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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.

If you had your druthers, would everybody have photovoltaic panels on their roofs in this town, or do you think energy efficiency is more important? How do you keep your own home bills so low?
Wynn: Part of it is efficiency. I've moved into a green, high-rise residential tower, and so the nature of that construction is staggeringly efficient. I have floor-to-ceiling glass in every room, and there's never a lightbulb on in my house during the daytime.

You'd be dumb to--it's far better lit than in this office with lights out. Every room in the house has compact fluorescent lightbulbs. And it's a new home, so we have new appliances--Energy Star-rated refrigerator and dishwasher--that kind of thing.

So you tell people (they) get to drive around on West Texas wind, not Middle East oil. It resonates with a broader spectrum of people.

Meanwhile, Austin Energy has myriad programs for energy efficiencies. It can give you rebates on appliances, pay for extra insulation in your home, weatherize your doors and windows, supply solar screens--not panels. It has the most aggressive sort of rebate program in the country. Depending on the appliance's design, you can save 60 percent to 70 percent of the cost of installation.

At the same time, I don't run out and say everybody has to get solar panels right now--in part because I'm banking on, relying on, what I think would be the next generation of solar. So I'm not excited, for instance, about the city of Austin going out tomorrow and spending $150 million on some technology that's going to look pretty inefficient, I hope, compared to technology just a few years down the road. Ten years from now, we're going to wish we had a $150 million to buy what might be 10 times the generating power of a solar investment (today).

So, really, I talk about conservation and efficiencies first. Then I'll talk about renewable power. I talk about everything from changes in land use patterns to driving less to being more fit--this holistic image about how we just need to consume less and save money.

Has there been a lot of push-back coming from people inside the city or the business leaders? Climate skeptics aside--just people saying this costs too much?
Wynn: Yes, and they say it's too onerous on us vis-a-vis our competitors in the next city. So yes, there has been push-back. Some pieces have been more controversial than others.

The realtors left the reservation pretty early when I announced that we're going to start to have minimum energy efficiency standards--period--for all existing homes, whether you built it eight weeks ago or 80 years ago.

What that means is, we're going to have a requirement at point of sale--we can't mandate that somebody go in tomorrow and redo their house that they've been living in or going to live in for a long time. But we think we can have mandates at a point of sale.

Many, many, many people already spend a bunch of money on the new home as they buy it and move it, and they replace the kitchen or they enclose the garage or add a game room--not everybody, but that's common.

You can get energy efficiency mortgages today and especially rehab mortgages today. So we're going to require that when an existing home, office building or single-family home sells, the buyer's going to have to demonstrate some minimum energy efficiencies.

So it's another thing the realtor has to do, another piece of paper you've got to sign at closing. The realtor community howled, and some of them are still howling. And I find myself meeting with them frequently, and I give my climate protection plan presentation more than I thought I'd have to.

You're a big advocate of plug-in hybrids. But there's some controversy around the vehicles, even among environmentalists. Some people say if you're getting your power from a coal-fired plant, is it really cleaner?
Wynn: Yes, it is. We've done sort of a worst-case scenario analysis. If your utility provider is 100 percent pulverized coal, we can show that even with that, there is a modest improvement in reduction of emissions.

The vast majority of utilities have a complicated fuel mix; Austin Energy uses 35 percent coal, 30 percent natural gas, 29 percent nuclear, 6 percent wind--and the fastest-growing wind portfolio in the country, I got to believe. So as you get away from the relatively uncommon utility that is 100 percent pulverized coal, then the math extrapolates to incredible savings.

The Department of Energy did an estimate that, theoretically, 84 percent of all cars and light trucks on the American roads today--186 million vehicles--could be plug-in hybrids tomorrow without a single power plant being built. Not a single power plant, just based on the generating capacity that we have on off-peak power.

Because you're charging up at night.
Wynn: Right. In the meantime, it's a hell of a lot more efficient to try to control a single point source of carbon emissions than the 785,000 point sources we have in Austin, which is all the cars and trucks driving around. So even in worst cases, it's better.

From a national-security interest we have got a lot of support. From consumer advocates, (we've) got a lot of support because the cost of fuels continue to go up long-term. Let's save our consumers money, our economies money.

The environmental advocates are on board because of what this does for greenhouse gas emission reductions and urban air quality. There is a whole carbon dioxide debate, accompanied by analysis. Meanwhile, nitric oxide and sulphuric oxide are getting reduced--actual "pollutions" as some people refer to them. So I'm excited about it; I think it's inevitable.

Where do you see plug-ins going, if manufacturers start building them?
Wynn: You'll inevitably get (complaints) that you've got to get up and plug in your car. Or you've got to have an extension chord in your trunk. Well, what's likely to happen is that parking spaces are going to have embedded (plates) and charge up through inversion. The car is going to just pull over a metallic plate. Then you plug nothing in. You go to bed, and your car juices up.

And there's also talk of car batteries feeding back into the grid.
Wynn: I always had talked about that from the beginning, but usually, that was way down my list of how important this is and why we should be doing that. But more scientists and more technicians are elevating that a lot quicker as a reasonable, in the foreseeable future, outcome of having this massive storage capacity.

The thing I've always liked about this in Austin is that we have the fastest-growing wind portfolio in the country, up to 6 percent of energy production today and growing more than a percent a year. But our wind farms are in West Texas, and in West Texas, generally speaking, the wind blows more at night than during the day, so we have all this renewable energy at off-peak demand that we can't use.

So we spent two years thinking about spending $100 million to figure out how we can store wind power like compressed air in salt domes--all that. We were not that far away from spending a bunch of money on that kind of technology.

But here is probably a simpler answer. You have several hundred thousand mobile storage units. So you tell people they get to drive around on West Texas wind, not Middle East oil. It resonates with a broader spectrum of people.

How do you feel about plug-in hybrids versus ethanol and biodiesel fuels?
Wynn: I think alternative fuels are going to be critical for us--biodiesels and ethanols and others. And that's going to be, I think, a big part of our initial play here because in transportation--with our fleet and all the cars--it's going to be years before there are enough plug-in hybrids produced and on the road to have this impact. Whereas from a carbon emission and air quality standpoint, my instinct is that some of the fuel alternatives are easily a shorter-term piece of the puzzle. By the way, flexible-fuel plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles can run on biodiesel just as well as gasoline.

When you think of energy and Texas, you think of oil and gas. With all this talk of redoing the energy systems here, are you persona non grata with the mayor of Houston or other cities in Texas?
Wynn: No, in part because people realize that two-thirds or more of our oil consumption is foreign oil.

When I talk about American energy independence--I gave this speech at Oklahoma City with their mayor last year--I say we are going to be burning natural gas, using gasoline and oil for our working careers, at least.

But what if (we say) to the Texas oil man and the Oklahoma oil man, "You're it again. You are the domestic oil and gas supply, period, because now two-thirds of our energy (isn't needed)"? What if we've weaned ourselves completely off the Middle Eastern oil, and we have flexible-fuel plug-in hybrid vehicles, and we have hydrogen being developed, and we have wind power--all of the stuff happening?

We are on the path of burning all the gas until we deplete it in this country. That depletion seems to be sooner rather than later, and the Texas guys and gals know that.

There is lot more common ground than maybe folks initially think about when they hear about Austin doing some very aggressive climate protection and strange technologies and renewable energy.

My biggest partner, far and away, is the Texas Land Commissioner on wind farms in West Texas, and he is the poster boy for the oil and gas industry in Texas--in a good way. He is a good guy and trustworthy. So there is a lot of common ground when you start talking about American energy independence and national-security threats.