In 2007, Austin made the bold decision to use 100 percent renewable resources by 2012 as part of its climate action plan. By October 2011, it had achieved this ambitious goal. Read on to discover how America's most sustainable city did it.
Austin has a long history of showing other American cities what sustainable solutions are possible. In 1982, when few others considered eco-friendly measures, it announced its first energy efficiency initiative. In 1991, it became the first U.S. city to launch a green building scheme. Just four years later it unveiled its first wind program. So it seemed only natural for the Texas city to pave the way again in 2011, when it became the largest American city to operate entirely on renewable resources.
Austin knew it was moving toward a more renewable model, so in 2005 it set out to educate its people about the changes ahead. The U.S. Department of Energy's Solar America Cities program worked with Austin Community College and local power provider Austin Energy to create the school’s renewable energy curriculum.
Hundreds of students enrolled in the community college course. One of them was Shayna Lee, a waitress and a mother of four whose studies led to an internship at Austin Energy.
"After working here, where this is already happening — and there is so much more planned for the future — I would not want to be anywhere else,” she said in 2010.
The Texas Power to Choose program deregulated the state's energy industry and allowed the residents to select their preferred electric company and program. The scheme was developed to give more Texans access to cheaper electricity plans, but Austin residents rejected these in favor of green energy initiatives.
It might seem strange to residents of other cities who'd rather choose electricity based on price, but Austin's youthful demographic are happy to invest in the environment, with many spending between 15 and 25 percent more on their power bills. Austin also doesn't depend on fossil-fueled power plants like some other U.S. cities, so its residents don't feel the same impetus to support them.
Austin Energy has created more renewable energy than any other American provider during the last decade. All of Austin's public buildings, including its airport and water treatment plants, run on green power. By 2020, it's expected that Austin Energy will obtain 35 percent of its energy supply from renewable sources, including West Texas' many wind farms.
Austin Energy knew transparency was the key to getting customers on its side. It achieved this by contracting a batch of wind energy, offering customers a price proportionate to this deal amount. Customers pay a fixed cost over the life of the batch, content in the knowledge that they won't be slugged with sneaky extra fees. They know exactly what they're paying for ahead of time and why.
"It gives them a logical way to view renewable energy. It says we're trying to grow a renewable energy portfolio component and here's how you can assist. We're not asking you to pay six dollars and we'll do a couple of panels of solar energy,'" Ed Clark of Austin Energy explained. "We're giving you something you can watch and see how it turns out. I think that has been a big difference between Austin and other cities, and why we've been able to continue to build wind power."
Wind power might be the key to Austin's renewable success, but solar power is a vital supporting player. Austin Energy has a 30 MW solar plant, which currently creates electricity valued at 16.5 cents per kWh. By 2020, the Texan power provider plans to expand its solar business to at least 200 MW. This would provide enough solar energy to power 34,000 Austin homes.
Austin residents also enjoy hefty rebates when adopting solar power. Cashbacks from energy providers, local incentives, and federal tax credits can see Austin homeowners spending around the quarter of the costs of solar installation. These benefits aren't offered to residents of many other Texan states, let alone the rest of the nation.
For the planet's sake, we can only hope that other American cities follow Austin's eco-friendly example.