Georgetown Texas and other cities go “all in” on renewable energy

Last month the cities of Pueblo, Colorado, and Moab, Utah became the first cities to commit to going 100 percent renewable since Trump took office, bringing the total number of cities that have gone 100 percent renewable, or have pledged to go 100 percent renewable, to 23.

And while a handful of those cities are located in Democratic bastions like California — San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have all pledged to get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources — others, like Georgetown, Texas, are located in traditionally conservative areas. In a press interview before Trump’s inauguration, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (D) described a wave of climate-friendly policies being enacted in cities around the country.  “It’s become normalized,” Garcetti said. “It’s not just our city. It’s Michigan, it’s Colorado, it’s Texas, it’s Indiana, it’s South Carolina, it’s North Carolina, it’s Ohio, it’s Nevada. We’ve got cities everywhere. It’s small, it’s big, it’s in between. And it’s growing.”

States are also starting to step up their climate policies — in addition to California’s bill, lawmakers in Massachusetts recently introduced a bill that would mandate the state obtain 100 percent of its energy across all sectors — electricity, transportation, manufacturing, and others — from renewable sources by 2050. If passed, it would be the most ambitious clean energy plan adopted by any state in the country.

California Senate leader Kevin de Léon (D) introduced a bill this month aimed at hastening the state’s transition to renewable energy — a bill that would create one of the most ambitious renewable energy mandates in the country.  The bill would require California to obtain 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2045. It would also require California to get half of its electricity from renewable energy by 2025 — five years earlier than the current law mandates.

Georgetown, Texas Goes All In on Renewable Energy

Georgetown’s municipal utility has unveiled plans to tap wind and solar energy to meet all of its customers’ power needs, making it the first Texas city-owned utility to abandon fossil fuels.

 
Mike Baker
 A Central Texas city is waving goodbye to fossil fuels.

Georgetown’s municipal utility on Wednesday unveiled plans to abandon traditional electricity sources like coal and gas power plants, instead exclusively tapping wind and solar energy to meet all of its customers’ power needs. It is the state’s first city-owned utility to make that leap.

The city announced a 25-year deal with SunEdison, the world’s largest renewable energy company, to buy 150 megawatts of solar power beginning next year. The company said it would build a solar farm in West Texas to meet the demand.

Last year, Georgetown signed a contract for 144 megawatts of wind energy through 2039. That electricity comes from an EDF Renewables wind farm 50-miles west of Amarillo.  (On average, a megawatt of solar energy can power as many as 100 Texas homes on the hottest summer days. During average temperatures, it can power many times more.)

City officials touted a number of benefits of scrapping fossil fuels, including protecting air quality and curbing water use. But ultimately, the deal made financial sense.

“It was really primarily a price decision,” said Keith Hutchinson, the city’s spokesman.

Hutchinson said the deals locked in cheaper electricity than what the city’s expired contract with the Lower Colorado River Authority guaranteed, and it would hedge against any future spikes in coal or natural gas prices – whether because of new regulations or other market shifts.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future for regulations for fossil-based fuels,” he said. “This really removes that element from our price costs going forward.”

Because of its size and intense radiation, Texas leads the nation in solar energy potential, but the solar industry has long struggled to get a foothold in the state, as policymakers have provided fewer incentives than other states, and solar energy currently makes up a tiny percentage of the state’s energy portfolio.

That’s beginning to change.

Improving technology has driven down the price of solar power, making it more competitive with other resources­ — even without extra incentives, developers say. That trend has sparked what some industry experts describe as a small “land rush” in West Texas, and it’s increasingly convincing utilities that solar power is workable.

San Antonio’s CPS Energy, which plans to retire one of its oldest coal plants ahead of schedule, has set a goal of using renewable energy to meet 20 percent of its electricity demand by 2020, with at least 100 megawatts from renewable resources other than wind. Once completed, its Alamo Project is expected to deliver 400 megawatts of solar power to the area.

And last May, Austin Energy signed a deal with a California company to build a 150-megawatt solar farm in West Texas, to help meet its ambitious renewable energy goal.

But in completely cutting ties to fossil fuels, Georgetown, a city of roughly 55,000, is alone in Texas and has little company elsewhere. Burlington, Vt.; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Aspen, Colo., are among the few U.S. cities in the group.

Most Texas cities don’t run utilities. In those areas, residents purchase electricity from competing retailers – some of which offer 100-percent renewable plans.

Not all leaders in Texas have emphasized solar as a path forward for Texas. In a report last fall, for instance, former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs derided renewable energy sources such as wind and solar as unreliable (the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow) and too expensive, saying that long-term contracts for solar energy could lock utilities into rates that might look too high in the future.

Hutchinson said Georgetown’s wind and solar contracts complement each other on reliability issues, since wind turbines typically churn out more power at night, and solar panels generate more energy during the day.

“It’s a good time to move on solar,” said Carey King, assistant director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute. “You can debate, whether if you wait another year or two, if it’s a little cheaper,” he said, but locking in rates now could ultimately pay off in the long term.

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As Jim Walsh recently wrote (21 Feb 2017):  There are so many different ideas about how we can stop ourselves from falling off the climate cliff that it can make your head spin!

