Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Council Recap: Listening to the Community

"Retail Electricity Provider Procurement." That's the dry title of agenda item 7 in the December 11, 2023, Richardson City Council meeting. Richardson contracts with a retail electricity provider to purchase and pay for electricity used for all facilities, parks, pools, streetlights and traffic signals. The City spends $3 million annually on electricity, so we're talking significant sums.

City Manager Don Magner asked the City Council to authorize him to execute an electricity contract for a 9-year term (to get the lowest annual rate), with a base price to include 25% renewable energy (in response to the Council's own strategy of exploring environmental initiatives).

Councilman Ken Hutchenrider questioned the additional cost of a renewable energy component. Hutchenrider said, "Obviously there's the environmental impact about having renewable energy but other than that, ..., is there any other reason that we would want to?" Obviously, the environmental impact is not enough for Hutchenrider.

Hutchenrider then tried to play the reliability card: "Part of what caused the grid failure for the brownouts/blackouts was the fact that the renewable energy component of the grid was the component that kind of did not hold up." He didn't ask this as a question. He stated this as fact. In fact, although all energy sources were challenged during the February, 2021, winter storm, the biggest problem was that, according to Texas Tribune, "natural gas producers were unable to deliver enough fuel to power plants. At the same time, some wells were unable to produce as much natural gas due to the freezing conditions." All told, according to New York Times, "During the blackouts, the grid lost roughly five times as much power from natural gas as it did from wind." I'm surprised Hutchenrider didn't know this.

Magner diplomatically explained that the addition of renewable energy in the City's plan comes with no additional risk of power failure and is responsive to the Council’s own chosen strategy of exploring environmental initiatives. It could be that the Council, when wordsmithing its goals and strategies, looks for words that sound good, like environmental and sustainable (and transparent, a favorite of Hutchenrider's), without doing much to carry them out when it comes to votes on Council.

Councilmember Jennifer Justice gets it if Hutchenrider doesn't: "I'm in favor of the renewable energy component. I think, given the amount, it's worth it. Just going back to the word clouds that we've been seeing as part of our Envision Richardson process, the word sustainability is one of the biggest up there and it's one of the biggest that we're hearing, at least I am, from the community about what's important for our new city hall, our library, all those sorts of things."

Hutchenrider wasn't convinced. "I understand we have a component of the community that wants us to do this [increase use of renewable energy], but we also have a component of the community that wants us to keep their taxes as low as possible as well." Hutchenrider ignores the unknown expense of the collateral damage caused by carbon emissions. It's easy for Hutchenrider to put a dollar figure on transitioning the City to renewable energy. It's harder for him to put a dollar figure on *not* transitioning. It's a real cost, and we pay the price whether it shows up on our monthly electricity bill or in costs associated with global warming, like stronger hurricanes, forest fires, floods, and, yes, winter ice storms in Texas. We're all paying now for the delaying decisions made by governments before us.

Hutchenrider still wasn't giving up. He asked how we can be assured that a contract calling for 25% of the electricity be generated by renewable sources will lead to companies increasing renewable energy production? The simple answer is Econ 101. That's just how markets work. Changing our drinking habit from Bud Light to craft beers leads to more craft beer production without us demanding a written commitment from brewers. But Hutchenrider, as the president of a hospital, an industry where pricing often seems unmoored from the laws of supply and demand, might have a different understanding of how the economy works. Or he might have been grasping for (bad) reasons to vote against including a renewable energy component in the City's electricity purchases.

In the end, the Council voted unanimously to do as the City Manager asked, authorizing the City Manager to execute an electricity contract for a 9-year term with a base price to include a 25% renewable energy component. Even Hutchenrider voted for it. He didn't say why. Was he playing Devil's Advocate? He never hinted that was his game. Or did he just fold his cards, not wanting to be seen all alone voting NO? In any case, he didn't explain his YES vote, even with all the talking he did.

By the way, 25% renewable energy is insufficient to turn the ongoing catastrophe around. But that's a story for another day.

"One shows resistance.
Oil/gas versus clean advance.
Renewables win."

—h/t ChatGPT

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