In the heart of Texas, a mayor goes 'green'

Will Wynn, the mayor of Austin, is on the vanguard of defining what a green city can be. Photos: Austin builds on green concepts

When it comes to global warming, Austin, Texas, Mayor Will Wynn is acting locally.

Despite being in a state closely tied to the oil and gas industry, Wynn is on the vanguard of mayors tackling climate change.

The city has proposed drastic cuts in its greenhouse gas emissions and, through its close work with municipal power company Austin Energy, is an active advocate of sustainable energy. Austin boasts the country's first city-level green-building program and has been able to offset 600 megawatts' worth of power plants through energy efficiency.

And the city is pushing for more. It has aggressive goals in carbon emissions reductions through targets in biofuels, clean energy, plug-in hybrids and green buildings.

Through his commitment to combating climate change, Wynn--a trained architect and former real-estate developer--has become something of an energy geek.

He's up to speed on the latest energy technologies and has committed his city to adopt them. And he leads by example: he walks to work and boasts about how low his home electricity bills are.

At the Clean Energy Venture Summit last week in Austin, the city hosted a , where Wynn spoke to CNET about energy technology and policy.

Q: You want Austin to be carbon-neutral by 2020.
Wynn: Yes, from the city's operations.

Is that realistic? How are you going to do it?
Wynn: Well, it's aggressive, but we're well on our way. I'd say the biggest challenge we're going to have both with our operations and with our metro economy is transportation. We own a bunch of vehicles, and a bunch of them are heavy pieces of heavy equipment.

From the metro economy standpoint, we barely have a genesis of passenger rail service coming next year. That's going to be very modest. And when your population is growing at about 3.5 percent a year for 100 years, and you're a car-dependent society, as we disproportionately are here in Texas--and even as Austin is within Texas--then fleet and transportation is going to be our biggest challenge, in my estimation.

Which technologies and approaches offer the biggest bang for the buck, both for the city's operations and its citizens?
Wynn: I'm not ashamed to say the Austin Climate Protection Plan (click for PDF) gets out ahead of the market on a couple of aspects. That is, we're having to bank on--cross our fingers--technology advances.

Frankly, to have zero net energy-using single-family homes within the next 10 years, you're going to have to have better material science. You're going to have to have probably the next generation of solar technology. So we're having to sort of roll into the plans some assumptions about how technology is going to help us.

Meanwhile, we'll need smart appliances. There's going to be a bunch of money made in this country, and across the planet, when it comes to technological advances on energy consumption. That includes these very, very smart appliances--which are in direct contact with the utility--that can buy electricity when it's cheapest, when it's less polluting. Particularly as we likely have carbon taxation and things like that.

Are you becoming a bit of an energy geek because you've had to learn about different technologies?
Wynn: Well, it's funny. I was telling somebody the other day I think my learning curve is steeper right now than it has been in the seven years I've been in office. I like that when I wake up every morning, I know that I've learned something really interesting last week and I'm going to learn something even more interesting this week. I'm heading off to New York tomorrow morning to go to the big global C40 Large Cities Climate Summit. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has me speaking to the mayors of the 40 largest cities on the planet tomorrow and Wednesday.

Your office works closely with Austin Energy, a municipal power company. How does that figure into your climate protection program? Does it allow you to invest in long-term projects?
Wynn: It allows us to do, from a public-policy standpoint, very important things when it comes to conservation, efficiencies and renewables. Meanwhile, it's important because we're doing that stuff, and I get to say to some of the skeptics--the naysayers, or some of the people who still don't want us to have a monopolized, municipal utility in this state--"wait a minute, look at our reliability standards."

We have probably the fastest-growing metro economy in the country, let alone the state. We're delivering all the power needs for that growing economy with conservation, efficiencies and renewables.

We spend a lot of money on conservation efforts--we pay people not to buy our product; it's not a real common business model. By doing so, our bond rating continues to go up. So Wall Street likes our utility more today then it did even five years ago, at a time when we have, as a composite, probably the most aggressive, progressive set of conservation efficiency policies in the country.

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