Going Carbon Neutral: Austin Rocks

Share this article

Concerned about the impact of climate change, some state and local governments are aggressively pursuing carbon neutral status and adopting policies and strategies aimed at reducing their carbon footprint. Over the next few months, we will be discussing what it takes to attain this goal and highlighting cities and states that are leading the way.

Six cities always are among the top 10 green U.S. cities no matter who compiles the list: San Francisco, Berkeley, Austin, Seattle, Chicago and Boston.

Our Going Carbon Neutral series starts with Austin, the only city so far with the political will to formally commit to this goal and start the journey.

A bastion of progressive thought in the heart of Texas, Austin resolved in 2007 to make city facilities, vehicles and operations carbon-neutral by 2020 and move the city-owned energy utility and entire community toward this goal over time. This was a courageous move for a city that serves as the seat of power for a conservative state, which ironically is both the national leader in greenhouse gas emissions and wind energy generation.

Texas has no state income tax and does not provide financial incentives for conservation or alternative energy. However, the state imposes resource protections, like requiring water meters in multifamily housing to encourage conservation, and it is the first to get under way on smart grid infrastructure dedicated to moving electricity from wind farms to urban centers.

Because climate action is a municipal function, Austin is doing what the state cannot, suggests Claire Bonham-Carter, director of sustainable development, design and planning in the San Francisco office of global engineering/design firm AECOM, who is working on climate action plans (CAPs) for some California communities.

While there is limited control over private property, “key is the city must have complete control over how it [climate action process] operates, “ she says. She notes that Austin has the advantage of owning its power facility.

Between 2005 and 2007, the Austin City Council passed resolutions calling for reductions in energy and water use, vehicle miles traveled and waste generation. In 2007, the city adopted the Austin Climate Protection Plan (ACPP) to develop and implement a CAP targeting four areas: municipal operations, utility, homes and buildings, and community. Since then, city leaders have adopted supportive policies, including updating building energy codes to reflect the city’s carbon-neutral direction.

The ACPP has made progress on all fronts, according to ACPP Director Ester Matthews.

Her first priority was to establish a Climate Action Team composed of representatives from all city departments. An inventory of greenhouse gas emissions has been completed for all city departments, providing benchmarks for measuring progress. Meanwhile, team members are working on department-specific plans to attain the municipal goal, as well as greenhouse gas-reduction strategies specific to their roles across all four areas.

Starting at the Power Source

Austin Energy, the municipal electric utility, has capped carbon emissions at the 2007 level, with a goal of reducing greenhouse gases to the 2005 level by 2014 with conservation, clean energy and carbon offsets. It is currently determining how much energy the community will need by 2020, when 30% of energy generated must come from renewable resources, including 100 megawatts of solar capacity and 700 megawatts in energy savings. Citywide energy use right now ranges between 1,000 and 2,500 megawatts.

The utility already requires new energy coming online to be carbon free, but Matthews says that meeting the 30% goal will depend on technology.

“If we put solar on all buildings we might be able to do this, but we’d be bankrupt,” she says.

Of particular concern is the completion of CREZ (Competitive Renewable Energy Zones), a smart grid scheduled to begin delivering electricity from Texas wind farms to urban centers in 2013.

Austin Energy currently offers homeowners and businesses up to $50,000 in rebates for installing photovoltaic systems and provides financing through a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program.

The program, first modeled by Berkeley, Calif., enables home and building owners to install solar energy without upfront costs. Cities issue bonds to finance solar installations and assess property owners a special clean energy tax to repay the loan over 20 years with savings from electric bills. If the property is sold, the debt transfers to the new owner. States, however, must adopt legislation to allow cities to assess property a clean energy tax.

In the meantime, the utility, which is responsible for sustainable building activities, is focusing on energy efficiency and conservation, Matthews says, “because the cheapest energy is energy you don’t produce.”

Conservation & Efficiency

Austin Energy already offers a variety of incentives to encourage residents and businesses to increase energy efficiency and conservation, and it is enhancing standards, technical assistance and incentives for the Austin Energy Green Building Program.

For example, the utility is developing a Carbon Neutral Certification program for buildings, and it is updating arcane building and energy codes to reflect its goal. By 2015, all new single-family homes must be capable of meeting 100% of their energy needs with on-site generation of renewable energy, and all new buildings must perform at 75% energy efficiency.

Austin Energy also is enforcing a new Energy Conservation Audit and Disclosure Ordinance that requires homes 10 years old or older to have an energy audit when sold and disclose the energy rating to the buyer unless certain energy improvements have been made within 10 years. In addition, it requires an energy audit/rating for all non-industrial commercial buildings with 5,000 square feet or more and multifamily properties with five or more units, aged 10 years or older, unless ductwork has been upgraded or air conditioning systems replaced through the Austin Energy rebate program.

This policy, similar to one that recently became a state law in California, encourages building owners to improve a property’s energy performance to make it more desirable in the marketplace, explains Tony Liou, a principal at California-based Partner Energy, an energy consulting firm that helps building owners reduce energy consumption. He suggests that energy studies and disclosure are “the first steps in a natural evolution of government requiring sustainable upgrades” before buildings can change hands.

Smart Transportation

The city’s Transportation Department is converting its fleet of 30 Toyota Prius vehicles and 200 Smart Cars to electric and working on strategies to encourage employees to drive less. For example, Matthews says the city may implement an employee program similar to what Google does at its Seattle headquarters, including a neighborhood carpooling service paid for with pretax dollars.

