Texas’ first city-owned utility to run on 100% renewable energy

Georgetown, Texas, is home to the oldest university in the Lone Star State and is affectionately called the “red poppy capital” of Texas. It will soon add another accolade to the mix: the state’s first city-owned utility to run on 100 percent renewable energy.  Last month the city announced a 25-year contract with SunEdison to buy 150 megawatts of solar energy. In order to supply the power, SunEdison will build a solar farm in West Texas. The solar will complement a deal Georgetown signed last year with EFD Renewables for 144 MW of wind power from its West Texas wind farm through 2039.

Between the two sources, the city of about 50,000 people will have more than enough power even with projected population growth, said Keith Hutchinson, a spokesman for the city.  When it came down to it, Hutchinson said the price was right for renewable power.“With renewables, you avoid the price volatility of fossil fuels,” he said. “We’ve certainly seen plenty of volatility in the price of natural gas and gasoline. This removes that uncertainty and locks in a long-term low cost.” 

Georgetown is the latest city to join the renewables quest, which has been slowly growing across the country.

Technological innovations have dropped the price of wind and solar in some markets to be not only competitive with traditional fossil fuel power generation, but often less expensive, said Malcolm Woolf, senior vice president of policy and government affairs for Advanced Energy Economy. In many other places, renewables are gaining ground quickly. Coupled with increased transmission infrastructure, favorable policies, subsidies, and renewable energy goals in states and cities, it’s becoming more common to see wind, solar, hydropower and biomass use.

By 2017, more than 13,000 MW of new wind energy capacity is expected to come online in the United States (ClimateWire, March 17). Solar grew 39 percent in 2014, according to the AEE 2015 Market Report.  As states consider cutting emissions 30 percent by 2030 under EPA’s Clean Power Plan, renewable energy is increasingly becoming part of the conversation, as well.  Texas in particular is experiencing both a wind and solar boom, called a “land rush” by some, in part because of the completion of 3,600 miles of new transmission lines that can bring renewable energy from West Texas where it is being generated to the metropolitan areas in East Texas where it is in demand.

The Competitive Renewable Energy Zone, or CREZ, is a $6.8 billion project, paid for by the electric ratepayers of Texas. The transmission project can accommodate 18,500 MW of generating capacity.  That move was championed by Republican leadership and the Texas Public Utility Commission and has opened the possibility for renewables as a substantial part of the energy portfolios for multiple cities, said Thomas Edgar, a professor of engineering and chairman of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.

“The basic infrastructure investment from the state was created at a scale that has made renewable energy economic,” he said. “Currently, we’re riding the coattails of that forward-looking decision made six or seven years ago.”

Cheap land prices in West Texas are also helpful, as is a bounty of both wind and sunshine, Edgar said.  Texas is a wind leader in the United States, with 20 percent of the country’s total capacity of the resource generated in the state. It produces 12,800 MW of wind power, with wind capable of supplying over a quarter of the grid’s power.

Investments have boosted renewable prospects. Last May, Austin Energy announced it will partner with a California company to build a 150-MW solar farm in West Texas to help meet demand in San Antonio, for example.  Also making it possible for cities to consider renewable options more seriously is that engineers have had decades of experience adding renewables to the grid and implementing the technical fixes needed to make them better, said Mike Jacobs, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Furthermore, advancements in technology have driven prices down.  “The technology has gone from the Model T Ford of 30 years ago to being Formula 1 race cars for wind,” Jacobs said. “In the case of solar, it went from being tremendously expensive to being cheap enough to compete with local utilities.”

Because Georgetown’s electricity grid is managed by a regional entity, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the city is well-positioned for 100 percent renewable electricity, Edgar said. The city calculates its demand for electricity and contracts for the amount of renewables it needs, and ERCOT makes sure supply and demand is taken care of.  Overall, Hutchinson stressed, the city is contracting for more than 100 percent of the energy the city will use in the form of renewable power, to keep its use renewable and cheap.

Georgetown owns the utility that controls electricity distribution, but the city doesn’t have any generating capacity — it retired its last plant in 1945. Instead, it contracts for electricity. In 2012, the city’s contract with the Lower Colorado River Authority expired and the city began asking for proposals.

“SunEdison had the best price,” Hutchinson said. Because nearly all electricity customers are served by the city-owned utility, Georgetown has a fair amount of autonomy to choose renewable energy for its electricity for the entire town, he said.

 

Hutchinson said Georgetown hopes running on sunshine and wind, and having lots of it, will draw technology firms and maybe even big data centers. In addition, he said existing customers, such as a newly built Sheridan Hotel, have a bonus message to share with their customers: “When you come to Georgetown, you’re not burning fossil fuels when you turn on the lights.”

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