Wind turbines and solar panels were novelties 10 years ago; today, they are everyday parts of America’s energy landscape. Energy-saving LED light bulbs cost $40 apiece as recently as 2010; today, they cost a few dollars at the local hardware store. Electric cars and the use of batteries to store excess energy on the grid seemed like far-off solutions just a few years ago; now, they are poised to break through into the mass market.
Virtually every day, there are new developments that increase our ability to produce more renewable energy, apply renewable energy more widely and flexibly meet a wide range of energy needs, and reduce our overall energy use – developments that enable us to envision an economy powered entirely with clean, renewable energy.
The last decade has proven that clean energy technology can power our homes, businesses and industry – and leaves us poised to dramatically accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels. Here in Texas, we produce more than seven times as much wind power and 220 times as much as solar power as we did in 2007. With renewable energy prices falling and new energy-saving technologies coming on line every day, we should work to obtain 100 percent of our energy from clean, renewable sources.
The Austin city council will consider a proposal on Thursday to move us closer to this goal. Over a seven month period, a stakeholder group representing businesses, low income customers, environmental groups and others met to attempt to reach consensus on how best to advance towards a clean energy future. Nobody got everything they wanted, but their recommendations represent important progress towards a clean future that shouldn’t be discounted. An increase of the renewable energy goal to 65% by 2025 (up from 55%). Getting out of the dirty Fayette coal plant and Decker gas plant by 2022. All while keeping our bills within affordability goals and with broad consensus from stakeholders.
It’s critical to our health and environment that we take these steps. Especially in the absence of federal leadership on climate solutions, it’s up to cities - which produce 40% of greenhouse gas emissions – to fill the void and lead by example. In 2007, Austin adopted a resolution calling for our city to lead the nation in climate solutions. We’ve done incredible things for clean energy, but now our leadership is being eclipsed by other cities. 37 cities across the US, including San Jose and Salt Lake City, have committed to get to 100 percent renewable energy.
The city council should adopt the workgroup recommendations but also set a goal to get 100% renewable electricity by 2035, which follows the recommendation of the US Conference of Mayors. And by 100% renewables, I don’t just mean carbon-free - I mean also not renewing our contract with the South Texas Project nuclear plant when it comes up for renewal in 2027. The danger of nuclear power is too close to home.
And as we move to 100% renewables, we should particularly emphasize local solar energy. According to a 2009 Austin Energy study, Austin has 142 million square feet of rooftops suitable for solar. If we put solar on all those roofs – and we should – we could generate 2,446 megawatts of clean, solar energy. But according to Environment Texas’ most recent survey of cities, Austin has just 31 megawatts of solar on rooftops here in Austin – a little more than 1% of our potential and placing us just 16th in the country for local solar. We need to expand the local solar program, including creating an initiative to allow residents to host solar panels on their roofs for Austin Energy at no cost to them, as San Antonio is already doing successfully.
Austin is doing great things, but the climate crisis dictates that we must do much more. With the effects of global warming becoming more prevalent each year, the sudden emergence of clean energy technology could not come at a better time. In order to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, the shift away from fossil fuels must be rapid, and must take place throughout our energy system, changing how we power everything from our homes to our commutes to our industry. The progress of the last decade provides tantalizing evidence that, with the right effort, this rapid shift is possible.
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