Austin Energy: A world-class environmental, power and economic engine?

Richard Halpin is founder of American YouthWorks, a member of the Interfaith Environmental Network Energy Action Team and co-chairman of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin Green Sanctuary Committee. He is the 2008 Ernst and Young/Silverton Foundation social entrepreneur of the year and a longtime community progress proponent.

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Richard Halpin

As a special request Richard invites you to “April Fuels Day: Alternative Vehicle Fair” -- 10 am to 2 pm, April 1st @ the First Unitarian Universalist Church 4700 Grover Ave. Austin, 78756 (512) 452-6168, Fun or the whole family. “See, touch, ooh and ahh over plugin and energy saving new cars and a slow bike race, model solar car races and more. Free.”


Richard’s letter to the editor (below) ran in the Austin American Statesman on March 21, 2012:

"The Austin Energy electric utility rate tornado coming toward our pockets is an opportunity to do better than the contradictory story that has unfolded so far. What if we lift the discussion from just the rate issues to becoming an exemplary public utility again?

There are millions of dollars in question. There are contradictory accounts of how much money Austin Energy has and how much it needs. It is clear we need the whole story. One undisputed asset is Austin Energy's many unrecognized but extraordinary — even visionary — employees.

We think of Austin as a world class city. Did you know that Austin Energy, our municipal-owned utility, used to be the model for many cities to copy?

Now other cities have moved onward. When Greensburg, Kan., was devastated by a tornado, its residents lost 11 people, most of their homes and everything they owned. It forced them to make change, to decide to reinvent themselves. In just two years, they have accomplished that. They have new jobs, new opportunities and a rebuilt city that is a clean energy producer of the first magnitude. People come from all over the world to see, touch and be in awe of the future city that a town working together created.

The German village of Wildpoldsried, using American solar and other innovative ideas, produces 321 percent more clean energy than it needs and earns back 4 million euros in annual revenue. At the same time, Wildpoldsried has seen a 65 percent reduction in its carbon footprint. 

What if Austin Energy becomes the most successful utility on the planet, the utility to copy?

Could it produce millions more in annual revenue by selling to a broader market and even lowering the rate to all its customers? Aren't we all the owners? Can't we work together like Greensburg and Wildpoldsried to accomplish this?

Now Austin City Council — also the Austin Energy board of directors — has created time to consider what to do next.


Some folks warn us that Austin Energy can't do much for fear of being deregulated. But breakthroughs and calculated risks are something we do well.

During this time, what if the council figures out and plans to cover Austin Energy's true financial needs? The Austin Energy audit is under way. If an audit is produced that is fair to all parties, we should know what the utility's basic rate needs to be.

With a basic, fair rate in place, the council could direct the city manager to come up with a brilliant, long-term plan we need.

Some folks want to get this done. But this should not be a hurried affair. Given a realistic period of review, what if we made this world-class utility vision a unifying force in Austin?

This could be better than South by Southwest — no traffic; year-round return on investment; a healthy, sustainable, moneymaking and clean enterprise that makes revenue from innovative energy production, sales and replication services while delivering electricity everyone can afford.

German and American models show us our people can generate power from the rooftops of their homes and businesses. 

Maybe the 60-day council and citizen Austin Energy review is a way to focus on the real prize

In this vision of Austin Energy, our city will thrive with new energy-related businesses and clean, sustainable, living-wage jobs. We can set the bar high. The simple way is to make this goal, this practical vision, known to our council. Speak up. Be clear. As owners, we want an Austin that leads by example and is world-class and brilliant when it comes to energy. You, as an owner, could contact your council members, and let them know you like this picture and want them to follow through.

Mention this on Facebook and Twitter. Ask your friends to call, email or tweet to Austin City Council members and share some passion for this unifying global vision. A sustainable, long-term affordable energy rate that is the result of a smart, world-class electric utility plan is doable. Don't just advocate — act as if you can make it so. Walk the talk. Install money- and energy-saving devices. Austin Energy has an excellent, free energy audit to get you started. We have seen the models, and right now, we are not one of them. With your participation, we could be."

© 2013 Interfaith Environmental Network