Paul Robbins : Switching on the Sunshine

Flipping the switch at solar farm near Austin, Texas. Rag Blog photo.

Let the sunshine in:
On being young and crazy in Austin

They say that victory has 1,000 parents, but defeat is an orphan.

By Paul Robbins | The Rag Blog | January 11, 2012

AUSTIN — On Friday, Jan. 6, Austin officially commissioned its new 30-megawatt solar plant. It is one of the largest solar installations in the U.S. Austin and the environmental community in particular should be proud of this accomplishment.

Located near the small town of Webberville at the eastern edge of Travis County, the “solar farm” consists of 127,780 photovoltaic panels mounted on tracking axes covering a site of 380 acres. It will provide electricity equal to that used in 5,500 average Austin homes. Ironically the site, owned by Austin Energy, the City’s municipal public utility, was originally purchased in 1984 for a coal plant that was never built.

They say that victory has 1,000 parents, but defeat is an orphan. Many people will claim credit for this achievement. Many of them deserve it. However, the people left out of the celebration were the ones who had the original idea: the anti-nuclear activists of the 1970s.

Solar array at massive new solar farm in Webberville, Texas. Rag Blog photo.

We were mostly 20- and 30-somethings with the sun in our eyes, activists who wanted an alternative to a future of dangerous nuclear and coal plants. To the power structure of that generation, we were “crazy.” We were sometimes ignored, other times ridiculed, occasionally even blacklisted or persecuted.

Our attempts to keep Austin out of the South Texas Nuclear Project — ultimately unsuccessful when the City power structure stabbed student voters in the back — were both epic struggles and advanced courses in political organizing.

And last Friday we won. Of about 200 people there, including all manner of press, I was the only member of the “original cast.” It was a sunny winter day and people seemed festive. There were various props, including a yellow ribbon to cut and an official “light switch” to turn on, powering a (compact fluorescent) bulb.

The utility even had a special ride for attendees, who could don hardhats and safety harnesses to get an aerial view of the field from the bucket of a “cherry picker” electric line maintenance truck. We had to sign a release form.

Austin environmentalist and Rag Blog contributor Paul Robbins, shown with Shannon Halley, aide to Austin City Councilmember Kathy Tovo. Rag Blog photo.

I am including a few photos, like the one [above] of me in a hardhat next to Council aide Shannon Halley, who accompanied me in the bucket.

On the bus ride back, I thought about all the people I worked with in that era, the people who had the original vision, the people who went unrecognized. This was their victory too.

[Paul Robbins is an environmental activist and consumer advocate based in Austin, Texas. Read more articles by Paul Robbins on The Rag Blog.]

Links to news stories, with video:

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3 Responses to Paul Robbins : Switching on the Sunshine

  1. Todd Samusson says:

    As one of the “original cast” members who has long since left Texas for Oregon, I want to offer a big congratulations to Austin for making this happen. We hear so much bad news all the time. This is one bright spot.

  2. LOVE the giant light switch!!!
    In the late 1970s and early 80s, Youth Emergency Service/The Phogg Phoundation for the Pursuit of Happiness sponsored a series of “SunFest” events at Austin’s Auditorium Shores. (That was so long ago that Bob Marley Day wasn’t even an annual event!)
    Each fall, dozens of social service, neighborhood, and political groups set up colorful booths alongside Austin’s early solar and wind energy businesses, renewable energy advocates, recyclers, and other “green” folks like Save Barton Springs to enjoy 3 days of music from 30 or so of Austin’s finest bands, drank a LOT of 25 cent beer, shared information, and sold T-shirts, bumper stickers, and delicious edibles to raise funds (way before mobile food carts, too).
    While Paul may have been the only member of the “original cast” invited to help inaugurate the Webberville solar farm, lots of SunFest planners and participants (hi, Todd!!) have continued their activism here or elsewhere, and many who weren’t particularly interested in solar power learned about it there in credible, demonstrable ways.
    If this step towards solar power has 1000 parents, I’d like to think that SunFest itself was one of them. Todd, BJ, Sammy, Ray R, Bob R, Adela M, Dick MF, Susan D, Mark B, Ava, Marcos, Mike K, yrs truly, and others I may not have thought of right now – are all still kicking.
    Ecology Action of Austin also deserves some kudos here. Founder Beth Brown picked up newspapers in an old truck and hauled them off somewhere to be pulped. People said she was “eccentric” (meaning tough and determined).
    YES/Phogg built a few newspaper collection kiosks near UT for EA, with beautiful murals by Puerto Rican artist Carlos Osorio of blessed memory. Now the City operates its own household recycling program, unheard-of when Beth tackled a “trash” problem most saw as insoluble. The organization has gone through all the expected changes, but Ecology Action of Austin continues to provide free public recycling, contractual services for special events, an array of educational programs, and more. Naturally, EA participated in SunFest from the very beginning.

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