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Texas test case for candidates' energy plans

The candidates share many concerns, but have clear differences in approach, too.

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Moreover, Austin's energy mix, supplied by a city-owned utility, is relatively close to the nation's power supply. Austin Energy, the municipal utility, gets 35 percent of its energy from low-sulfur coal (50 percent nationally), 29 percent from natural gas (20 percent nationally), almost 26 percent from nuclear (20 percent), and 8 percent from renewables (3 percent).

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Austin has set a goal of being carbon neutral (removing as much carbon as the city is adding) for all city-owned vehicles, buildings, and operations by 2020. Technology for elimination of all carbon emissions may not be possible by then, so Austin is studying offset strategies – such as planting trees or prairie grass – that can remove the remaining emissions.

One way the city is trying to lower carbon emissions – an effort suggested by both candidates – is the use of flex-fuel vehicles.

Senator McCain would jawbone auto manufacturers to make more vehicles that run on various types of fuel. That's actually happening in Austin where a city fueling depot gives city vehicles the option of six different fuels. Some of the options are less expensive than gasoline, such as propane, which costs about $1.90 a gallon, says Will O'Connor, a fleet and fuel manager.

But, for the most part, the main advantage of the flex-fuel fleet is a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, he says. "Some of the alternative fuels result in 30 percent less carbon per mile than regular gasoline," he says as he watches a tanker at the depot unload biodiesel made from cotton seeds.

Mayor Wynn, a Democrat, has talked energy in person with both candidates. He says he has "steered" Obama's advisers to programs the city is enacting. And, two years ago, he met with McCain, whom he calls "a breath of fresh air" for his interest in the environment.

Both candidates envision major investments in "clean coal" technology that turns carbon from coal into gas through a chemical process. The gas may get stored underground or deep in the ocean. So far, the technology for storage has not been proven. McCain proposes spending $2 billion annually for the next three years on developing this technology. Obama says he will "significantly" increase the resources devoted to the technology.

Between now and 2020, Austin is not planning on clean-coal technology to help it reduce its emissions. "We do not see that technology being available for actual commercial use in the next decade at least, possibly longer," says Roger Duncan, general manager of Austin Energy.

McCain is proposing to build 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030, with the ultimate goal of constructing 100 of them. Obama foresees a role for nuclear power plants but first wants to sort out controversial issues such as long-term storage of radioactive waste. Unlike McCain, Obama opposes using Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a repository for such waste.

Austin is already a partner in a nuclear power plant in Bay City, Texas. But the city turned down participation in the expansion of the facility for financial reasons.

Both candidates are also planning on some form of cap-and-trade legislation, a system of setting a limit on carbon emissions and allowing companies to buy and sell the right to emit, Several bills are being considered in Congress.

Wynn estimates that cap and trade, which he favors, could cost Austin Energy as much as $2 billion for the right to burn carbon, depending on which version Congress passes. In a worst-case scenario, this would cost residents 13 to 20 percent more for their electricity. "I tell people we have to stop acting as if climate protection doesn't cost anything," he says. "Price signals are how we change habits."