Utility candidates tout experience, stress need to watch green costs
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.
Larry Weis, one of two Austin Energy finalists to meet the public Wednesday night, spoke of his background in renewable energy.