Voices of 100%: Mayor Dale Ross on Georgetown’s Successful Switch to Renewable Power — Episode 58 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 8 Aug 2018 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Marie Donahue: Across the country, more than 50 cities of all sizes have adopted goals to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable resources. While the growing number of these commitments is an encouraging sign, few cities have created a clear pathway to achieve their goals. To learn more, we started asking folks why these commitments matter and how cities will follow through on their promise to transform the local energy system. You are listening to an episode of Voices of 100%, a new multi-part series from the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Local Energy Rules podcast, where we’re speaking with local leaders from across the country to understand their reasons for pursuing a 100% renewable energy goal, how their city plans to achieve that goal and what these visionaries see as the future of local, renewable energy.
John Farrell: Over 50 us cities have adopted a goal to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable resources, but only a few have actually done it. This week, we learn about a city that used its power of ownership to achieve a bold clean energy goal two years ago, that most other cities don’t plan to reach for a decade or more. Dale Ross is the mayor of Georgetown, a Texas city who’s locally owned utility signed contracts to get 100 percent of its electricity from wind and solar power in 2016. Ross recently spoke with me about that decision and why wind and sun makes sense. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy. Mayor Ross, welcome to the program.
Dale Ross: Yeah, I’m honored to be here. Thanks for having me.
John Farrell: I wanted to start off by asking you about how Georgetown managed to get ahead of the 69 other cities that have set a goal to be a hundred percent renewable by getting all of its power from the wind and from the sun last year.
Dale Ross: Well, one of the things that happened is in 2016 is when we actually went a hundred percent renewable, using a hundred percent renewable resources, what happened is we were coming to the end of a contract and we wanted to expedite closing out that contract. So can’t just walk away from contracts. We wrote a big check because we, we found it the, the most one thing with us, it was a business business decision back in the day. And so what we decided was we wanted two things to happen. One, we wanted to eliminate volatility in the market in the short term. And we also wanted to have an energy source that mitigated regulatory and governmental risk. And the only thing that fit those two items was wind and solar.

So we bought our way out of our existing contract and signed a 20 and 25 year contract with wind and solar. So we have, we know what our price is gonna be all the way until the year 2041. And so cost certainty is certainly important to us, and there is no cost, there is no escalators in this 20 to 25 year contracts that we’ve signed. So that’s why we decided to do it. That’s how we were able to do it at the same time that we were negotiating with lending and solar providers. We were also negotiating with natural gas providers. They would only commit to fixed pricing over seven years, and that didn’t meet our long term strategy. We wanted 20, 25 year contracts.

