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Austin's Energy Conservation Gem: A Worldchanging Interview with Paul Robbins
Jon Lebkowsky, 2 Aug 10

Paul Robbins has been an environmental activist and consumer advocate since 1977. He has worked on many issues related to the environment, including clean energy, recycling, and air pollution. He is currently based in Austin, Texas, where he publishes, and writes much of the content for, the Austin Environmental Directory,, a source book of environmental issues, products, services, and organizations. (While some of its articles are specific to the Austin bioregion, others are relevant to the entire United States.)

Robbins has been described as "the city's most indefatigable green activist," and the Austin City Council recognized him by renaming the downtown "District Cooling Plant 1" the "Paul Robbins District Cooling Plant." Why a cooling plant? The Austin Chronicle's explanation: "It's actually an ultra-efficient central air conditioner for Downtown that also effectively functions as a massive energy-storage device. Basically, like Robbins, the plant is an energy conservation gem few people know about." (It's also a plant that Robbins lobbied the city to create.)

In this exclusive interview, Worldchanging's Jon Lebkowsky spent some time talking to Robbins about the Environmental Directory, Austin's energy utility, the environmental cost of oil extraction, plug-in hybrid cars, synthetic fuels, nuclear power, energy footprints, zero energy suburbs, and transit hubs.

Worldchanging: How do you feel about this latest (7th) edition of the Austin Environmental Directory having taken three and a half years to put together?

Paul Robbins: There was another story that I would have written, had I had the time to do it. There's a group of three stories on energy. I would have liked to have written a fourth one, which would have been on living simply - which, in our culture, is quite complicated. So I would have liked to have spent several months researching and writing an article about how to live simply without freezing in the dark, or (in the south) sweating in the dark. But I had spent three and a half years on this project and I had to get it done. Other than that, I'm very happy with what I produced.

Worldchanging: In compiling this version, what did you run across that felt different? Was there a sense of a real change from the earlier version, from the reality of what was environmentally effective?

Paul Robbins: In the earlier versions, 1995 and 1996, what I was focusing on were environmental products and services. As the Directory evolved, I started getting into policy as well. How can a region change its governance and change its laws and customs to be more environmental?

Worldchanging: How can it?

Paul Robbins: Well, that would require a book. In fact, it would require several.

It just evolved. The first issue I got heavily into policy was the Environmental Report Card in the year 2000 issue, in which I looked at measurable indicators of environmental progress or regress, to see how well Austin and the United States were doing. In a majority of cases, we were going backwards. I looked at energy use, water use, solid waste and hazardous waste, environmental production in food production…etc. And then, toward the middle of that, I tried to say, "Now if we wanted to change this, what would we do?" I tried to find the winners, if you will, of environmental policy around the country, and say, "Okay, here's Seattle, which is hazardous waste heaven because they have so many programs to deal with toxic waste. And here are the most advanced energy conservation programs around the country." I tried to actually name them, and say why they were the most effective, and tell people where to go for further information. From there, I tried to get into more policy-related things, as well as environmental products. And it got more complicated. This stuff is not simple to research.

I mean, it can be simple, if you're trying to write a five o'clock story on deadline, because you just go with what you have. But if you really want to find out the context of another part of the country, or another country, it takes a lot of work.

Worldchanging: How about looking at your own back yard, here in Austin. Is that difficult? I know in Austin we famously like to say that we're cutting edge green, and we have a very environmentally efficient energy system.

Paul Robbins: Most of that is hype. Austin does some things right, and we should be proud of that. Compared to other cities, like Houston - we're probably greener. But if you're looking for a map of sustainability, Austin is about at 2% of where it should be. If we're resting on our laurels, we're in sad shape.

Worldchanging:My understanding is that there's some effort to increase the mix of renewables at Austin Energy. How does that work? Isn't it difficult for them, because there are transmission issues and there are cost issues, and they also feel that there are other things that they need to address first? How do we accelerate a change toward a better use of renewables, and away from "the burn?"

Paul Robbins: One article in this issue [of the Austin Environmental Directory] supposedly deals with that. One of the things that Austin does well is that we know how to get into buildings and make them more efficient, and lower their carbon footprint. We've got close to three decades of experience with that. So I basically laid out a program where, instead of just going into a building and fixing the lighting or fixing the air conditioning, we do it all at once. Have the city pay back in the utility bill, instead of giving a loan or a rebate. In other words, have the zero energy home pay the city for its renewable energy and clean energy bill, instead of for a conventional energy bill. The zero energy home also includes the electric car, and is running it off renewable energy. But that's only part of it. Rendering a new building zero energy is a lot easier than doing it for a retrofit. There's going to be a need for quite some time for centralized renewable energy.

