in Houston, Texas
A Texas tale of two technologies
Wednesday, Feb 15, 2012, 04:40PM CST
By Mark Lisheron

Today we tell the tale of two technologies in Texas (while alliterating effortlessly), one very old and one very new, with one thing in common: their ongoing dependence on government.

Solar Austin, a solar energy trade group, has offered to Austin Energy what it believes is an energy solution far superior to expanding its natural gas-fueled plant just east of the city, according to a story today by the Austin American-Statesman

To ease the suspense, let’s say it involves solar energy, which should delight the alarming number of people in Austin who believe that solar energy is free.

The plan would be to put systems of solar panels on the roofs of Austin buildings enough to generate 300 megawatts of electricity by the year 2020. Larry Weis, Austin Energy’s general manager, guessed to reach that goal 15 percent of all the roofs in Austin would need festooning in silicon plating.

Although the story doesn’t say it, Austin Energy estimates such a project would cost $750 million to $800 million, hundreds of millions of dollars less than the plant expansion.

Not to mention how much cheaper it is to generate power with natural gas. Or that Austin Energy ratepayers have subsidized 61 percent of the costs of solar system installation for commercial buildings and 59 percent of residential systems since 2004, according to the utility’s figures.

Or that even with all the federal and state subsidizing solar power doesn’t pay for itself in most of our lifetimes. If it were even possible to increase overall solar megawatt output 50 times the current 6 megawatt generation in Austin over the next eight years.

But c’mon. It’s new. It’s clean. It’s hip. It’s solar.

Fortunately for lovers of technology old and new, there’s a template for government involvement that reaches across time.

The state of Texas at a loss of $2 million a year once subsidized something called the Texas State Railroad in East Texas. Relieving itself of this burden after damage to the railway by Hurricane Rita, the state turned over operation to a volunteer group, the Texas State Railroad Authority.

To help the authority along the federal government put up $10 million and the state $2 million to bring the historic railway back to its 19th Century glory. The authority has spent just under $5 million of the grant money, authority president Steve Presley says.

The Legislature in 2007 also signed off on a $1 million loan to help the authority and its new private partner, American Heritage Railways, get up and running. Taxpayers in the little cities of Rusk and Palestine backed loans of $500,000 each.

After annual losses of $900,000 to $1 million, American Heritage last year reported a loss of $141,000. To celebrate, the company is demanding that Rusk, Palestine and Texas forget about the loans or it will stop operating the trains this week, according to a story today by the Tyler Morning Telegraph.

For his part, Presley, who told Texas Watchdog he is a penny pinching conservative businessman, says he feels a responsibility to pay back the loans. He can’t speak for American Heritage.

Given the historical track (pardon the railway pun) record, don’t don’t be surprised if we’re all called upon to subsidize the government’s infatuation with a technology it believes must never be allowed to belch thick black smoke into the receding horizon.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at@marktxwatchdog.

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Illustration from the story "Chicken Little" in the New Barnes Reader, published 1916, posted for re-use on Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of solar panel by flickr user greenlagirl, used via a Creative Commons license.

Dale McQueen
Thursday, 02/23/2012 - 03:56PM

Mr. Presley with the Texas State railroad authority seems to be selective about how conservative he is when it comes to spending other peoples money as he said in a Feb. 14, 2012 article in the Tyler Paper ( Presley, who serves on the Palestine City Council, said he did not see Palestine forgiving its loan either. Neither city can afford to give away a half million dollars, Presley said. Presley pledged , thought, to ask the Legislature to forgive its loan. "We will, when the time is appropriate, approach the state to see if they are interested in doing that," Presley said. He has already talked to some people in Austin about the proposal.

So long as the people who elected him to the city council don't have to pay for his actions he doesn't care what happens to other taxpayers across Texas.

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