John Farrell: So you were successful in being able, with these wind and solar contracts, to get some more certainty over the long term and to mitigate the regulatory risk. Did you also get good prices? Are you able to share, for example, the prices that Georgetown received for the wind and solar projects that signed up?
Dale Ross: Well, we can’t, because this is a competitive matter and I would be violating the law if I shared the terms of that contract.
John Farrell: Well, we don’t want to get you in any trouble, but, let’s look at the big picture three years ago, when Georgetown first made this commitment, ILSR took the time to analyze the cost of wind and solar across the country to get an estimate of what we thought Georgetown would be paying. And we found that there were hundreds of city owned utilities in a couple dozen states that we thought could get similar prices for wind and solar energy. And we’ve actually just redone the analysis in concert with this podcast. What is it that you think stops those cities that can get economical energy from making to switch to?
Dale Ross: Well, one of the things is, if you have existing contracts, you can’t just walk away from those. So say, for example, if you were a municipality and you had a coal contract for 15 more years, I mean, you’d have to buy your way out of that contract. You can’t just walk away from it. But we are at the tipping point, right? Say for example, you can buy wind energy for about $18 a megawatt compared to coal, which is over $25 a megawatt. So I think this is gonna be an economic decision, and this is what the cities are gonna make the decisions based on. And what we found out is once you win the economic decision, by default, you win the environmental decision, you know, the environmental argument as well, cuz you get the best of both possible worlds, you get lowest pricing and you also get an energy supply that’s very kind to the environment.
John Farrell: So you’ve mentioned contracts again, and I wanted to point out for our listeners that most utilities, especially smaller ones, go in with other utilities together to do group purchases of electricity, in order to get a better deal. Was Georgetown, as well, part of a group purchase when it was previously getting its power. And, and how has that changed?
Dale Ross: We were in a supply contract with LCRA. And one of the drivers is, you know, we had a conversation with them back in 2010 and we really wanted, the goal back then was to have 30% of our energy portfolio in renewables. And the LCRA had no interest in adding that amount to the portfolio. So what we decided we would get rid of LCRA’s contract and then we would manage, purchase power ourselves. And that’s when we came into these two contracts with wind and solar.
John Farrell: Your story makes me think of Farmer’s Electric Cooperative. It’s a small utility in Southeastern Iowa, which has also made some really remarkable shifts towards renewable energy from wind and solar, both generated by their own members and also purchased by the utility and they, and the key to their success was not being in any of these long term contracts, that they are on their own. They are self-reliant in terms of having their own backup power, but they’re also able to go out and buy power from the larger grid. And it seems to me that that opportunity to own your own utility is, or to control yours, is really crucial.
Dale Ross: Well, it certainly is easier when you have your own city owned municipal utility. It makes it a lot easier. And I mean, what we wanted to do is we wanted to have control over our future. And this is one of the things now we are, we did assume the risk, but we felt like we were very cap the risk over the long term. And that’s what we’ve been able to achieve so far. And others can do the same thing. This is scalable as well. You know, it depends on what your current situation is. It depends on what your current contracts are. And because we, you know, coal is just going to go away. I mean, it’s just not gonna be competitive in the market. In fact, in Texas four coal plants already closed since January 1st of this year. Utility department has been talking to the city of Denton, Texas, which is about 110,000 population city, north of Dallas. And they will be a hundred percent renewable in 2020. And they’re working on that right now. And our guys have been working with them closely and giving them advice and answering their questions and so forth.
John Farrell: Although cost uncertainty seemed to be really the primary drivers of the decision to go with the wind solar contracts, you also mentioned water as another benefit of wind and solar energy. Could you talk a little bit more about water consumption and why it is that wind and solar energy allow you to reduce water consumption in the production of electricity?
Dale Ross: Well, especially in Texas, I mean, we’ve been into sustained drought in our state. It hadn’t been as bad the last several years as it was say seven or eight years ago. But look at look what it takes water-wise to produce fossil fuels significantly more water than windmills. Windmills require virtually nothing. And solar is the same way. So it does conserve on the water side as well. And I think, you know, with the city of Georgetown, we have a 50 year contract on water supply, but you know, we yesterday we were just, this is for the fourth year in a row, we’re in the top 10 fastest growing cities in the country. We’ve been first, second, fifth and sixth heart growth rates, you know, somewhere around five to six a year. And so we’re really, we pay a lot of attention to future growth because it’s going to require more electricity and more water in our jurisdiction to accommodate that growth. So water is important and I, if it can, if you do, if you did wind and solar, you, you will save water because it doesn’t take very much water to feed that kind of energy.
Marie Donahue: You are listening to an interview with Dale Ross from Georgetown, Texas as part of our Voices of 100% series from Local Energy Rules. Do you know of any folks we should interview about 100% renewable energy commitments in their community? If so, send us an email at voicesof100@ilsr.org, that’s voices of 100 at ilsr.org. Stay tuned for the rest of this episode after a short message from our Energy Democracy Initiative Director John Farrell.
John Farrell: Hey, thanks for are listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts. The reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead, we rely on you, our listeners. Your donations not only underwrite this podcast, but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and all of the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations. Every year, ILSR’s small staff helps hundreds of communities challenge monopoly power directly and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to ilsr.org and click on the donate button. And if making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways. You can help other folks find this podcast by telling them about it, or by giving it a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and ILSR’s other podcasts, Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power. Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program.
John Farrell: So you’ve obviously had a lot of attention for what you’ve accomplished in Georgetown: articles in the Smithsonian magazine and news pieces across the country. Are folks ever surprised to hear that this kind of push for renewable energy is coming from Texas?
Dale Ross: Yeah, I think so, but I think what has to happen, this big push on renewable energy has to go from the ground up, which are cities and counties, because typically the states aren’t in charge of providing power more to the federal governments. All they can do at the state level and federal level is mess things up for us guys on the front line. But yeah, I think that the politics here in my city, I mean, we’re very Republican. They’re very Republican city, county, and state. I think that is a shocker. You know, the first city in the country that was a hundred percent renewable was Burlington, Vermont. And the mayor at that time was Senator Bernie Sanders. And so I think everybody has this preconceived idea that renewable energy and clean energy is this liberal, progressive, primarily democratic thing. And what we did is we just, we put the silly partisan national politics aside and made the decision based on the facts. And the facts led us to wind and solar energy was the best fit for our city. And I think if other cities will just base their decisions based on the facts, they’ll come to the same conclusion.
John Farrell: One other question I had is how this choice for getting your electricity supply from wind and solar affects the local economy. Do you see it as creating more jobs? Do you see it as having other benefits for the local economy?
Dale Ross: Well, it does give us predictability and it gives us a supply that’s readily available through 2041. That’s what we’ve contracted for. You know, our energy is pretty, our wind is up near Amarillo in the panhandle of Texas and on July 1st, the solar firm’s gonna open, which is in Fort Stockton, which is about two hours from El Paso. And so there are job creation out there. Now what we’ve found out is there’s a lot of major companies throughout the country that have these robust green policies. And so for example, for existing businesses, like we have a Walmart here, they can report back to their orders in Bentonville that a hundred percent electricity that their store used last year was renewable.