I've been talking about technologies, and ways to implement those technologies, in past issues of the directory. Talking about strategies that we could take, talking about energy storage for wind power, talking about how to make it more affordable. We could be here until the restaurant closes tonight if you want to go through all the options.

Worldchanging: I know there're a lot of options. I also understand there are barriers to adoption.

Paul Robbins: The biggest barrier right now is cost, and one of the things I have suggested in a past edition of the Directory is something that I entitled "The Back Road to Utopia," which is basically to set up our own energy research consortium. For instance, solar energy is technologically feasible, but the price is still very high, because there isn't a big market for it. And because there isn't a big market for it, the price is still very high. It's a chicken and egg thing. How do you bring the cost down?

I basically said "why don't we create our own buyers' consortium, where instead of just the buying power of a single municipal utility, we link up with other utilities and cities and states that can use volume purchases to lower the cost for everyone."

Worldchanging: Have you suggested this to Austin Energy?

Paul Robbins: Yes, I have.

Worldchanging: Are they considering it?

Paul Robbins: Not actively.

Worldchanging: Are they generally responsive, and if not, why not? I know there are politics involved, and it's not necessarily obvious politics. Sometimes there are complex internal political structures we just don't see. Like you may have old school guys within a utility that are just not ready to move into a new world of energy management…

Paul Robbins: To the local utility's credit, they did something kind of like this with plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. They basically went around the country to cities, to large car fleets, to individuals where it was appropriate, and got them to sign on, to buy in to plug-in electric hybrids. And they more or less packaged it - they went to all the big auto makers, and they said, we've got all these soft orders waiting here, can you build the car that they want? Now, the first Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle will come online next year, the Chevy Volt. I can't tell you what percentage of that is due to Austin Energy, but they had some kind of impact. It's an example of what can happen when you combine the buying power of a lot of people, cities, and utilities. Another thing that Roger [Duncan - Austin Energy's former General Manager] did in packaging this was that he got commitments from other electric utilities to give rebates, which is another incentive for a car maker to build a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle.

Worldchanging: On a different, but possibly related, subject, I'm wondering about the impact of the oil spill in the Gulf, which has highlighted the problem of continuing oil production at a cost to the ecosystem. You talked about the importance of the cost factor; do you think that there will be a greater accounting for the environmental cost of extracting fuel, and that it will have an impact on the way we manage energy? I.e. if people are creeped out about the environmental impact of energy production, will that lead to a change in the way we produce energy?

Paul Robbins: Yes, but not as quickly as it needs to happen, and not as quickly as environmentalists would like. The last information that I had is that offshore drilling in the Gulf represents about 1/5 of America's domestic production, and about 6% of America's total consumption, due to the fact that we have all those imports.

If we were to take all that oil off the market and quit producing it today, oil would go up dramatically. It really goes to show how desperate we are to get it, that we would go out into the ocean and drill miles down, in a very unfriendly environment, to continue to live our lifestyle. But at the end of the day, we're all going to drive home in our cars, because we don't have an alternative. That's why I tried to write the article, "The Zero Energy Suburb" (PDF). It presents the total alternative. Biofuels are at best a niche market. Even if we can provision the second generation biofuels, that are not linked to food production, even if they're made cost-effective eventually.

Worldchanging: What's an example of second generation biofuels?

Paul Robbins: Biodiesel from algae, or cellulosic ethanol, which have been produced in a laboratory, but never proven economically feasible. If you can create a second-generation biofuel, it's still not likely going to run the whole fleet. Electric vehicles powered with renewable energy are more likely to be a real-world alternative. The batteries still will limit range, but with the new lithium batteries, 100-mile range is the norm, which is about 86% of how cars are driven. About 14% of the miles are long distance driving, and those can probably be accomplished with the hybrid part of a Plug-in Hybrid. But 100-mile range on electricity is technologically feasible, and shortly I believe it will be economically feasible.

Worldchanging: How much of the electricity to power electric cars will come from renewable sources?

Paul Robbins: Technologically, as much as the grid can hold. A recent study in the Western United States has shown that as much as 35% of the electricity on the grid can be provided by renewables without storage. Obviously all of it could be provided with storage. But in this study, over a third of the electricity could be renewable, just by using the grid as a balancing mechanism.

Worldchanging: You talk about cars and homes and alternative sources of energy for those - what about airplanes? We're not going to see a solar jet.

Paul Robbins: No, but you could theoretically power a 300 mile per hour rail system on electricity produced from renewables.

Worldchanging: That's pretty fast.

Paul Robbins: Yes, I would say so. Jets are here today, and 300 mile-per-hour rail systems for the most part aren't. What is the technical fix that a jet could use immediately? I don't think there is one at this point. The closest thing would be some kind of refined biodiesel. I believe they've actually run jets on certain kinds of biodiesel, but there's not enough of it to run the fleet.

