Austinites should fight for efficient energy

Travis Knoll

On Oct. 4, the LBJ School of Public Affairs held a symposium titled “Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategies: A Capital Area Symposium,” addressing the effects of climate change, chief among them water shortages and how they relate to urban development. 

Beyond water concerns, the conference organizers hoped the forum would put pressure on Austin’s city government to take more concrete steps toward environmentally-friendly policy. One thing was clear: Whatever students think about climate change and its causes, we must pay attention to the issue. Because for our generation, climate change is here to stay.

Austin in particular has work to do. Though Austin is addressing climate change through energy efficiency — according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Austin ranks sixth in the nation for energy efficiency, mainly due to its green-friendly building codes — the city ranks as one of the highest per-capita water users in the nation. 

Part of this may be because of the dry environment in the state — according to Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at the University’s Bureau of Economic Geology, Texas is vulnerable to drought periods due to a low water storage rate. Evaporation also makes transporting water efficiently difficult. 

At the symposium, Steve Adams, program adviser for climate adaptation of the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities, warned that energy-intensive solutions to the water crisis, such as desalination, actually increase carbon emissions, possibly accelerating the rate of climate change. However, investing in renewable energies could reduce emissions and provide clean energy to tap new water sources.

That said, renewable energy is still expensive. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2016,  wind power will cost $97 per megawatt hour and $210 for solar. Natural gas costs $66 per megawatt hour, but fracking is water intensive and its effects on the environment are still not completely known. 

So with limited options, here do we start, and what can we as students do?

Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas division, believes highlighting Texas’ renewable capacity and mobilizing students is key. While Smith pointed out that San Antonio is further along than Austin in the percentage of energy it gets from renewable sources (11 percent according to San Antonio’s City Public Services compared to Austin Energy’s 10 percent), he highlighted Austin’s technology boom, which advances technologies like smart meters and inverters. 

Austin’s long-term goals are more robust than San Antonio’s. Austin hopes to provide 35 percent of its needs from renewable sources, compared to San Antonio’s 15 percent, by 2020. Smith attributed these ambitious standards to a green city council dating back to the 1970s in which student activists vigorously campaigned for environmentalist candidates. Smith believes that students can and should mobilize again. Smith asked youth “to fix the problems we all created.” I partially agree.

Patrice Parsons, director of external affairs for Local Governments for Sustainability, proposed a more inter-generational approach. Parsons also acknowledged that her time in state politics has taught her that limited government budgets mean that stakeholder groups from all sectors of society must have an interest in addressing climate change.

As students we need to learn from all three speakers. We must pressure our government to affect policy change, but we cannot expect significant shifts unless we convince older generations  that they can own the solutions to the crisis as well as the blame.

 Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.