Austin En­ergy should be hub of bur­geon­ing global clean en­ergy econ­omy

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION - Pike Pow­ers & MichAel e. web­ber LO­cAL cON­TRIB­u­TORS

The Amer­i­can-States­man’s July 2 ed­i­to­rial about choos­ing Austin En­ergy’s gen­eral man­ager noted that “Austin is big­ger and broader than just one in­ter­est group” and urged City Man­ager Marc Ott and the City Coun­cil to “con­sider all of Austin’s di­verse com­mu­ni­ties in mak­ing a de­ci­sion that will af­fect all cus­tomers and the rates we pay for power.”

We couldn’t have said it bet­ter. The choice of the next leader of our city’s elec­tric util­ity — Ott has since named Larry Weis, head of the Tur­lock Ir­ri­ga­tion District in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, as his choice — will cer­tainly af­fect all of the util­ity’s elec­tric con­sumers and the en­tire Cen­tral Texas re­gion.

But pit­ting en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists against busi­ness in­ter­ests as­sumes we have to choose be­tween the en­vi­ron­ment and a ro­bust econ­omy. One of Austin’s hall­marks is that we long ago gave up on that false choice: We know pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and in­vest­ing for eco­nomic pros­per­ity are the same thing.

With the right lead­er­ship at Austin En­ergy, our city and this re­gion can be­come the hub of the bur­geon­ing global clean en­ergy econ­omy. And when that hap­pens, the Austin econ­omy and Cen­tral Texas busi­nesses and ratepay­ers will ben­e­fit.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky dream: Econ­o­mists and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists agree that the clean en­ergy in­dus­try is the sin­gle largest eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity of the 21st cen­tury. (Le­gendary ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist John Do­err, an early in­vestor in Google and Ama­zon.com, calls the clean en­ergy in­dus­try the “mother of all mar­kets.”) En­ergy is a $1.3 tril­lion an­nual in­dus­try in the U.S., about $140 bil­lion of which is in Texas. A va­ri­ety of fed­eral and in­dus­trial tar­gets sug­gest that one-fifth of this in­dus­try will be trans­formed from to­day’s mix to a cleaner one in the next decade. Many of these clean en­ergy jobs — like retrofitting homes and in­stalling so­lar pan­els — sim­ply can’t be done over­seas. And Austin al­ready has key man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties, like He­liovolt and Ap­plied Ma­te­ri­als, not to men­tion a world-class re­search uni­ver­sity with a cen­tury of ex­pe­ri­ence and lead­er­ship in the en­ergy field. That means Austin has a multi­bil­lion­dol­lar clean en­ergy op­por­tu­nity ripe for the tak­ing.

So will Austin be a leader or a lag­gard in this new in­dus­try? To a large ex­tent, it de­pends on the lead­er­ship at Austin En­ergy.

Clean en­ergy means a lot more than wind tur­bines and so­lar pan­els. It means the in­te­gra­tion of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, soft­ware, wire­less tech­nolo­gies, home en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency retrofits and the com­puter pro­ces­sors that make them all work. If those sound fa­mil­iar, it’s be­cause Austin is al­ready an in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized leader in all of these ar­eas. That po­si­tion was earned through a long his­tory of busi­ness, gov­ern­men­tal, en­vi­ron­men­tal and aca­demic lead­ers work­ing to­gether.

But per­haps Austin’s biggest ad­van­tage is our pub­licly owned elec­tric util­ity. Austin En­ergy doesn’t an­swer to short-term stock mar­ket pres­sures that de­mand higher prof­its at the ex­pense of long-term eco­nomic ro­bust­ness. It an­swers to the Austin City Coun­cil, which in turn an­swers to vot­ers and ratepay­ers.

This means Austin En­ergy can take the long view for re­duc­ing con­sump­tion and hold­ing down costs (and thus elec­tric bills) and Austin vot­ers can en­cour­age Austin En­ergy to adopt strate­gies that are si­mul­ta­ne­ously en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble and eco­nom­i­cally ben­e­fi­cial to the en­tire com­mu­nity.

Austin En­ergy’s next man­ager needs to be in­vested in the vi­sion of rein­vent­ing our elec­tric­ity sys­tem with new tech­nolo­gies and rates that re­duce our con­sump­tion, clean up our air and give each of us au­ton­omy over our en­ergy use, all while achiev­ing bet­ter per­for­mance than be­fore with­out break­ing the bank. Do­ing so will put Austin in po­si­tion to tap the po­ten­tial of the new clean en­ergy econ­omy, ben­e­fit­ing all of us.

Austin is uniquely po­si­tioned to bring to­gether all the com­po­nents of this new in­dus­try and out­com­pete other states or coun­tries for clean en­ergy lead­er­ship. Austin En­ergy must be more than a ca­sual par­tic­i­pant, and its gen­eral man­ager will de­ter­mine the ex­tent to which it will lead the way.

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