The TH Interview: Will Wynn—Austin's Green Mayor (Part Two)
In the second half of our face-to-face with Austin's mayor, Will Wynn talks about his part in the race to be America's greenest city, the decoupling of profits and pollution, and his vision for America getting it right (after we've exhausted every other option). ::TreeHugger Radio
Click here for Part One.
Image courtesy of Kim Lemaire.TH: US cities are coming out in the forefront as leaders in climate issues in America—a lot of people say in the vacuum of federal leadership. Do you see competition among American cities to carry that flag of "greenest American city?"
WW: There is great competition between the cities right now. And I think that's fabulous. Cities have been leading the charge and you're right, with no federal action, seemingly, and very little statewide action, it has been left to cities. Just in the last two, at most three years, has this sort of friendly competition come to be, and the US Conference of Mayors happens to be an organization that most of us are very active in.
So whether it is Greg Nickels in Seattle or Marty Chavez in Albuquerque, hopefully me here in Austin, Major Menino in Boston, Bloomberg in New York City, Mayor Diaz in Miami, Gavin Newsome in San Francisco, John Hickenlooper in Denver. We share best practices, but at the same time we're all generally competitive people.
Our cities are all strong popular cities. And so, yeah, there's great competition and the good news is we share ideas all the time. We visit each other's cities frequently. Our chiefs-of-staff and our environmental staff know each other very well and work together.
We learn from each others' mistakes and it's been very rewarding. So many cities have ramped up so quickly in part because there's a bunch of good information sharing.
The US Conference of Mayors is very effective. And you have conservative mayors in the south, in the heartland, doing some fabulous stuff. The stuff happening in Fayetteville, Arkansas or in Des Moines, or in Dubuque, Meridian, Mississippi. There is just some great stuff happening across the country and it's all scalable. It's been rewarding to be part of it and witness a lot of it.
TH: If you had to pick one city that you think is "green below the radar," that hasn't been highlighted as a green city, what you say that is?
WW: There's a bunch of them. There really are. And it's places you wouldn't expect. Ft. Wayne, Indiana really started working on telecommuting to try to drive down their vehicles miles traveled, which was their big problem when it comes to carbon emissions.
I promise you, cities all across the heartland and in the South where you wouldn't have expected. You think of Portlands and Seattles and San Franciscos and big college towns (Madison, Wisconsin and Austin, Texas), places like that. But, I promise you, small to mid-sized cities in the South and heartland all across this country are changing out their streetlights and signals to LED. They're coming up with their own solar initiatives for their individual. Energy efficiency is a big, big deal. Cities all across this country are trying to build urban passenger rail as fast as they can.
The trolley or streetcar is back in vogue for really good reasons, changing land use patterns and having a lot more people not have to drive alone in their car all day, every day. There are dozens and dozens of cities that are actively building some type of urban passenger rail, whether it's light rail or trolley or commuter rail to get people out of their cars and ultimately reduce their metro economy's footprint.
TH: You've been very active with the Conference of Mayors. What's this group doing to address climate change and energy issues?
WW: They're doing a lot. And it's been really rewarding to see this really remarkable transformation when it comes to environmental policies. I was first elected Mayor of Austin in 2003 and went to my first US Conference of Mayors Energy Committee meeting, and was amazed at what they were talking about in the Energy Committee.
They were talking about what they had been talking about for 40 or 50 years. And I essentially raised my hand and said I think we need to be talking about something completely different in the Conference of Mayors Energy Committee.
And low and behold they made me the chair of it the next year. And protection virtually overnight we went from talking about the federal subsidies for low-income heating oil policies in big northeastern cities—which is important, obviously, to some people—to talking about energy policy around carbon emissions and the concept of climate.
And so as I was trying to do that in the Energy Committee, you had Greg Nickels really ramping up a national municipal dialogue about Kyoto Accords, fundamentally crafting a US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement modeled after Kyoto for us to all take our proportionate piece of the responsibility. And it's just been remarkable to watch.
And so there's now a very serious standing task force, the US Mayor's Climate Task Force, which Mayor Greg Nickels co-chairs along with Carmel, Indiana republican Mayor Jim Brainard.
TH: Most people know Austin for its music and South by Southwest, but it's a really high-tech city and a thriving tech center. Is that playing into the green revolution in Austin?
WW: It is in the context that I get to go to our business community and say: Wait a minute, folks, there's going to be a lot of fortunes made with the technological advances that will be needed and will be complementary to climate protection policies.
And whether it's advances in renewable energy, whether its smart appliances, what that really means is computer chips and material sciences is going to play a huge roll in the reduction of energy consumed in this country and/or the reduction of carbon emissions for the amount of energy consumed. And fortunes are going to be made doing that.
And there are a number of tech centers in this country. Austin is very much one of them. Silicon Valley, the Seattle area, Boston area, Research Triangle in North Carolina, and those existing tech centers, if they're smart, are going to figure out how to get this disproportionate economic advantage from what's going to be happening with nanotechnology when it comes to changing the next generation of solar photovoltaic materials.
And so it's helped me in Austin to be able to talk dollars and cents and job creation and job growth when I'm also talking about trying to save the planet.
TH: What do you see as the highest potential that Austin can achieve as a city?
WW: The fact that we own our electric utility is a big deal. It's not uncommon; a number of cities own their utilities. Los Angeles owns theirs, for instance. But, I think, Austin Energy, our municipally owned electric utility, really can set the bar for utility operations both in renewable energy percentage and through conservation efforts and efficiency upgrades.
And so I'm excited that Austin has a chance to play a key role in driving the debate in this country about utility policy. And that is, for instance, the whole concept of decoupling utilities' profitability from revenue.
Right now the vast majority of this country is fueled by investor-owned utilities. Very predictably they want to sell you more electricity, not less, because their profits will be higher if they have more revenues. To the extent that through tax policy we decouple that, all of a sudden the companies that sell less electricity are more profitable.
And so if the dynamic is changed overnight, to where your stock is more valuable if your utility is selling less carbon-based electricity, watch what happens. It's perfectly predictable. And so I'm excited that there's this opportunity that Austin can play to show that utilities' financial interests doesn't necessarily mean you need to sell more electricity.
TH: And what about really big—not even this decade—for Austin or for Texas or for the US? When you dream and you project out into the future 100 years, what do you see that potential being?
WW: I see truly a non-carbon economy. At some point you run out of oil and gas anyway. But I see the ability to have a non-hydrocarbon based economy, essentially no emissions, no more nitric oxide, sulfuric oxide, mercury in the air. The only carbon dioxide in the air is there naturally as it has always been for millions of years.
And so it's cleaner. It's healthier. I'm excited about zero waste initiatives that many cities like Austin has for the future. I'm excited about the opportunity of mobility without emissions. I'm excited about the opportunity of a different economic wave based on all these dynamics.
We're way behind. I frequently quote Winston Churchill as saying that you can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they've thoroughly exhausted every other alternative. The good news about that, the optimist in me hears that quote and says: Well good, we're about out of alternatives. And so now it's going to be more obvious, easier, and I think, more cost effective for us to start to do the right thing.