How Cities are Transitioning to 100% Renewable Energy (Episode 54)

How Cities are Transitioning to 100% Renewable Energy (Episode 54)

Date: 6 Sep 2018 | posted in: Building Local Power, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

This week, we’re featuring a special episode brought to you by our Local Energy Rules podcast as part of their series on cities transitioning to 100% renewable energy called Voices of 100%. Each episode in the six part series will showcase how city leaders are implementing their renewable energy commitments.

In this episode, host and director of ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative, John Farrell, chats with Mayor Dale Ross of Georgetown, Texas. Tune in to hear all about how Georgetown has been getting 100 percent of its electricity from wind and solar power since 2016!

 

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 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.

Stacy Mitchell: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power. I’m Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. We have a special treat this week. We wanted to introduce you to one of our other podcasts, it’s called Local Energy Rules, and in particular they’re doing a special six part series called, Voices of a 100%, so today on the show we’re going to play you the first episode of that series. Here’s what it’s all about.

A growing number of cities, big and small, are making commitments to transition to a 100% renewable energy and Voices of a 100% will be highlighting the voices of some of the city leaders that are doing this, to learn how they’re implementing these big renewable energy commitments. First up, we interview Mayor Dale Ross from Georgetown, Texas. I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation. If you want to listen to the rest of the Voices of a 100% series, or check out all of our podcasts, you can go to ILSR.org/podcasts. That’s ILSR.org/podcasts. Thank you so much and enjoy the show.

Marie Donahue: Across the country more than 50 cities of all sizes have adopted ambitious goals to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable resources, but how do these cities plan to get there? In our new multi part series, Voices of 100%, from the Institute For Local Self-Reliance Local Energy Rules Podcast we’re speaking with local leaders with insights about their cities 100% renewable energy commitments. How their cities plan to achieve their goals, and what these visionaries see as the future of local renewable energy.

Across the country more than 50 cities of all sizes have adopted ambitious goals to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable resources, but how do these cities plan to get there? In our new multi part series, Voices of 100%, from the Institute For Local Self-Reliance Local Energy Rules Podcast we’re speaking with local leaders with insights about their cities 100% renewable energy commitments. How their cities plan to achieve their goals, 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 whose locally owned utilities signed contracts to get 100% 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: It’s an honor 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 100% renewable by getting all of its power from the wind and from the sun last year.
Dale Ross: One of the things that happened is in 2016 is when we actually went using 100% renewable by resources. What happened is, we were coming to the end of a contract and we wanted to expedite closing out that contract, so you can’t just walk away from contracts. We wrote a big check because we found the most important thing with us, it was a 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. We know what our price is going to be all the way until the year 2041. And so cost certainty was certainly important to us. And there is no escalators in this 20 and 25 year contracts that we’ve signed, so that’s why we decided to do it, and that’s how we were able to do it.

At the same time that we were negotiating with wind 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: 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 contract prices that Georgetown received for the wind and solar projects it 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. Let’s look at the big picture. Three years ago when Georgetown first made this commitment, ILSR took the time to analyze the costs 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. 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 the switch too?
Dale Ross: Well, one of the things is if you have existing contracts, you can’t just walk away from those. Say for example, if you are a municipality and you had a coal contract for 15 more years, 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 now. Say for example, you can buy wind energy for about $18 a megawatt compared to coal, which is over $25 a megawatt. I think this is going to be an economic decision, and this is what the cities are going to make their decisions based on. And what we found out is once you win the economic decision, by default you win the environmental decision, you know, that environmental argument as well, because you get the best of both possible world. You get lowest pricing and you also get an energy supply that’s very kind to the environment.
John Farrell: 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 how has that changed?
Dale Ross: We were in a supply contract with the LCRA. And one of the driver is, 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 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 our purchase power ourself. And that’s when we came into these two contracts with wind and solar.
John Farrell: Your story makes me think of Farmers 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 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 back up power. But they’re also able to go out and buy power from the larger grid. And it seems to me that opportunity to own your own utility, or to control your future, 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 what we wanted to do is, we wanted to have control over the future. And this is one of the things, and we are. We did assume the risk. But we felt like we were very capable of assuming the risk over the long-term, and that’s what we’ve been able to achieve so far. Others can do the same thing. This is scalable as well. It depends on what your current situation is. It depends on what your current contracts are because coal is just going to go away. It’s just not going to be priced competitive in the market. In fact, in Texas, four coal plants have 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 100% renewable in 2020. They’re working on that right now. Our guys have been working with them closely and giving them advice and answering their questions and so forth.

