Will Wynn, the mayor of Austin, Tex., says he publishes his electricity bill in the paper to show how a little energy management can produce results. (It’s frequently below $50 per month.) Sure, we have Al Gore, and every trend-seeking celebrity waving the climate-change flag and driving a Prius, but we really need more likable public officials that are actually creating change in meaningful ways.
Mayor Wynn is just that. He has helped Austin become one of the leading cities for incubating clean-tech startups; the city now counts at least 25 of them, such as HelioVolt, as part of its local industry. He’s also trying to make sure clean tech stays in Austin: The city is working with HelioVolt on an economic incentives package to try to make sure the company’s manufacturing facilities stay local, for example. “We are spending a lot of time, effort and money in a targeted way to try to grow the clean technology sector here in Austin,” Wynn told us. His efforts are clearly resonating with Austin residents; according to his web site, he got over 78 percent of the vote in the most recent election. Oh yeah — and he walks to work. Below are excerpts from a conversation with Mayor Wynn.
Q. Why is the clean tech industry important for Austin?
A. It starts with the fact that Austin has a great tradition of a positive environmental perspective. It used to be focused on water quality and air quality, and now folks are becoming more aware that we need to talk about energy. We are truly a clean tech capital. We founded the Austin Clean Energy Incubator. Austin Energy is a beta lab for clean energy companies.
Q. There are a lot of debates about what clean energy options are viable. What are you excited about?
A. Well Texas blew past California in terms of wind. I’m also really interested in material sciences, smart appliances, computer chips. The tech sector will also play a huge role in this. There are fortunes to be made here. If we are smart, we are going to be right in the middle of the economic opportunity that combating global warming will offer. This will make a lot of people a lot of money.
Q. What do you think about carbon offsets; do you do these in your daily life?
A. We are actually in the process of creating a city-wide carbon footprint calculator that will focus on locally-based offsets for Austin, using local projects in the area. We’ve been waiting to roll that out, and it has been taking us awhile to create it. Hopefully we are weeks away from launching it.
Q. Austin leads in clean tech innovation, but when it comes to “a green city,” SustainLane said that Austin dropped in rankings “because the city remains heavily car-dependent, with ramifications for congestion and overall economic health.” What do you think about that criticism and are you doing anything to help the situation?
A. I agree completely. Transportation is far and away our biggest challenge. We will knock it out of the ball park for energy, but for transportation it is difficult and that is because of land use challenges. We are a sprawling metropolitan area. I use myself as an example: I moved downtown into a high-rise and dramatically reduced my car use, but ultimately it will take dramatically different land use patterns to have a viable mass transit options.
We are dramatically reassigning land use for every place we can. And there is opposition every time we try to do that. I am proposing an election for 2008, to have a significant passenger rail referendum.