Public Citizen Tom “Smitty” Smith Looks Back on a Life Well Lived

12.16.16

The appearance of Public Citizen Execu­tive Director Tom Smith at the November meeting of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club was not unusual in form. The man known universally as "Smitty" schmoozed with the group in the crowded back room of Scholz Garten, waited through the regular meeting business, and eventually walked to the speaker's platform to deliver a talk on the latest Texas and Austin developments in renewable energy. Smitty recalled, "the first time I ever lobbied ... with a bunch of Sierrans defending Barton Springs from balls of goo," and at least a few people in the room also recalled that battle.

"We're winning the war on coal," Smitty began, introducing the latest Public Citizen report on energy production in Texas, citing research that represented not only the environmental advantages of wind and solar, but the growing economic muscle of the once "alternative" energy resources. We've reached "the beginning of the end" of reliance on coal and other fossil fuels, he continued, noting the persistently low natural gas prices that have undermined the market logic of coal, the growth of wind resources, and his expectation that 12 of the 19 existing Texas coal plants will be retired by 2022, with the solar industry now the 26th largest in Texas.

Here in Austin, Smitty continued, the eventual closure of the coal-fired Fayette Power Plant has become imminent, not only because of its environmental consequences, but because his research reflects that Fayette is now losing about $30 million a year. (Austin Energy owns a one-third interest in Fayette.)

Moreover, the city of Austin has become increasingly committed to reducing its carbon emissions, with updated Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plans intended to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2030. Smitty also delivered a thumbnail history of the Texas environmental movement – against nukes, to protect local resources, and to fight climate change – and he credited his audience for providing the activist legwork. All of this was possible, he told the Sierrans, "because of the organizing we did in Austin and Texas."

It was vintage Smitty: the casual manner and good humor; the bar graphs reflecting resource and economic analysis, energy analytics combined with political commentary. Most especially, the optimism – the absolute conviction that with enough public spirit and hard work, all things are possible.

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