April 2nd, 2018 by Tina Casey on Clean Technica
Georgetown, Texas, has become something of a green celebrity for reaching its 100% renewable energy goal within just three years, and now the city is taking clean power to the next level. Not content with buying power from wind and solar farms located hundreds of miles away, city planners are moving ahead with a plan to pepper the town with solar panels.
You read that right. Texas has been an epicenter of US oil and gas production for generations, and now 65,000 of its own citizens are happily demonstrating how to cut the fossil energy cord.
Renewable Energy: Money Talks
If fossil fuel fans have a worst nightmare, Georgetown would be it. The city is living proof that renewable energy can save money for ratepayers.
Last fall, The Guardian talked to Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross, who explained that Georgetown started with a wind power investment back in 2014, when it was negotiating for power supply. At the time, the cost difference between natural gas and renewable energy was negligible, but wind and solar had a secret weapon that natural gas couldn’t match: long-term rate guarantees of 20-25 years, compared to only 7 for natural gas.
Here’s a rundown on the plan from The Texas Tribune:
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.
The bet has already paid off. In 2008 Georgetown’s electricity rate was 11.4 cents per kilowatt hour. Last year it was only 8.5 cents.
Yes, This City Will Pay You To Go Solar
With the 100% renewable energy plan well in hand, you’d think Georgetown would rest on its laurels. Nope. The city is looking at the potential for future growth.
That means attracting new businesses, and in consideration of Georgetown’s cultural, tourism, and arts-oriented business community, that 100% renewable energy brand gives Georgetown an edge over the competition.
City officials estimate that news about its clean power buys reached about two billion people so far. Try getting that kind of free publicity with a new natural gas, coal, or nuclear energy contract.
The advantage isn’t just that businesses can burnish their green cred when they help fight climate change and conserve resources, though that is an important factor (city officials emphasize that renewable energy saves water, too).
There’s a direct bottom line advantage, too. Planners are beginning to recognize the operational value of locally sourced wind and solar. Add that to a competitive price for renewables, and you have an unbeatable combo.
If you’re thinking “virtual power plant,” run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Here’s local NBC affiliate KXAN with the scoop from Georgetown official Jack Daly:
One-hundred percent of Georgetown’s energy already comes from renewable sources, Daly said, but that includes a wind farm in the panhandle and a solar farm in west Texas. “We were thinking, ‘Boy, instead of being regulated by the state grid and relying on transmitting energy long distances, wouldn’t it be cool if we made all our power here in Georgetown?’”
With $100,000 in seed money from the Bloomberg Philanthropies 2018 Mayors Challenge, Georgetown will pay property owners to fork over part of their roof space for solar panels. The city’s rooftop solar plan earned it one of 35 slots on the Mayors Challenge “champion cities” list for innovations in urban planning. Here’s the rundown from Bloomberg:
The City of Georgetown will lease rooftop space on residential and commercial properties to install solar panels that will generate enough energy to offset the need to purchase power from outside sources in this completely renewable energy-powered city.
Georgetown is eager to share the rooftop solar details. You can read its full press release online but for those of you on the go, the $100,000 is part of the “Test, Learn, and Adapt” phase of Challenge. Georgetown will be provided with expert guidance to refine the idea, and if all goes well it will be one of four cities to receive a $1 million followup award.
That’s small potatoes compared to the $5 million grand prize for one lucky city, but in any case the city is prepared to forge ahead even if $100,000 is the only funding they get from the Challenge.
Power By The People, For The People
If you’re wondering why Georgetown is able to get all this done so quickly, one important element in the mix is that Georgetown has its own municipal utility authority, which among other things means that it can tend to its own business instead of calculating pluses and minuses around a sprawling network of power plants covering a vast array of political jurisdictions.
Also, Georgetown planners could see the feasibility of 100% clean power plan for their city when they took a look at Burlington, Vermont. Burlington, which also happens to have its own municipal electric utility, was the first US city to go 100% renewable.
Unfortunately, even when cities are eager to act on renewable energy, state-level legislators can still toss a monkey wrench into the clean power works.
The current occupant of the White House also hasn’t been much help, though as CleanTechnica has noted many (many) times, Energy Secretary Rick Perry seems to have developed his own weird formula for keeping his boss happy while aggressively promotingthe Energy Department’s wind and solar initiatives, so there’s that.
Photo: via City of Georgetown, Texas.
He shouldn’t have been so surprised. Ross is the mayor of Georgetown, population 65,000, and he has become a minor celebrity in environmental circles as a result of a pioneering decision in 2015 to get all the city’s electricity from renewable sources.
Georgetown’s location in oil-and-gas-centric Texas and Ross’s politics add to the strangeness of the tale. The mayor is a staunch Republican at a time when a Republican president – and his Environmental Protection Agency administrator – reject the scientific consensus on climate change and are trying to revive the declining coal industry.
Ross has appeared in a National Geographic documentary, a forthcoming film about clean energy for HBO directed by James Redford (son of Robert) and in this year’s follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, which saw the advocate and former vice-president Al Gore visit Georgetown.