And then it’s been an economic development tool for us. Those companies that are looking to expand their operations and use renewable energy. Uh, we, we definitely it’s available and it’s affordable in Georgetown. And also the publicity that we’ve received over the last two years marketing from the other day, did an analysis for us and interviews that I’ve done have created over 20 million in free advertising. Now, some of the people in Georgetown telling me to quit doing interviews because more people wanna move here. And like I alluded to earlier are now we’re the sixth fastest growing city in the country. So some folks are saying, Hey, you know, we’re growing too fast, let’s slow down. And so quit doing interviews, but anyway, it’s a compelling story. I like telling the story. I think whatever we can share with other cities, it’ll make the world a better place because if you have of renewable energy, you’re having a lot less hydrocarbons in the air and you’re making better for everybody.

John Farrell: Have you had any thoughts about how you can leverage your work with the municipal utility on renewable energy into other things? For example, my colleague, Chris Mitchell, who has a great podcast Community Broadband Bits talks a lot about other cities using their municipal electric utilities to put in broadband infrastructure, to give affordable access to the internet to residents and businesses across cities. Is there anything beyond energy that you’re looking at?
Dale Ross: Well, we’re focused on the one hundred percent renewable, but we were one to 35 cities that were raise recently were granted a hundred thousand dollars from the Bloomberg Foundation. And what that is allowing us to do is to pursue our concept of a virtual solar plant and in the city of Georgetown. And the concept is this, we, the city would, we would put solar panels on your rooftop on your home and your business, and we wouldn’t charge you for that, but we would allow you, you would allow us to get the electricity off of your rooftops. And so that has a lot of practicality because then that would have, we, would’ve less dependence on the Texas, the state of Texas grid. And so that would give us more independence and our strategies work out very well because it’s, we’re actually, neutralized and, and mitigated any federal risk.

