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Austin Energy named utility of the year by SmartCities Dive

Austin Energy, the municipally-owned utility serving America's 11th largest city, got some major kudos from SmartCities Dive, a publication that focuses on how U.S. cities are deploying smart technology to transport infrastructure, energy and other public resources. 

The online magazine named AE the "utility of the year," largely in recognition of the utility's progress in shifting away from carbon-based sources to renewable energy. 

The utility, which currently derives about a third of its energy from renewable sources, has reported that it is on track to achieve a previous goal set by Austin City Council that 55 percent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2025. In August, Council passed a new long-term plan for the utility that calls for AE generation to be 65 percent renewable by 2027. The same plan also called for rates to not increase more than 2 percent annually and for AE rates to remain in the lower half of Texas utility rates. 

Among the initiatives that are driving the utility towards achieving those goals is Austin SHINES, a program funded partially by the Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative that focuses on making solar power competitive with conventional sources through new storage solutions. The $4.3 million from DOE allowed AE to build a grid-level battery in Austin's Mueller neighborhood, "along with pairing energy storage with residential and commercial rooftop solar." The utility says that another $1 million grant from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will allow it to "pair a grid-scale battery with a 2 MW community solar array in East Austin." 

AE has also advanced renewable energy by installing electric vehicle charging stations around its service area. Since 2011 it has installed 620 charging stations by reaching out to organizations and property owners willing to be a part of the effort to promote electric cars. In 2017, it unveiled "Electric Drive," a transportation hub in downtown Austin that includes two parking spots for electric cars to charge from a fast-charging DC port, as well as a solar-powered kiosk where people can charge their electric bikes, scooters and other gadgets (laptops, phones) from USB ports. 

But while AE is being recognized for its bold environmental goals, the benchmarks set by Council were actually considered a disappointment to many activists in the city's famously active environmental community. A week before Council took the vote, dozens of activists came to City Hall to rally for even bolder commitments. Many argued the utility should be 75 percent renewable by 2027 and 85 percent renewable by 2030. AE, however, stressed that such ambitious goals might risk major hikes for ratepayers. 

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