The day after we met at city hall, just off Georgetown’s charming main square, Ross was set to fly to Utah to introduce a screening of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Then it was on to Las Vegas to reunite with Gore, a fellow speaker at Friday’s National Clean Energy Summit, an event co-hosted by Reid, a Democrat from Nevada. Next week, a conference in Oakland, California. Next month, a green energy panel in Nova Scotia.
“You should see the fan mail that I get, especially with the movies,” Ross grinned. The 58-year-old said the decision to follow the lead of Burlington, Vermont – the first US city to run solely on renewable energy – was not the product of liberal do-gooder vapours wafting up Interstate 35 from nearby Austin. It was based on cold-eyed pragmatism, the fruit of the kind of careful numerical analysis he performs in his day job as a certified public accountant.
“The revolution is here,” he said. “And I’m a good little Republican, a rightwing fiscal conservative, but when it comes to making decisions based on facts, that’s what we do.”
When it comes to making decisions based on facts, that’s what we do
The facts, Ross said, are that when Georgetown negotiated power supply deals the cost was about the same between natural gas and wind and solar, but the natural gas option would provide only a seven-year guaranteed contract whereas 20-25 year proposals were on the table from renewable providers.
Georgetown officials decided to lock in a long-term rate to eliminate price volatility, mindful of the risk that future government actions might send fossil fuel costs soaring.
Prices in the city, Ross said, have declined from 11.4¢ per kilowatt hour in 2008 to 8.5¢ this year. Georgetown sources most of its power from a wind farm 500 miles away in Amarillo and will get solar energy from a farm in west Texas that is expected to be finished next June, meaning the city can attain its 100% renewable goal even when the wind isn’t blowing. This year, Ross said, the tally is about 90%, down from 100% in 2016.
“I think it’s a big step for Texas, for Georgetown,” said Christian Soeffker, who runs a toy shop on the square. “We just like the idea of being in a town that is in some ways special because we’ve got all that green energy.”
Georgetown makes headlines not only because so few US cities run entirely on renewables, but because it has a conservative mayor willing to make compromises and fraternise with high-profile Democrats in a hyper-partisan era where climate change is one of the most divisive subjects.
“How is anybody going to compete with wind and solar?” said Ross, who has ordered an electric-powered BMW scooter from California and plans to fit solar panels at his home and office.
All the same, he voted for coal’s biggest champion in last November’s presidential election – Trump was “like, my eighth or ninth choice” in the primary, he said – and went to his inauguration, which he said was “phenomenal”, even if it cost $700 for a basic hotel room. His support is not unquestioning, though.
“When Trump was campaigning he was talking about clean coal and we’re going to bring coal jobs back? That is a mirage, that is not going to happen,” he said. “Coal is one of the most expensive forms of fossil fuels to produce. And those jobs are never going to come back, ever. They’re done.”
As for any policies the federal government might enact to boost the coal industry, such as the decision announced on Tuesday to scrap the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan?
“Isn’t that sort of like putting a Band-Aid on somebody that has terminal cancer?” Ross said. “I’m not the smartest guy in the room but it’s not that complicated, OK? How’s fossil fuels going to compete in the next five years? They’re not going to be able to compete.”
‘We have so much that is ideal for solar’
Texas is the US leader in wind energy capacity, even as many of its politicians maintain absolute fealty to fossil fuels that are a key economic driver and still the supplier of most of the state’s electricity. It has lagged behind other states in solar capacity but is starting to realise its potential.
“We have so much area in Texas that’s ideal for solar,” said Joey Romano, a 35-year-old with a small solar farm 50 miles west of downtown Houston. “Solar and wind, unsubsidised, today already can compete with coal,” he said.
Local Sun has about 100 residential customers. Completed at the end of 2015, the farm is located in a rural county that gave Trump 79% of the vote. But Romano said local officials recognised the potential for jobs and revenue and were happy to help the project get off the ground. Beehives stand among the 15,000 panels.
“We call the programme ‘farm-to-market solar energy’,” Romano said, at his office in central Houston.
Local Sun is a boutique operation in partnership with MP2 Energy, a retail company owned by Shell, and it is designed to attract those willing to pay a small premium for an eco-conscious local product, much as food shoppers might spend a little more for organic groceries.
However modest, its very existence feels like a significant marker in a city that is known as America’s oil and gas capital but is in fact the nation’s biggest municipal user of green power.
On the other hand, environmental activists worry that solar’s growth will be stunted in Texas and across the country if, as appears likely, the Trump White House imposes prohibitive tariffs on imported solar panels.
“They may harm thousands of installation jobs in favour of a few hundred manufacturing jobs, so that could hurt,” said Jim Marston of the Environmental Defense Fund, who believes renewable energy will thrive even if federal incentives end and barriers are erected.
“You can’t stop the technology. It’s too good, the prices are too good, and people want it,” he said.
Ross agrees that market forces will prevail. On Friday, the day of the clean energy summit, Texas’s largest electricity producer announced it would close two more coal-fuelled power plants in the state.
Luminant cited challenging economic conditions including low wholesale and natural gas prices and the growth of renewables. A week earlier, the company said that in January it will retire a large coal-powered plant in east Texas.
“We were on the frontier of the fossil fuel business, oil and gas,” Ross said. “And now Texas again is on the frontier of the new energy that’s going to be the future.”