Worldchanging: Is there any resource you know of where there's a description of a completely broad-based global energy plan that would give us clear direction for transformation of energy production?

Paul Robbins: I've seen it at the national level, and there probably are plans at the global level, and if you gave me two days, I could find them. And the problem is, as well-intentioned and as brilliant as their authors are, it all gets back down to the utility that's doing it. Who's going to be willing to pay the extra cost? Or who's going to be willing to find the ways to bring the cost down? I do what I can at the local level. I wish the Environmental Directory were national. I haven't found a way to do that yet, so my impact now is with the local bioregion.

Worldchanging: You write about synthetic fuels. How do they fit into the energy mix of the future?

Paul Robbins: I've been researching energy, have been fascinated by it, since the late 1970s, when I became an anti-nuclear activist. I've written a lot of articles about it. In the previous, 2006 edition of the Environmental Directory, I crystallized my concept of energy, revising Darwin's theory of evolution - that humans really aren't descended from apes, they're descended from lemmings.

Lemmings, as you know, are small furry mammals that live in the Arctic, and when they run out of food and territory, they go into a massive rodent stampede looking for food. If they happen to run into a river or body of water on their way to find food, they might drown in the process. People that don't understand animal behavior think it's some kind of giant suicide, but it's really a giant stampede looking for food.

If you related that to humans, and think that energy is their artificial carrying capacity, what are the lemmings going to do when they run out of oil? In the 2006 edition, I talked about some of the things that these human-lemmings would do, that would include fighting wars over energy, which we in fact are doing, and using more liquefied natural gas. So I continued the theme in the 2010 edition, getting to synthetic fuel.

But I also wanted to talk about positive alternatives. So I talked about electric vehicles and the zero energy suburb. Synthetic fuels, for the most part, have quite severe environmental consequences. They are heavy carbon emitters, heavy air pollution emitters. Some of them rape land, like mountaintop removal coal mining or strip mining tar sands, and literally the largest strip mines in the world are for the tar sands in Canada.

Some synfuels can also cause extremely toxic water pollution. There are fifty square miles of liquid tar-sand tailings held up by earthen dykes in Alberta. They're so large they can be seen from space with the naked eye. They're some of the largest man-made structures known.

So I wanted to follow the lemmings down their next trail. Some people think this is all theoretical, it will never happen. But synfuels have been around for centuries, if you look at history, and currently, 10% of America's liquid transportation fuel is coming from them. If some of these developers have their way, that could triple a dozen years from now.

Worldchanging: It's one thing to create the base of knowledge and get the information out to people, like you do with the Environmental Directory, but is there a way to catalyze a conversation, and is there a way to actually convert people, or to get them to think more deeply about the things that you write about?

Paul Robbins: Who the hell knows? I live a lot without enough feedback, and that bothers me, but past a point, that's just the way things are. There's only a certain small percentage that are going to give feedback to any author. I write this book as if the entire world is going to read it, but I know intrinsically that only about 20% of the people that pick it up are going to read any given article. So ultimately it is a resource for people that want to use it for certain things. Some people will read the whole thing, cover-to-cover, and others will use it to find a rain water harvesting system or an energy conservation contractor, and won't have the time to use it for anything else, because they've got 2.5 jobs, and 2.2 kids. That's just their life right now. I don't take it personally. If I had all the money in the world, I guess I'd have my own TV network. But I don't. So this is what I've been able to do, given who I am and what I'm capable of, and I do the best I can.

One of the things I'm psyched about with the synthetic fuels article is that it's possibly the most comprehensive article of its kind that's been written. There's been hundreds of articles and scientific papers that have been written about various facets of this, and I'm not trying to take credit or glory away from any of the authors. But what I think I've been able to do is integrate it into one single overview that tries to show people how all of these various synthetic fuels are coming together to influence their future.

Worldchanging: Do you think that they have real momentum?

Paul Robbins: A couple of them - yeah, I do. Now, I'm not particularly happy about it. I expect to see more of them, unfortunately. Tar sands is a huge business, and it's only going to grow.

Worldchanging: How do you feel about the nuclear alternative?

Paul Robbins: In 2006, I wrote in the directory that nuclear plants are so expensive that the only way you'll see more of them is if they're subsidized by taxpayer money, and that's exactly what is happening. The nuclear industry is so shell-shocked, so shopworn, so full of faults that it cannot compete in the free market in America, so it is needing the government to back it. And our government is reverting to lemon socialism, putting taxpayer money in obsolete technologies to create polluting power and jobs.

You may get a few built with government subsidies. But I don't think it's going to be enough. There are some pretty scary legislative ideas to get nuclear plants subsidized by the government. The new climate bill, sponsored by alleged environmentalist John Kerry, supports massive subsidies for new nuclear plants. This is a compromise that Kerry made with members of the Republican party to get their support for carbon emission reductions. While I guess I should be begrudgingly appreciative of it, somehow I'm not. I've been fighting these nightmarish power plants my whole adult life, and somehow I'm supposed to be grateful, because they're used as a compromise to bring down coal?

