Austin Energy should be hub of burgeoning global clean energy economy
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.