The department also plans to ask Smart Car manufacturer Daimler to donate vehicles to launch a carshare program for downtown workers who commute by train, bus, bike or foot but may occasionally need to use a car. To encourage residents to buy electric vehicles, it plans to install electric charging stations downtown and at city facilities.

Austin is trying to keep the big picture in mind. The department is conducting a Strategic Mobility Survey to determine the type and scope of mobility infrastructure the community will need over the next 20 years.

This information will be used by the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the transportation planning board for the region, to develop CapMobility 2030, a mobility plan for roadway, bikeway, walkway and public transit system infrastructure to support population growth. The city’s population of 785,850 is expected to grow to nearly 1.056 million over the next 20 years, but population in the five-county region will nearly double, rising from about 1.753 million to nearly 3.128 million, according to City Demographer Ryan Robinson.

Last year, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the region’s public transit system, began implementing the All Systems Go Long-Range Transit Plan, opening the first 32-mile leg of Capital Metrorail service from downtown to Leander Station. The plan calls for nearly doubling the reach of intercity rail service and providing neighborhood shuttle service from rail stations.

A circulating system of streetcars to key destinations in and around the University of Texas campus is also under consideration. Additionally, the agency has proposed high-speed rail service between Austin and San Antonio and regional passenger service connecting cities west to San Antonio, east to Elgin and north to Georgetown to relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 35.

The plan also calls for launching Capital MetroRapid, a high-tech commuter bus service that operates like trains for express service. CapMetro has launched a green travel campaign to encourage Austin residents to use public transportation. It includes promotional activities and an online carbon-savings calculator so commuters can see the effect on greenhouse gas emissions when they choose public transit.

Mobility survey information will also be used to develop the Austin Comprehensive Plan Update, which will provide the city a 21st Century vision for long-term growth. The plan will connect land use with the city’s sustainability goals for the environment, economy and equity across the socioeconomic spectrum. Transit-oriented development (TOD) and high-density housing and mixed-use projects that create activity on streets will drive development in transit corridors and infill locations going forward, according Garner Stoll, assistant director of the Planning and Development Review Department, who is heading the two-year ACPU process.

“Sustainability is pivotal to the plan,” Stoll emphasizes. “The process allows the city to look at the challenges and bring everything together in an integrated fashion to decide what Austin will look like in the future.”

The city had already created an interim overlay plan in downtown to encourage TODs with a mix of uses around transit stations, which are already rising at rail stops along the newly opened red line. One TOD has been completed near downtown and three more are in the works.

Community forums composed of technical experts, community stakeholders and regional city partners will develop strategies and land use changes to meet short- and long-term goals. “We’re working closely with the Austin Energy staff to ensure climate protection and comprehensive plans are integrated,” Stoll says. This information will be used to create a roadmap for future growth aimed at creating a carbon-free lifestyle in existing neighborhoods, eliminating undesirable development and limiting sprawl.

Waste Reduction

In 2009, the city adopted a zero-waste ordinance, which calls for collection of organic food waste for composting, recycling mandates and incentives to encourage recycling and composting, including a Pay-As-You-Throw trash collection rate structure and composting classes. Waste Services will implement a Zero Waste Plan for city departments while developing a master plan for diverting 90% of the community’s waste from landfills by 2040.

Counting Carbon

ACPP is in the process of establishing a Community Climate Protection Committee composed of community stakeholders and technical advisors. Beginning in March, this committee will start an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions from activities community-wide and recommend short-term and long-term greenhouse gas reduction targets and strategies for achieving them.

In January, ACPP launched an online carbon calculator, which allows Austin Energy customers to insert their account number to learn their own carbon footprint. The calculator is part of the Go Neutral Plan, which will engage community members and businesses in various activities to conserve resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy, transportation, travel, recreation and other activities. This includes educating residents about the city’s climate change initiatives and providing opportunities for them to reduce their own carbon footprints.

The Go Neutral Plan also calls for promoting carbon neutrality among city visitors by providing mechanisms and incentives for reducing the carbon footprint of airport travelers, conventions, trade shows and festivals.

Austin is one of the first cities to ever attempt the road to carbon neutral, so there is no textbook or template to guide the way. Matthews admits there might be course corrections along the way but is confident that if the city stays on track, basing future decisions on the potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it will attain its goal.

“Austin Energy is doing that with its Resource Plan, and Fleet is trying to do that with its alternative fueled vehicle purchases,” she notes. “SMART Housing, electric vehicles, zero waste, methane generators at Hornsby Bend [composting center], best value purchasing, reclaimed water use — all of these individual efforts will drive Austin toward carbon reduction.”


See also:

How Green Is Your City? ISO Certification Helps Answer the Question

LEED No Longer Stops at Construction: Version 3 Checks Up on Efficiency

Will Smart Grid Benefits Be Limited by Dumb Buildings?

City Smarts: Tech Giants Cut Through Those Frustrating Municipal Inefficiencies

Cisco Pits San Francisco vs. Amsterdam in Race to 21st Century Sustainability

How Green Retrofits Could Save the World

San Jose Gets Creative to Help Homeowners Pay for Solar

Reaching for Sustainability in the Next Real Estate Cycle

Incentivizing the Green Build Up