City Light CEO nominee a poor fit, given Seattle's environmental goals

seattle city light

Seattle’s Climate Action Plan, adopted in a unanimous vote by City Council in the summer of 2013, is one of the most ambitious municipal plans to combat greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It calls for nothing less than carbon neutrality by 2050.

The achievement of this lofty goal will require visionary leadership in every aspect of Seattle government. It is for this reason that there should be serious concerns surrounding Mayor Murray’s nomination for CEO of Seattle City Light, Larry Weis.

Seattle City Light will have to play a pivotal role in helping Seattle achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Providing access to charging stations for a huge upsurge in electric vehicles, carrying out comprehensive building energy audits, and working with consumers – both industrial and residential – to reduce energy consumption are just a few of the areas in which Seattle City Light will need to show true leadership if Seattle is to achieve its climate goals.

Larry Weis does not appear to have a history of such leadership.

Yes, during his time at the helm of Austin Energy, the Texas utility saw its renewable energy mix rise from 1% to an impressive 35%. On closer inspection, however, it would appear that this was a result of Weis being dragged along by the prevailing current, rather than as a result of his leadership.

On August 16th 2014, Weis issued a press release arguing against the continued expansion of solar within Austin Energy’s portfolio. “Solar cannot replace natural-gas fired power plants today,” Weis said. “It’s the other way around: very efficient, combined-cycle natural gas plants allow us to add solar to meet environmental goals and remain affordable. Solar is a good thing. The [Austin Energy] Task Force wants too much of a good thing.”

Weis’ claim that the Austin Energy Task Force – a group formed by city government in order make recommendations regarding power generation to Austin City Council – wanted too much solar power was strongly refuted by several members of the group.

Clay Butler, who was the city of Austin’s Electric Utility Commissioner and a member of the Task Force, argued that Weis had cherry picked his data while arguing against solar, pointing out that while Weis’ press release stated that Austin Energy made $44 million from Decker (a natural gas power plant) in 2011, it failed to mention that Decker had a net loss in 2012.

Butler also pointed out that while Weis had stated that “solar works only when the sun is shining”, he failed to recognize that Austin’s peak demand for energy occurs during daylight hours and that was exactly why solar had been chosen as the replacement energy source.

Rather worryingly, Weis also failed to engage with the Austin Energy Task Force on this issue -- refusing to attend even one of the fourteen public meetings that were held on the issue over a period of two years. Weis has also since spoken in somewhat dismissive terms of the Austin City Council’s input into the running of Austin Energy.

Weis’ failure to fully consider the possibilities around renewable energy, coupled with his lack of desire to engage with the community and even, it would seem, City Council, has left many worried around his commitment to carbon neutrality. Environmental groups the Sierra Club, 350 Seattle, Got Green and Rising Tide Seattle have all come out opposing his appointment.

When Councilmember Mike O’Brien questioned Weis at a recent Energy and Environment Committee meeting, he asked what more City Light could do to help the whole city achieve the goals of the Climate Action Plan. Weis only replied with broad generalizations, telling the committee that he was “an expert in developing renewable projects,” and would “leave no stone unturned … to try to look at what we can do to move the power supply portfolio to a higher level of renewable energy.”

The committee may have been more impressed had he answered more specifically and directly. For example, he may have brought up changing the grid to provide vehicle electrification, incentives to pressure big business to decrease energy consumption, and energy audits designed to decrease demand.

Furthermore, when confronted with public comments opposing his nomination, he simply dismissed concerns. “To say I am not a solar advocate is incredibly disappointing, frankly,” he said.

Now, of course, Seattle is not Austin, and Seattle City Light is a carbon-neutral utility that will never add natural gas to its energy mix. But it is crucial that we have a leader of City Light who understands the gravity of the climate challenges ahead. Sadly, it would appear that Larry Weis is not that leader.


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