You know, when president Trump made a huge mistake about pull out the Paris climate accord, that decision didn’t affect us in Georgetown at all. And federal tax law can’t really impact us unless the knuckleheads in DC try to figure out how to make it more costly to produce renewable energy. And so, again, our, our trust, strategy’s always been minimum by mitigate, minimize, you know, short term volatility and the pricing market, and also so, mitigate and minimize regulatory and governmental risk. And so that is a very compelling argument to go to renewables. If you want to have the, the lowest possible rates on your electricity, to the, the people who elected us to serve their best interest.

John Farrell: I’m really interested by the discussion of the virtual power plant. There’s a really fascinating story out of south Australia where the utility and the government there are looking to network as many as 50,000 solar homes to work together to meet electricity needs and to more easily balance the grid. Uh, so just really interesting to hear that you’re thinking about that as well for Georgetown and, and what some of its benefits could be to networking that together.
Dale Ross: Yeah. Cuz you know, it is moving along and I think it has a lot of practicality to it too. You know, when you transmit energy, you say from six to 800 miles away, you’re gonna have loss along the way. And so if you did this at the local level, we predict that if we could actually implement this by 2030, we could get 50% of our energy source would be sourced locally through sunshine, solar energy. And so right now we’re competing with the other 35 cities. They have four more $1 million grants and the grand prize of 5 million to be awarded. And if we were awarded the 5 million grant that would really move us down the line to implementation.
John Farrell: This is John Farrell, director of ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative. I was speaking with Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas, about his city’s move to 100% renewable electricity and how it was primarily driven by an opportunity to access affordable power.
Marie Donahue: Thank you so much for listening to the first episode of our Voices of 100% special series of Local Energy Rules. For more information on cities that have committed to 100% renewable energy, check out the other episodes in this series and explore ILSR’s interactive community power map, which is available at ilsr.org. While you’re on our website, you can also find more than 50 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules Podcast. You can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media. Once again, please help us out by reading and reviewing this episode on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And by sharing it with your friends. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

 


Nearly 70 U.S. cities have set a goal to generate 100 percent of their electricity from renewable resources, but only a few have actually done it. Most cities get their electricity from someone else–a private company or an electric cooperative. But 2,000 cities actually own their electric company, and one Texas city has leveraged that authority to reach the audacious 100 percent goal, two years ago.

Dale Ross is the mayor of Georgetown, a Texas city whose locally-owned utility signed contracts to get 100 percent of its electricity from wind and solar power in 2016.  Ross recently spoke with ILSR’s Energy Democracy director, John Farrell, as the first episode in our multi-part Voices of 100% podcast series, about that decision and why wind and sun make sense.

Local Authority Lays the Foundation

Georgetown’s move to renewables made the news in 2015 and ILSR highlighted the two key enablers: local ownership of the utility and expiring power purchase contracts. With the power to decide, Mayor Ross and his city-owned electric company went out for bid to replace a mostly fossil-fuel power supply.

In his conversation with Farrell, Mayor Ross emphasized that Georgetown’s renewable energy coup was primarily an economic decision. Wind and solar provided the least expensive electricity for city residents and businesses. Ross also emphasized how choosing wind and solar mitigated potential regulatory and government risk. If the federal government should enforce its position in the Paris Climate Accord, for example, Georgetown would be ahead of the game.

The Value of Certainty

In the bidding process, Georgetown was looking for price certainty and stability for its residents and businesses. Ross explained that in the bidding process, only renewable providers could give them long-term contracts with fixed prices.

“We were also negotiating with natural gas providers. They would only commit to fixed pricing over 7 years,” he said. With wind and solar power, “We know what our price is going to be all the way until 2041.”

Risk for Reward

Mayor Ross also emphasized that while there’s some risk inherent in buying power on their own, it’s also a matter of self-reliance and confidence in their decisions.

“We wanted to have control over our future… While we did assume the risk, we felt like we were very capable of assuming the risk over the long term. Others can do the same thing.”

In earlier contracts, Georgetown had been part of the Lower Colorado River Authority group purchasing agency. But when the Authority showed limited interest in shifting to renewable energy, they ended their contract and went out shopping alone.

