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Informative meeting wins over doubters

Customers in Texas' second largest city, Houston, are keener than ever to use renewables -- even if they have to pay more money to do so. At a recent town meeting, called to conduct a "deliberative poll" of the energy views of Houston citizens, participants spent more than a day in discussions. The results of the process, developed by the University of Texas, were released by the Environmental Defense Fund, a leading environmental group with an office in Austin but based nationally in New York.

Before attending the debate about half of the 200 randomly selected residents said that their local utility, Houston Light & Power (HLP), should use more renewables. After the debate, the pro-renewables proportion zoomed to 76%, or just over three-quarters.

Before the survey, at the end of January, almost twice as many customers had also thought that price was their most important concern in buying electricity, compared with 23% who said the environment was most important. After the deliberations, the two issues were seen as most important by about the same proportions of people. In addition, the survey found that fully 78% of people said developing renewables is the option that HLP should pursue first or second, compared with 71% who said energy efficiency should be the first or second priorities.

It also emerged that those surveyed are willing to pay as much as $6.50 extra monthly for green electricity. On average, they will pay $5 monthly for receiving 25% of their electricity from renewables sources. That was accompanied by 77% of customers saying that global warming is a serious or somewhat serious problem. As many as 81% said they believe that air pollution is serious or somewhat serious in the Houston area.

HLP will use the results to develop an integrated resource plan for its future energy supply. The Texas Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which must approve any integrated resource plan, also participated in the meeting.

The survey seems especially significant since many jobs in Houston are linked to the offshore oil industry. It was released just as Central and South West (CSW) -- a utility serving much of the rest of Texas -- announced that it will buy wind power from a 75 MW wind farm to be developed by FPL Energy Inc, part of a huge Florida energy company, the FPL group (Windpower Monthly, March 1998).

It appears that CSW is also now planning to introduce its Clear Choice green pricing program across Texas, the first such program offered by a private utility in the state. Residential customers can sign up at three levels to receive "green" electricity at a premium price. For $5, $10 or $20 more a month on their electric bill, customers can choose to have 250 kWh, 500 kWh or 1000 kWh of traditional generation replaced by hydro electricity generated in Texas.

"Clear Choice is a voluntary program and we thought it should be in addition to the involuntary one," says CSW's Ward Marshall, referring to the 75 MW wind farm which will supply power to the entire system. He notes that without the green pricing program, 1.5% of a customer's electricity in Texas would typically come from renewables. "We thought that [level] might not satisfy the strongest advocates," he says -- hence the decision to launch Clear Choice.

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