A real clean energy plan would have a mix of policies focused on setting a trajectory for 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Pueblo City, Colorado just committed to this goal, joining 22 other communities that have made a similar commitment to renewable energy.  Crossing the proverbial tipping point will mean abrupt and irreversible impacts on our climate. Even with the current 1°C rise in global temperatures, we are seeing catastrophic climate impacts such as increasing severity of extreme weather, droughts, floods, and forest fires.  This is why we are calling for a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. By meeting this goal, we will have a decent chance of avoiding a temperature increase of 1.5°C. Here are some of the policies that we’ll be fighting for locally that will help bring about this goal.

Renewable Portfolio Standards

A renewable portfolio standard (RPS) is the most surefire way to get off fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy as quickly as possible. RPSs are simply telling utilities what percent of energy they must generate from renewable energy and when. To date, 29 states have adopted RPSs, and legislation is pending in states without RPSs. Many of these states with RPSs have bills proposed to strengthen their standards, including a bill in California that sets a trajectory of 100 percent renewable by 2045 and one in Massachusetts for 2050.

Like all laws, there are a cadre of special interests working to get their interests addressed in RPS laws. For instance, a number of interests profiting from fracking have created the “Renewable Natural Gas” coalition, which among other things, promotes gas as a form of renewable energy. In typical Orwellian fashion, they claim that generating electricity from gas helps states meet their RPS policy goals. Other forms of dirty energy are also lingering in state RPS definitions for renewables, such as biomass (think animal waste), waste recovery facilities (think trash incinerators), and even nuclear power and “clean” coal. By including these types of energy in RPSs, we are incentivizing dirty energy and reducing the amounts of truly clean energy that utilities will have to produce.

Energy Efficiency

Reducing wasted energy through energy efficiency is core to reaching a goal of 100 percent renewable energy. Energy efficiency can be achieved through policies that improve building design standards, weatherize existing housing, improve electricity transmission efficiency and make consumer products work while using less energy. By implementing energy efficiency programs we will not only make it easier to reach 100% renewable energy, but we will create jobs and save ratepayers money through lower energy bills.

Net Metering

We must promote policies that make renewable energy more affordable. One of the most effective ways to do this is through net metering. Net metering allows people who install renewable energy for their homes and businesses to get paid for excess energy they put into the grid. This can help to reduce the payback time for people investing in renewable energy, thereby encouraging more renewable energy development. Numerous state studies have even shown that net metering policies benefit ratepayers who don’t install renewable energy themselves through avoided energy and capacity costs; decreased or deferred generation, distribution, and transmission investments; avoided line losses; and reduced price and supply risks.

Stopping Market-Based Schemes

In addition to making sure there are good policies in place for renewable energy, we need to continue to push against false solutions being peddled by policy makers on behalf of some of the biggest polluters in the world. Chief among these policies are pollution trading and pollution taxing. Not only will these systems not get the results we need to stop climate change from destroying the planet, they are regulatory rollbacks that threaten the very foundation of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, two of the key environmental protections that essentially say, you do not have an inherent right to pollute. Quite simply, these market-based carbon pricing strategies are pay-to-pollute schemes.

It is easy to see why companies like Exxon would support policies like a carbon tax, as it will allow them to continue with business as usual, while passing any additional costs onto their customers. They know the alternative is they will have to stop destroying the planet through the extraction, refining, and sale of fossil fuels.

Big business is not the only one pushing these false solutions. Many organizations that have traditionally stood up for the environment are lining up to support policies like carbon taxes as well. Unfortunately, these will not bring about the real climate policy we desperately need.

Positive Signs

There are many signs that a real clean energy plan is possible, and we don’t need to desperately support the politically convenient, but inadequate solutions. Solar prices are reaching record lows, and prices continue to drop. Improvements in weather prediction and innovation in batteries is making storage of intermittent energy from renewable energy a problem of the past. There is a job boom in the renewable industry, as 1 in every 50 jobs created in the U.S. last year was in the solar industry. This matches the growth we have seen in solar energy, which grew by 119 percent in 2015. Perhaps one of the best signs we have that a renewable energy future is possible is the fact that wind turbines just supplied over 50 percent of the energy load in the central United States.

Food & Water Watch faced significant criticism for…seeing fracking for what it is, a dangerous and unnecessary technology that destroys drinking water and threatens public health and the climate. Since we took that position the politics have changed, as New York and Vermont have banned fracking, as have hundreds of municipalities and counties, and over 1,000 organizations across the United States have joined this fight. Most notably, Senator Bernie Sanders became the first mainstream presidential candidate to endorse a ban on fracking.   One of the important lessons of this fight is that supporting what is politically convenient will hinder our ability to create a vision for the world we want to live in, and in the case of climate change, the world we need to live. When President Kennedy stood up in front of America and said that we will land on the moon in 10 years, many people said it was impossible, but he had the political will to make it happen. We don’t have Kennedy in the White House right now, but what we do have is a growing movement of resistance, which can shape that vision and challenge our elected officials at every level of government to make the clean energy revolution a reality.