Saving More Than Money

The switch to wind and solar saves money for Georgetown electric customers, but it also dramatically reduces water use compared to other sources of energy. Ross explains, “We’ve been in a sustained drought in our state. Look what it takes water-wise to produce fossil fuels, significantly more water than windmills. Windmills require virtually nothing. And solar is the same way.”

Photo by: Matt Turner

In addition, the renewable energy switch is also a boon for jobs and attracting businesses that have made similar, ambitious commitments to renewable energy. Like the towns and cities featured in this series, many major companies have made commitments to source 100 percent of their energy from renewable resources. If Walmart has a store in Georgetown, for example, the corporation can report that location as using 100 percent renewable power and count it toward the company’s environmental goals.

In addition to these environmental and development benefits, the fame generated from Georgetown’s leadership is also worth plenty. The city estimates its media exposure from its renewable commitment and the success it has had in reaching its target have been worth as much as $20 million in free advertising.

Doubling Down on Local

The Bloomberg Foundation recently granted the city $100,000 to go deeper, testing the concept of a virtual power plant powered by solar.

“We the city would put solar panels on your rooftop, your home, your business,” he explains. “And we wouldn’t charge you for that, but you would allow us to get the electricity off of your rooftops.”

“This has a lot of practicality because we would have less dependence on the State of Texas grid, and that would give us more independence,” Ross adds.

Such investments in a virtual power plant project, particularly if Georgetown received additional grant funds to move the idea toward implementation, would provide substantial benefits to the city and its municipal utility. It would increase the city’s self-reliance and ensure it continues to produce power locally and renewably for years to come, regardless of how others on the grid act, while also reducing losses from the transmission of electricity across longer distances.

Can Other Cities Follow?

In ILSR’s earlier analysis from 2015, there were several dozen cities with municipal utilities that could follow in Georgetown’s footsteps, but Ross says that many cities are bound up in long-term contracts that often restrict their ability to follow suit.

“If you have existing contracts, you can’t just walk away from those,” he notes. “If you were a municipality that had a coal contract for another 15 years, you’d have to buy your way out of it.”

Even this buyout strategy has potential for some municipal utilities, however, as renewable sources of energy become more cost competitive. Wind power sells for $18 per MWh compared to $25 per MWh for coal, according to Ross. Such savings could be used to help shorten existing contract commitments. ILSR updated its 2015 analysis with current solar and wind prices, and it suggests that Georgetown’s renewables prices aren’t unique to Texas.

Already, Georgetown’s success has inspired others. As Mayor Ross mentioned, just 200 miles up Interstate 35 is Denton, Texas — notable for being 40% renewable, five years ago. That city also plans to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity in 2020, inspired by certainly in part by the success Georgetown has had in reaching this ambitious goal.


Want to hear other stories of how communities are making and implementing 100 percent renewable energy commitments? Stay-tuned for the next episode in our Voices of 100% series featuring Pueblo, Colo., later this month!


For earlier analysis of the switch to renewables in Georgetown, Texas, check out this piece: Can Other Cities Match Georgetown’s Low-Cost Switch to 100% Wind and Sun?

For more on city tools to meet ambitious local energy goals, see ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Locate other cities and towns like Georgetown that have existing 100 percent renewable energy commitments and explore state policies that help advance these clean energy goals, using ILSR’s Community Power Map.


This episode is part of Voices of 100%, a series of Local Energy Rules and project of the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, produced by Energy Democracy Director John Farrell and Research Associate Marie Donahue.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell or Marie Donahue on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Photo Credits: Jeffrey W. Spencer (featured image) and Matt Turner (inset image) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Follow John Farrell:
John Farrell

John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.

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Marie Donahue was a Research Associate with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy and Independent Business Initiatives in 2018-2019. She analyzed and wrote about the implications of corporate concentration and monopoly in these sectors.