AUSTIN - This environmentally conscious city is already home to the headquarters of the Whole Foods organic grocery store chain, a new City Hall built mostly with recycled materials and a municipal electric utility that features solar cells on the roof of its parking lot.
The Texas capital also pays residents rebates if they install extra attic insulation or high-efficiency clothes washers. There are steep discounts on rainwater collection barrels. Low-flow toilets are practically free.
But those are just eco-baby steps compared with Austin's latest, and most ambitious, environmental quest: to lead the nation in slashing emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
All around the inexorably warming world, nations are groping for ways to slow what most scientists predict will become catastrophic climate changes. Some solutions are being mandated by governments, others are being innovated by private industry. Austin represents a third way: a distinctively American, grass-roots global warming initiative that has mushroomed in the shadow of the Bush administration's long-held skepticism about the issue and its refusal to join most of the rest of the world in signing the Kyoto accords limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
Within five years, this fast-growing city of 680,000 intends to power 100 percent of its municipal facilities with renewable energy, such as solar or wind-driven power. Within eight years, every new home built in Austin will be required to be so energy efficient that, if an optional solar system is added to its roof, it will consume no more energy than it produces over the course of a year.
And by 2020, fully 30 percent of the city's total residential, commercial and industrial energy consumption is to be weaned from carbon dioxide-producing fossil fuels and shifted to clean, renewable sources -- a five-fold increase from current levels.
Those carbon-reduction targets rank as the nation's most aggressive, environmental leaders say, outpacing efforts in Portland, Ore., Chicago and other cities that have set "green" agendas in recent years.
One of world's greenest cities
What's more, Austin has emerged as a leader on the international stage as the search for solutions to the overheating of the planet grows universal. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives lists Austin among the top 15 greenest cities in the world.
"Austin is important because it shows that a government body can take steps within its own realm of control -- that this is a problem that can be managed and that there are models that can work," said David Hawkins, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. "If Austin's actions cause other cities to ask, 'Why aren't we doing something like that?' then this can have a much bigger effect."
Half the states in the U.S. have passed laws requiring utilities to gradually shift some of their electricity production to renewable sources. And in early August, the Democratic majority in the U.S. House pushed through a new energy bill that would require all the nation's utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, although the bill faces uncertain prospects in the Senate and strong opposition from the utility industry and the White House.
Austin's activist mayor hopes his city can set the pace for even faster national change.
"Why should Austin be in the climate protection business?" asked Will Wynn, an architect by training who drafted the Austin Climate Protection Plan earlier this year and ushered it through the City Council. "Well, I am the mayor of the capital city of the most polluting state in the most polluting country on the planet, from a carbon-emissions standpoint. We have the unified scientific community warning us about global warming and telling us if we don't take action, we face catastrophe. So, I'm listening."
Reducing what is known as the city's "carbon footprint" will come at a price.
Wind power is currently cheaper than that from natural-gas plants, but because it is inherently intermittent, it can only supply a fraction of a city's energy needs. Meanwhile, "clean" solar power that doesn't produce greenhouse gases costs four times more than "dirty" coal power, which does.
And building the kind of completely energy-efficient house Austin intends to require by 2015 could raise its sale price more than 10 percent, a fact that has made home builders and real estate agents wary of greener building codes.
"The Austin building community has been cutting-edge on green building for many years now, so we support and commend the mayor in this effort," said Harry Savio, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin. "But the real answer is that we don't know if these goals are achievable. There has to be payback on all these energy-efficient upgrades, because ultimately we have to be able to sell these houses."
Austin officials agree that some costs are unknown. But they see no alternative to shifting away from fossil fuels.
Costs ahead, no matter what
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"It is in fact going to be more expensive to reduce our carbon emissions," acknowledged Roger Duncan, deputy general manager of Austin Energy, the city's electric utility. "But even if we were not trying to be green and reduce climate change, energy and electricity production and oil and gasoline are all going to get more expensive.
"Plus, it's hard for me to imagine a more severe impact on the economy than the fiscal impacts of climate change, like droughts and rising sea levels. So the economy is going to be impacted whether we do something or don't do something."
It's easier for Austin than for many cities to go green, not least because it's so blue.
On electoral maps, the city always shows up as a stubbornly blue Democratic island in a bright red Republican state -- and Democrats, led by former Vice President Al Gore, have adopted global warming as a signature issue.
Home to the flagship campus of the University of Texas and to numerous technology companies, Austin is the kind of eco-friendly town where thousands of locals journey downtown every evening to spread out picnic blankets and watch North America's largest urban bat colony take flight.
But Wynn says the city's global-warming initiative transcends partisan politics.
"Our citizens expect us to do something like this," the mayor said. "Sure, there's 15 percent out to the right that still thinks global warming isn't happening, and there's 15 percent to my extreme left who think we're not doing enough. But there is a recognized 70 percent consensus in this community, including conservatives and business people, who see the wisdom."
Other cities have struggled to fulfill green promises.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, for example, earned international praise from environmentalists when he pledged in 2001 that within five years the city would buy 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and curb its emissions of greenhouse gases by 4 percent.
In reality, the Tribune found, by the end of last year Chicago's greenhouse emissions had increased 10 percent from a baseline average from 1998 to 2001. And the city had not purchased any green energy since 2004.
Promise of wind
But Austin officials are confident they can meet their pioneering goal of powering nearly a third of the city's energy from renewable sources by 2020. (Today, that figure is 6 percent.)
Partly that's because Austin owns its municipal electric utility -- an increasingly rare arrangement in an era of utility privatization -- which allows city leaders to drive energy policies. That's why Duncan, the city's chief authority on renewable energy, was able to order the installation of a bank of solar panels atop the parking lot beneath his office window as a demonstration project.
And it's why Austin Energy subsidizes more than half the cost when homeowners agree to install $20,000 solar systems. City leaders figure such a subsidy makes sense because reduced electricity demand means they will not have to build more power plants.
Wind power is even more promising, city officials say. Texas already leads the nation in new wind farms, and Austin is driving demand for even more. Last year, when the city offered a fresh batch of wind-driven power contracts to consumers -- at a lower cost than electricity generated from natural gas -- the offering was so popular that a televised lottery was held to pick the winners.
Ultimately it's those kinds of bottom-line economic benefits, rather than feel-good politics, that will drive more consumers into the green camp, Austin officials maintain. In the hot central Texas climate where water is scarce and electricity is expensive, Wynn is certain that energy-efficient houses that promise sharply lower utility bills will be in increasing demand, even if they cost more upfront to build or retrofit.
But to make sure nobody misses the point, part of Austin's global warming initiative will require real estate agents to disclose the annual utility costs for every home on the market.
"I'm not saying we're going to tax you to save the planet," Wynn said. "I'm saying we want you to keep your money and reduce your energy consumption. Basically our plan boils down to this: 'We'll save the planet, and you will get rich.' It passed the City Council unanimously."
© 2007 Chicago Tribune