Donald Trump’s victory and the impending Republican majority in Congress mean the Obama administration’s initiative to cut greenhouse gas emissions – the Clean Power Plan – is almost certainly dead on arrival. It’s currently before a federal appeals court, under challenge by 24 states, but the new administration is expected to spike the plan before the court rules.
Yet one conservative Texas city has decided to do what the plan was meant to help promote. It’s going 100 percent renewable – wind and solar – in a state largely defined by oil and gas. There are environmental benefits to the switch, but the decision is all about the money.
In the central Texas city of Georgetown, the droning sound of natural gas powered industrial air conditioning represents unpredictability. Natural gas prices are low now, but historically that market is like a yo-yo. This city of 55,000 is on the cusp of joining Burlington, Vermont, population 42,000, as the country’s only sizable cities buying 100 percent power from renewable energy. Liberal Burlington is a far cry ideologically from fiercely conservative Georgetown, but they’re fellow travelers in energy.
“So we begin the conversations of what the future might look like,” explained Georgetown’s utility chief Jim Briggs.
The city had been buying power from a utility that was expanding its coal-fired power plants. But when the Obama administration began pushing back against new coal plants, Briggs decided to go all green, and it had nothing to do with the environment.
“It was regulation and legislation coming out of Washington,” he explained.
Then there was the money.
“We wanted the least risk, most cost effective option we could get for the community.”
In Texas, the country’s leading wind generation state, wind is now competitive with fossil fuels. But unlike oil and gas, costs don’t fluctuate. To gain some insight into the economics of renewables, I spoke with Fred Beach, Assistant Director for Energy & Technology Policy at University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.
“You’re locking in that rate and ten years from now, wind and solar many be even less yet.
But if you’re happy with locking in today’s rate for the next 20 years with certainty, that’s an unbelievably powerful hedging opportunity,” Beach said.