The TH Interview: Will Wynn—Austin's Green Mayor (Part One)


Austin Texas is a direct challenge to typical stereotypes about the American South. As the capital of the most polluting state, Austin has decided to flip the script and become one of the most progressive cities in the nation. Mayor Will Wynn has been instrumental in this, and he's the perfect man for the job. Born and raised in West Texas and graduating Texas A&M; with a degree in environmental design, he speaks about climate change in the same twangy matter-of-fact way as another southern man with a fondness for cowboy boots, Mr. Al Gore.
Wynn has helped Austin become a national leader in wind power, biodiesel, plug-in hybrid cars, and more. He was a keynote speaker at the this year's Sustainable Operations Summit in Monterey, California, which is where TreeHugger Radio caught up with him. ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Special thanks go to CraigMichaels, the organizer of the Sustainable Operations Summit, for arranging this interview. Image credit: Caleb Miller.

Also check out: The TH Interview: Roger Duncan, Plug-in PartnersTreeHugger: So what's new in Austin on the green front?

Will Wynn: Well, Austin continues to be the fastest growing of the big cities in the US, which is a double-edged sword. With that comes economic opportunity, but it can be challenging on the environmental protection side.

But at the same time, I think, Austin has this responsibility to be one of the leading cities in America regarding, broadly speaking, the green movement. And so we have the chance to show that you can still grow, you can still have a strong economy, while at the same time doing the right thing environmentally.

TH: Before most people knew what plug-in hybrids were, Austin was trying to work this into the mechanism of the city. Now plug-ins are huge and the major automakers have decided that this is the track they want to go down.

How is this coming along? And are we going to see plug-in hybrids zipping around the streets of Austin pretty soon?

WW: Well, we have a handful of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in our fleet now. But they're the conversions, where you spend, sadly, $6000, $8000, or $10000 to convert an existing hybrid for plug-in purposes.

Two and a half years ago, with the National Press Club in DC, I kicked off our Plug-in Partners national campaign. The goal was to get other cities, other utilities, just more people to help us demonstrate to the car manufacturers that this market would in fact exist if they would mass produce them and bring the delta, the cost differential, down.

And we've met face-to-face with all the major car manufacturers. And there was a little bit of hesitancy early, a little bit of skepticism. But within a year or so, they all seemed to start making real inroads when it comes to their R&D; spending.

And I look forward to my next car being an assembly line mass produced plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. It has fantastic positive ramifications for this broad challenge to stop global warming and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, help with urban air quality, just help consumers with the high cost of gasoline, and the economy. So it's a win, no matter how you look at it.

TH: Plug-in hybrids and full electric vehicles are an extension of the power grid. How does that work?

WW: The whole concept, the challenge or opportunity is: How do you connect the transportation sector to the energy sector, and have this grid connectivity? Because remember, a bunch (it's not enough) but a bunch of our existing national portfolio of electric generation is in fact renewable.

And so every time we have a single vehicle mile fueled by electricity, it's disproportionately lower in carbon emissions because of electricity generation. And the fact of the matter is that the USDOE did a report last year that said if 80 to 85 percent of all cars on the road today were plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, we wouldn't have to build a single new power plant because of existing capacity and off-peak load opportunity.

At Austin Energy, for instance, we're about nine percent wind power. But in Texas, the wind actually blows more at night than it does in the daytime, when it's off our peak load. So, we have all this renewable electricity that we could be storing in hundreds of thousands of vehicles overnight. And then have them driven to work and back, and never burn a drop of gasoline. And I like the idea of having our cars fueled on West Texas wind, not Mid-Eastern oil.

TH: Part of what has, I think, made this possible is Austin Energy, which is a unique power utility as far as US energy sources go. Tell us about that.

WW: Well, Austin Energy is our municipally-owned electric utility. Not all cities own them. But it's an incalculably valuable policy asset, and an economic asset as well. Ultimately the citizens own Austin Energy. And so as mayor, I serve as chairman of the board of the ninth largest public power utility in the US.

And again, it's an economic powerhouse for us financially. But, more importantly, it's this policy opportunity. And so we have a very, very progressive utility when it comes to, broadly speaking, environmental protection.

Everything from our renewable energy portfolio is growing faster, I think, than any of the other 616 utilities public or private in this country. And we have just really aggressive energy efficiency programs: solar rebates, weatherization upgrades.

We will pay you not to buy our product. We will weatherize your home. We will give you CFLs. We'll give you solar screens. We'll pay you $4.50 a watt to install solar panels on your roof. We'll give you a programmable thermostat. We literally are in the business of trying to not have to sell more electricity. And it's very rewarding.

It's very rewarding to work within an industry that isn't known for environmental protection. It's very rewarding to get to play that role of showing other utilities and other policy makers that you can have a very successful economy. You can have a very financially stable utility, and at the same time you can not only help your consumer with lower electricity costs, you can do the right thing for the environment.

TH: What else is Austin doing to encourage its own citizens to green up their lives?

WW: Well first and foremost, we make it easy for citizens to purchase green power. We have a program called Green Choice. We have about 10,000 households now and about 500 companies purchase 100 percent of their energy use from our Green Choice program, mostly West Texas wind farms, but a little bit of solar, a little bit of biomass.

One, you just go online and click and/or check a box on your fuel bill, and we'll change your generation for your energy consumption.

Two, we have a number of aggressive rebate programs. Everybody, no matter your income level, we will give you a rebate if you buy energy efficient appliances, Energy Star appliances. So, my washing machine at home and my dryer and my dishwasher, I got rebates from Austin Energy as would anybody.

We have been recycling older, pre-1993 refrigerators. We just recycled our ten-thousandth refrigerator. Curbside recycling, and then we pay you $50 to help you upgrade your new refrigerator. And of course it dramatically drives down your electricity costs, because new refrigerators are so much more energy efficient than something built before 1993.

And then we do the right thing for our landfills, and we completely dismantle the refrigerators. We now have taken out about 3,700 pound of refrigerant.

And we're taking them off the grid, as opposed to somebody taking an old refrigerator and just plugging it into their garage and putting beer or venison in it. Now we're actually getting it off the grid and reducing our peak load.

And so it's about making it efficient and more cost effective for folks who want to do the right thing, both for the environment and for their monthly electricity bill.

Tags: Austin | Cities | Clean Energy | Coal | Electricity | Electric Vehicles | Energy Star | Oil | Pollution