The Dominos Are Falling: Conservative Texas Towns Embrace Renewables’ Low Prices

on November 03, 2015 at 10:00 AM

Coastal Texas Faces Heavy Damage After Hurricane Ike

Over the next four years, Texas’ energy landscape will change dramatically. For example, throughout the 630-mile, nine-hour drive from Denton, Texas to El Paso, rolling hills will dominate the horizon and aromas from pastures and barbeque pits will waft through windows, as they have for the past hundred years. What will have a far less prominent role, however, are coal-fired power plants.

That’s because there seems to be a domino effect occurring in Texas: more and more cities are turning to affordable, renewable energy to power their needs.

Denton, Georgetown, and other Texas clean energy pioneer cities

Earlier this month, the municipal electric utility that serves Denton, a North Texas city of 130,000 people,announced plans to get an impressive 70 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2019. That’s well above the 10 percent Texas currently receives from renewables (on average).

This ambitious renewables target echoes one set earlier this year by Georgetown, a fellow Texas city just north of Austin, which is on track to be 100 percent renewable by 2017. The city’s mayor, Dale Ross, minced no words inclarifying the reason behind the decision, “environmental zealots have not taken over our city council […] Our move to wind and solar is chiefly a business decision based on cost and price stability.”

More specifically, this move yields Georgetown the security of a fixed rate plan, which protects the city from fossil fuel price fluctuations for the next 25 years. Essentially, Georgetown is locking down a price on electricity to enable better planning for the future.

Plus, Mayor Ross anticipates that this low, long-term, predictable rate will spur economic development and bring businesses to the area. According to his editorial for Time,

Many companies, especially those in the high-tech sector, are looking to increase green sources of power for both office and manufacturing facilities. Our 100 percent renewable energy can help those companies to achieve sustainability goals at a competitive price without the burden of managing power supply contracts.”

In addition to economic development, this switch to renewables doubles as a water conservation strategy – particularly important in our drought-ridden state. As of October 6, 2015, about 70 percent of Texas wasabnormally dry, and 10 percent was experiencing extreme drought, including the area around Georgetown. This is impressive considering that earlier this spring, Texas was hit with historic floods and enough rain to cover the entire state with 8 inches of water.

Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants consume significant amounts of water, but the wind and solar PV plants to which Georgetown is transitioning use negligible amounts. The move to renewables thus means more water for Georgetown’s families and businesses.

Denton and Georgetown are not the only Texas cities for which low-priced renewables have inspired ambitious clean energy targets:

  • El Paso Electric is on track to be coal-free by 2016. When the utility made this decision in 2014, electricity from solar was less than half the cost of electricity from coal.
  • Since then, Austin Energy, the municipal utility that serves Texas’ capital city, has inked a solar power purchase agreement for 4 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). In fact, solar prices have decreased so quickly that Austin Energy even has “buyer’s remorse” about agreeing to pay 5 cents per kWh for solar a year earlier in 2014 (a bargain relative to non-solar fuels). The utility forecasts an unprecedented 2 cents per kWh solar before 2020.
  • In addition to its target of running on 20 percent renewables by 2020, CPS Energy in San Antonio plans to mothball a coal plant in 2018, or fifteen years earlier than expected. Meanwhile, the utility has “developed two new solar programs with the aim of radically increasing the amount of solar power in [its] region.”

Why are these clean energy decisions important?

What differentiates Denton and Georgetown’s stories is politics. While Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso are historically more liberal cities with citizens for whom environmental causes resonate, Georgetown and Denton are politically more representative of the rest of the state. For example, in the 2014 Senate race, Williamson County (which subsumes Georgetown) and Denton County voted 62 percent and 68 percent for the Republican candidate, respectively.

These cities’ actions support recent survey data that reveal Republicans have positive sentiments toward clean energy, and – perhaps more importantly – clean energy is not a partisan issue at its core. In fact, 77 percent of surveyed Republicans believe “the United States should use more renewable energy sources in the future,” and about 54 percent believe the U.S. should “immediately” increase renewable energy usage.

Even in Texas’ conservative cities, politics are not proving to be a hindrance as renewables begin to outcompete fossil fuels – yet another encouraging sign for clean energy’s future.

And many of these cities’ inhabitants are on board. For example, Denton’s target was already 40 percent, but Dentonites wanted more. According to the city’s mayor, Chris Watts, the new increased target is the city’s “proposed answer to the citizens’ requests of how can we increase that number.” And Georgetown’s 100 percent clean energy target makes its citizens proud.

With these cities as a bellwether, it’s clear winds are blowing Texas to a clean energy future. As these winds continue to pick up, expect more dominoes to fall.

By Peter Sopher 

Originally Published on October 27, 2015

The Energy Exchange Blog is a forum where EDF‘s energy experts discuss how to accelerate the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy economy. Follow them on Twitter here: @EDFEnergyEX