John Farrell: Although cost and certainty seem to be really the primary drivers of the decision to go with the wind and solar contracts, you also mentioned water as another benefit of wind and solar energy. Could you talk a little bit more about water and consumption and why it is that wind and solar energy allow you to reduce water consumption in the production of electricity?
Dale Ross: Especially in Texas, we’ve been into a sustained drought in our state, which hasn’t been as bad the last several years as it was say, seven or eight years ago. But look what it takes water wise to produce fossil fuels, significantly more water than windmills. Windmills require mostly nothing, and solar is the same way. So it does conserve on the water side as well. With the city of Georgetown, we have a 50 year contract on water supply. Well, 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. Our growth rate’s somewhere around 5% to 6% a year. And so we’re really paying 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 if it can, if you knew it would, if you did wind and solar, you will save water because it doesn’t take very much water to make that kind of energy.
Marie Donahue: You’re 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 One Zero Zero 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 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 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, and our 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.

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 every 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 happened it has … This big push in renewable energy has to go from the ground up with your cities and counties because typically, the states are only in charge of providing power. The federal governments, all they can do at the state level and federal level is mess things up for us guys on the front lines. I think the politics here in my city, they’re very republican. They’re very republican city, county, and state. I think that is a shocker. The first city in the country that was 100% 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 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 would 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: It does give us predictability and it gives us a supply that’s readily available through 2041. That’s what we’ve contracted for. Our energy is produced, our wind is up near Amarillo in the panhandle of Texas. And on July 1st, the solar farm’s going to open, which is in Fort Stockton, which is about two hours from El Paso. And so there are job creation out there. But 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 Wal Mart here. They can report back to their headquarters in Bentonville with 100% electricity that their store used last year was renewable. And then it’s been an economic development tool for us. Most companies that are looking to expand their operations and use renewable energy, it’s available and it’s affordable in Georgetown.

And also, the publicity that we’ve received over the last few years marketing for them the other the, did an analysis for us, and interviews that I’ve done that have created over $20 million in free advertising. Some of the people in Georgetown tell me that they’re doing interviews because more people want to move here, and, like I got into earlier, now we’re the sixth fastest growing city in the country. So some folks are saying, “Hey, we’re growing too fast. Let’s slow down. So quit doing interviews.” But it’s a compelling story. I like telling the story, and I think whatever we can share with other cities, it’ll likely be a better place because if you have more renewable injury, you’re having a lot less hydrocarbons in the air. You can make it better for everybody.

John Farrell: Any thoughts about how you can leverage your work with municipal utility on renewable energy and to 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 really focused on 100% renewable. But we were one of 35 cities that recently were granted $100,000 from the Bloomberg Foundation, and what that has allowed us to do is to pursue our concept of a virtual solar plant in the city of Georgetown. And the concept is this, we, the city, 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. So that has a lot of practicality because then we would have less dependence on the State of Texas grid. So that would give us more independence. Our strategies work out very well because it’s actually neutralized and mitigated any federal risk. When President Trump made a huge mistake by pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, that decision didn’t effect us in Georgetown at all. Federal tax law can’t really impact us unless the knuckleheads in D.C. try to figure out how to make it more costly to produce renewable energy.

So, again, our strategies always been mitigate, minimize short-term volatility in the pricing market and also mitigate and minimize regulatory and governmental risk. So that is a very compelling argument to go to renewables if you want to have the lowest possible rates on your electricity to the people who elected us to serve their best interests.

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. So just really interesting to hear that you’re thinking about that as well for Georgetown and what some of its benefits could be to networking that together.
Dale Ross: Yeah, because you know it is moving along. I think it has a lot of practicality to it. When you transmit energy say from 600-800 miles away, you’re going to have loss along the way. 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. So right now we’re competing with the other 35 cities. They have four more $1 million grants, and the grand prize grant of $5 million to be awarded. 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 rating and reviewing this episode of iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts and by sharing it with your friends.
Stacy Mitchell: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Building Local Power. I hope you enjoyed this special treat from our Local Energy Rules podcast and their new series, Voices of 100%. This show is produced by Lisa Gonzalez and Hibba Meraay. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction Al. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Stacy Mitchell. I hope you will join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

 

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Hibba Meraay
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Hibba Meraay

Hibba Meraay manages communications for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. She works closely with all of our initiatives to build community power and combat monopolies. A native New Englander, Hibba is a graduate of Boston University. Contact Hibba for media inquiries.