Austin Energy: Demonstrating The Art Of The Achievable


Austin Energy Highlight with Annemarie Diaz

Although Austin Energy represents only 4% of the total load represented within the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the municipal utility has always punched well above its weight, standing out for decades as a leader in the renewables space and customer programs supporting renewable energy and energy efficiency. Indeed, it was promoting energy efficiency as far back as the early 1990s, and was one of the earliest utilities to supply renewable energy to its customers, launching its GreenChoice program in the year 2000.  

Since then, directed by Austin’s City Council, the utility has continued to increase its renewable and efficiency targets.

In a recent conversation, Annemarie Diaz, TREIA Board Member and Energy Development Program Manager with Austin Energy outlined some of Austin Energy’s current targets. These include developing 200 MW of local solar by 2025 (with 10 MWs installed by the end of this year), offsetting 65% of load with renewables by 2027, and accessing 100% carbon-free generation by the year 2050.

Although some might consider that an aggressive target, it’s also a feasible one. And the utility is already well on its way.  Consider the following:

Austin Energy’s electricity portfolio was already 60% carbon free as of the end of 2017.

It is engaging with the local community, making 3.2 MW of community solar available to residential customers who cannot install systems on dwellings.

The utility has supported over 6,000 customers to install solar energy systems on their homes, and is looking for ways to make solar available to customers in multifamily dwellings.

How much efficiency in 2017?

Its efficiency and demand response goals are no less lofty. In 2018, the utility plans to achieve over 46 MW of energy efficiency and demand response, adding to the nearly 660 MW achieved since 2007 and well on its way to a 2025 objective of 900 MW.

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Such achievements can only occur when leadership and institutional culture communicate clearly and provide the requisite resources and support.  

Diaz indicated that the utility recently undertook an ambitious planning effort to develop a new strategic plan to achieve the company’s vision to drive customer value in energy services with innovative technology and environmental leadership. This new vision puts the focus on achieving customer value by leveraging existing and emerging technology and maintaining our environmental leadership. With the current rapid pace of change, Diaz observed it is important to consistently refer to the plan and use it as a north star, rather than have it “sitting on the shelf.”

Like many utilities and organizations, we are still working to break down our internal silos. Achieving our vision requires us to do just that, and have everyone playing from the same playbook.  The organizational vision and goals established in our strategic plan are helping us get there. It has been something employees have really embraced.”

In addition to renewables, efficiency, and demand response, Austin is wading into the relatively new domain of energy storage, and has been working with the Department of Energy on its SHINES program (short for Austin Sustainable and Holistic Integration of Energy Storage and Solar Photovoltaics). As the amount of intermittent renewables in the system increases, storage will become increasingly more important.

The 39-month SHINES program will involve co-locating a 1.5 MW/MWh LG Chem lithium-ion storage deployment with a community solar array. It will also see the addition of a 1.75 MW/3.2 MWh Younicos lithium-ion battery paired with 2 MW of rooftop solar. Diaz indicated that work on these programs is already well underway,. The SHINES project also foresees the joining of solar with storage at other residential and commercial sites.  These deployments will assist Austin Energy in meeting its longer-term goals of having 10 MW of battery storage and 20 MW of thermal storage integrated into its system by 2025.

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Diaz commented that one of the benefits of the SHINEs project is that it necessarily requires an integrated approach across departments. As a consequence, various groups that don’t normally interact have begun coordinating on various aspects of the undertaking and benefiting from a sharing of perspectives.

“SHINES has provided a fantastic opportunity for us to start crossing silos within the utility between the electric service delivery side and the customer delivery side.”

The focus and collaborative approach demonstrated at Austin Energy serves as a helpful beacon to the rest of the state’s utilities and stakeholders in the ongoing energy transformation. It serves as a motivational example of what can be accomplished – a useful lesson as we strive to achieve TREIA’s vision of ‘50% renewable energy by 2030.’