MACRO: What economic activities have and continue to shape energy transition planning and practice in this setting? How do sovereignties (federal, state, municipal) intersect, overlap, and resist each other?

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James Adams's picture
May 21, 2019
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           Texas is the highest energy consuming state in the second highest energy consuming nation in the world (EIA 2017). In fact, Texas has led the US in energy consumption rates every year since 1960, when the Environmental Information Administration started keeping track. Texas also has a long history and reputation as an energy producer and is currently the nation’s highest producer of crude-oil, natural gas, and lignite coal, and accounts for 30% of the United States’ total oil refining capacity (EIA 2017). On the other hand, Texas has recently become a world competitor in renewable energy. This has been achievable in part due to Texas’ unique state autonomy in concern to energy production and distribution, granted by the fact that Texas’ is the only electric grid in the US that does not incur federal regulation as it does not cross any state boundaries.

            Within Texas, Austin has shown a sustained commitment to developing its renewable energy infrastructure. Beginning with its innovative GreenChoice program in the late 80’s, Austin has been among the most fervent of US cities leading the charge for renewable energy integration. In the 1990’s, when Texas passed legislation to deregulate its energy market, Austin was one of the few Texas cities to retain control of its municipal utilities. By abstaining from deregulation, Austin maintained a higher capacity to alter its resource mix in accordance to the needs and desires of local residents. Today, Austin Energy the 8th largest publicly owned utility in the US. Austin’s utility also has strong connections with local university. The city’s clean energy initiatives receive substantial support from the University of Texas, whose Energy Institute is at the cutting edge of energy challenges and opportunities. Within this institute, UT’s Webber Energy Group and Pecan Street Inc. are particularly influential local actors, researching clean-energy initiatives such as the newly launched Austin Shines Program, which tests performance and efficiency of multiple scales and of solar plus storage combinations.

           Austin’s lack of a navigable river, precious metals, fossil fuels, and richly productive farmland have resulted in the city developing its higher education, technology, governmental, and cultural industries. The tech-side has been both a blessing and a curse for Austin’s environmental movement. “Smart Growth” emerged as a prominent rhetoric in the mid-to-late 1990’s and continues to influence Austin’s development to today. Due in part to the fact that Austin has this specialization in technology, plus a population with a recognized commitment to renewable energy, Austin was chosen as the site of a federally funded initiative, Austin SHINES, to test the efficiency of solar-plus-storage systems and various scales.

            Currently, 31% of Austin’s resource mix comes from renewable energy sources, compared to 10% for Texas as a whole and 13% for the US more broadly (Austin Energy 2017). Austin has numerous incentives to reduce energy consumption, as well as optional smart devices to help increase efficiency and enable demand response (which helps insure grid security). The city’s GreenChoice program was the first of its kind, which offered customers the opportunity to pay a premium to know that they are buying renewable energy rather than energy produced from nuclear or fossil fuels.

The Texas grid is managed by the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) which is located in Austin. This regulator is also in charge of keeping the grid load at acceptable levels and to generate prices and keep up with the wholesale and retail markets.

Though the City of Austin has a history of strong environmental policies, the state has notoriously strong ties to the oil and gas industry. Thus, developers have managed to use the state to get around Austin’s city legislation (Swearingen 2010).