ergy man­dates, which are sim­i­lar to Austin’s, have taught them how to strike a bal­ance that is some­times dif­fi­cult to find.

That bal­ance will be im­por­tant at Austin En­ergy — ar­guably the city’s most im­por­tant depart­ment, with as­sets around $1.3 bil­lion — as it heads into an un­cer­tain time in the en­ergy busi­ness and, ac­cord­ing to pre­vi­ous Gen­eral Man­ager Roger Dun­can, is fac­ing bank­ruptcy in a few years if it does not re­think its ba­sic busi­ness as­sump­tions.

Weis, head of the Tur­lock Ir­ri­ga­tion District, told a crowd of about 100 that he started in the late 1970s work­ing on re­new­able-en­ergy is­sues in

Sno­homish County, Wash., near Seat­tle, then moved to the poles and wires side of the busi­ness, even­tu­ally wind­ing up in Cal­i­for­nia.

He said a bal­ance be­tween cost and en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship can be struck, but only if green-en­ergy pur­chases are care­fully timed to a city’s in­creas­ing en­ergy needs. Weis em­pha­sized that he wants to move the city away from coal, which now gen­er­ates about a third of Austin’s elec­tric­ity and emits gases that many cli­mate sci­en­tists say con­trib­ute to global warm­ing.

And “as far as new nu­clear (pur­chases) go, I’m not go­ing to touch it,” he said.

Wright, the gen­eral man­ager of the River­side Pub­lic Util­i­ties Depart­ment, said that his work ear­lier in life as an ac­coun­tant gives him the back­ground to an­a­lyze the trade-offs be­tween en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and cost.

He said that when he took over at River­side five years ago, he man­dated that all new en­ergy come from re­new­able sources, and said his in­cli­na­tion is to in­vest as heav­ily as fea­si­ble in en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency pro­grams.

He noted that Texas is one of the least en­ergy-ef­fi­cient states in the coun­try. But, he said, “one of the best things I saw in Texas, and in Austin in par­tic­u­lar, is there has been a care­ful anal­y­sis of the costs” of re­new­ables. “In Cal­i­for­nia, there have been so many plans that there hasn’t been much anal­y­sis on the im­pact to cus­tomers.”

Wright said that if con­crete num­bers are pre­sented to the pub­lic, a con­sen­sus will emerge about steps Austin En­ergy should take.

Mark Washington, the city’s di­rec­tor of hu­man re­sources, has said City Man­ager Marc Ott plans to make a de­ci­sion on whom to hire in a mat­ter of days. But City Coun­cil mem­bers have said they are will­ing to sup­port start­ing the search over if there are any doubts about Weis and Wright.

Larry Weis leads ir­ri­ga­tion district in Cal­i­for­nia.

David Wright runs River­side util­ity depart­ment.

Ralph Bar­rera

Larry Weis, one of two Austin En­ergy fi­nal­ists to meet the pub­lic Wed­nes­day night, spoke of his back­ground in re­new­able en­ergy.

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