Worldchanging: I was surprised to hear James Lovelock advocate nuclear alternatives.

Paul Robbins: Well, you know, he's entitled to his opinion. But to me, nuclear power is one of the few technologies or ideas in the world that are completely black and white. You can make a lot of hedging arguments for questionable technologies. This is one technology that, I think, is ideologically and technologically compromised from the very start.

Worldchanging: One of the real problems I see is that we over consume energy, and it's so hard to reduce our energy footprint. I've tried, and the footprint calculators that I've had available still showed me consuming more than one earth, no matter what I did. I don't know how to get to the point - not just me, but how do we get to the point - where we're not over consuming?

Paul Robbins: Pardon me for sounding like a broken record, but go back to "The Zero Energy Suburb" (PDF). I basically packaged it so that you could buy the whole thing from your utility without any compromise of the American high-tech lifestyle, and do it with relatively little economic pain. I tried to quantify it so that a person could accurately guess what it would cost them today, or maybe five or ten years in the future, when the costs come down. It took me months to write a four-page article. Most of that time was encapsulated in the models I had to create. I don't wish to come off like I'm a rocket scientist, but I had to create three relatively simple computer models, and bounce them off of each other so that I could accurately guess what the cost and benefits of this would be. I was fortunate to have some people who knew more than I did help me with this project.

At the end of the day, though, I was able to come up with some quasi-accurate numbers. While a zero energy home and car would be more expensive than conventional energy if you did it tomorrow, it really wouldn't be as outrageous as you might think it would be. You wouldn't need to be a millionaire to lead this kind of lifestyle. If you were to buy a new home in Austin today, it would raise that payment by about 25%. I concede that would shut out a lot of people who couldn't afford to spend that extra money, but you wouldn't have to be a millionaire to do it.

I do know that our local utility, Austin Energy, is currently in the process of getting a federal grant to look into something similar. They're probably working more on just the built environment side of it, and not on the transportation side of it, that is, running your car as well as your home on zero fossil fuels. The upfront cost to retrofit a new home, to the best, most energy-efficient appliances, and put solar on your roof, would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $35,000 or $40,000. If you add the car, that's probably going to be another $60,000 incremental cost. But remember, you're doing this in place of building your own power plant, instead of building your own coal mine, and instead of building your own oil wells and oil refineries.

Worldchanging: We need mass transit [in Austin].

Paul Robbins: We do, we need it desperately, but people don't get that. Another thing about this Directory is that it talks about a really interesting transition tool. If you go to the section on alternative transportation, there's a short article called "The Right Connections," and it talks about transit hubs. Consider that running a transit vehicle like a bus through a low-density subdivision is really not a very economic enterprise. Mass transit is economic when you can carry large numbers of people in high-density situations to another high-density situation, and drop off those large numbers of people, pick up more and bring them back, like subways. So imagine a shopping center, and that becomes a transit hub for what you call "last mile delivery." Say people have gone to downtown from a shopping center that's two or three miles from their house. In that shopping center are parked several types of connection vehicles.

They can take a jitney, they can rent a Segway, they can rent a taxi or get a car share vehicle. And any of these instant connections are paid for with a universal transit card, so that they can just swipe the same card in any number of seamless connection modes. Then, this becomes something convenient all of a sudden.

The missionary for this idea was a woman I met at an alternative transportation conference in Austin named Susan Zielinski. She actually lives in Motor City, Detroit. She's part of the University of Michigan. Her job is to go around the country telling people about these new ideas for transit connections. It should be illegal for someone to be as optimistic and positive as that woman is. (laughter) But she's really an amazing messenger, so I was inspired to write a short article and put it in the Directory so that people who wanted to learn more could get in touch with her.

I think Austin should do a few pilot projects to see how well it would work to create a few transit hubs, and if it worked, let it grow over time.

Image on homepage of photovoltaic art flowers that stand just off of I-35 in Austin, TX courtesy of photographer Jim Hutchison via Flickr, some rights reserved; used with permission.

Image of Alberta tar island dyke via Green Car Congress.

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I think Paul has done a great job in touching all bases. However, he should talk to some authorities on nuclear, e.g. Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness. Please don't confuse danger and risk; the US civilian nuclear plants have the best safety record of any other source of energy: Zero deaths and only one minor accident. I share his enthusiasm for environmentally designed and insulated buildings, and for biofuels, particularly from algae. While there are over a hundred companies working on the problem, only two are near a solution - which is limited because the input is animal fat.

Posted by: Gray Kinnie on 3 Aug 10

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