Austin Goes Carbon Neutral

By 2020, the Texas city expects to create as much renewable energy as it consumes, and it’s well on its way.

by / September 14, 2012
Austin, Texas

In 2007, the city of Austin set out to accomplish a lofty goal — become 100 percent carbon neutral by 2020.

With eight years until its self-appointed deadline, the city continues to make strides to not only reduce its energy consumption, but also — and perhaps most importantly — create a culture of sustainability and conservation among its 12,000 city employees and the larger metropolitan area.

“Everything has evolved since we initiated the plan in 2007, which has been an interesting part of the whole process,” said Zach Baumer, Austin’s climate protection program manager. “The City Council and the mayor have changed, but the city remains committed, and has raised the importance level of the resolution. It is becoming ingrained in the culture of the city.”

In 2012, the city checked off one of its milestones, which was to power all city facilities using renewable energy, and is now the No. 2 city on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Top 20 Local Government list of green power purchasers — ranked by annual green power usage.

Austin sells more renewable energy through a utility-sponsored, voluntary green-pricing energy program than any of the 850 other programs in the nation. City officials are quick to point out that Houston ranked No. 1 for purchasing 438 million kilowatt hour (kWh). However, that represents only 34 percent of the city’s energy usage. Austin’s purchase of 406 million kWh represents 100 percent of municipal energy usage.

Making the push to 100 percent renewable energy did come with a price, though: The Austin American-Statesman reported that using renewable energy cost an additional $8.5 million for the city during the first year.

While the fuel charge rose from roughly 3 cents per kWh to 5.7 cents per kWh with the renewable energy program, GreenChoice, the city is locked into that rate for the next 10 years, thus reducing its risk exposure to rising fossil fuel prices.

“It did cost more in the short term,” Baumer said, “but the analysis was done, and we expect it will save us way more over the long term.”

Given the tough budgetary climate for municipal governments, and the price sensitivity many households are facing, making the push to carbon neutral is going to be a delicate balance of sustainability and affordability.

“We’ve set some very ambitious policy goals for our utility as it relates to utilizing renewables,” said Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell during his 2012 State of the City Address. “As we move toward that goal — and as we transition to using more and more clean energy — we will always, always do so with affordability as core value.”

Thus far, though, the Austin community seems committed to the plan.

“The community keeps saying, ‘do it’ and we keep saying, ‘OK.’ Our citizens are going to hold us accountable, and there is constant pressure from the community, which is a good thing,” Baumer said. “There’s no question that climate change is real, so why would we not meet our commitments? It’s not just a question of ‘should we do it,’ it’s ‘we have to do it.’”

Convincing all city employees that energy conservation is a priority can be challenging, Baumer said, especially when they have important priorities of their own. For example, the fire department and EMS are going to place saving lives ahead of saving gas.

“We continue working to incorporate it into the organizational culture, because the kinds of things we’re changing have to go all the way through the system to every employee,” Baumer said. “We are constantly working on our outreach within the organization. We always try to tie what we’re doing back to innovation and sustainability.”

In addition to instilling an attitude of sustainability, specific goals for the city include converting its entire fleet of vehicles to renewable or hybrid consumption and achieving 700 MW of new savings through energy efficiency and conservation — both by 2020.

In 2011, the city emitted 183,000 metric tons of CO2, marking the fourth straight year of steady declines since the city’s climate resolution was introduced. In 2007, that number was nearly 300,000 metric tons.

As of 2011, 65 percent of vehicles used alternative fuels or were hybrid vehicles, up from 60 percent the year before.

That includes more than 200 gasoline/electric hybrids, more than 500 flex-fuel ethanol vehicles, more than 200 propane vehicles, more than 30 all-electric vehicles, and more than 1,800 diesel vehicles and equipment using B20 biodiesel blend. While the city doesn’t have as much control over outside contractors, such as the public transportation system, it is working with them to promote and encourage renewable fuels.

Since 2007, the city has increased purchases of E85 (ethanol) fuel to more than 220,000 gallons per year and B20 to more than 1.7 million gallons per year. In 2010, E85 and B20 replaced traditional gasoline and diesel purchases by 300,000 gallons and 2.4 million gallons per year, respectively.

The city also performs a life cycle cost analysis to ensure a certain vehicle makes the most sense over the long term.

“When looking to purchase a vehicle, we typically analyze four vehicle choices and compare them based on lifetime cost of ownership and environmental performance,” Baumer said. “The lifetime cost includes a 10-year time horizon, lifetime maintenance and fuel usage along with the up-front purchase price in our analysis. We also calculate lifetime [nitrogen oxide] and CO2 emissions for each vehicle. These are all compared, and the vehicle with the lowest cost of ownership and the lowest environmental impact wins.”

Though the goal is to become carbon neutral by 2020, part of that push will likely require the purchase of carbon offsets.

“Our approach is that we reduce our positive carbon use as much as we can, and then we offset whatever’s left,” Baumer said.

The purchase of offsets will fund a range of greenhouse-gas-reduction programs that over time will also help improve the environmental quality in central Texas.

There certainly will be infrastructure challenges, such as large construction vehicles, in which there is no viable electric or hybrid option at this point, and other large equipment, such as generators or refrigerants, that will continue to emit some greenhouse gases.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to minimize usage, and switch what we can. We are finding ways to increase efficiency, and all of that will help,” Baumer said.

The push for all city operations to become carbon neutral is just one component of the city’s larger climate protection plan, however. While it’s not necessarily part of achieving its goal of carbon neutrality by 2020, the city is working diligently with citizens and local businesses, as roughly 70 percent of Austin’s electricity is used by homes and businesses.

“We are working to inspire businesses to commit to the plan as well,” said Baumer. “We can only do so much as a city, but if you look at the million people who live and work here, they can make a large impact as well. We are always rethinking our public education programs.”

The city has created the Austin Green Business Leaders program, an ongoing program open to businesses of all sizes and all industries. The program’s central tool is the green business scorecard, which helps businesses assess and implement sustainability practices.

Companies earn points for taking actions listed in the scorecard, and depending on their score, can progress through silver, gold and platinum levels of recognition. After completing the scorecard, businesses are provided recognition and a toolkit to promote their company as an Austin Green Business Leader.

“I’ve often said, ‘What is good for our environment is good for our economy,” Mayor Leffingwell said. “It speaks to our values as a city that we have such vibrant and socially responsible businesses here in Austin, and these folks are setting an example in sustainability for businesses of all shapes and sizes to follow.”

The 2012 Austin Green Business Leaders include Fortune 500 companies, such as Dell and Whole Foods Market, as well as local independents such as Buenos Aires Café, and House+Earth, a building materials supply company.

“Not only does the Austin Green Business Leaders program provide an effective barometer for measuring the sustainability of a business’ operations, it also serves as an educational and motivational tool for implementing more sustainable actions,” House+Earth Principal Scott Kuryak said. “With the current scorecard, large corporations and small companies alike can participate on a level playing field, which should encourage companies of all types to participate.”

Though there is still much work to do, and there will likely be unforeseen challenges and obstacles, the city will remain committed to its climate plan through 2020 and beyond.

“The bottom line is that if we will proceed carefully at this crossroads,” Leffingwell said, “we can continue to benefit from a utility that’s a national leader on green energy and conservation; that helps attract sustainable economic growth to our area; that helps support our special quality of life; and that delivers reliable and affordable service.”  


Creighton Welch Contributing Writer