Ross: Other cities should follow Georgetown’s lead on solar energy

Source: By Dale Ross, Special to the American-Statesman • Posted: Friday, April 10, 2015

The city of Georgetown recently announced that our municipal electric utility will move to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2017. That probably caught some folks by surprise.

No, environmental zealots have not taken over our City Council, and we’re not trying to make a statement about fracking or climate change. Our move to wind and solar is chiefly a business decision based on cost and price stability.

 The city’s contracts for solar and wind power will provide wholesale electricity at a lower price than our previous contracts. These long-term agreements also provide a fixed cost, enabling the city to avoid the price volatility and regulatory uncertainty associated with electricity generated by burning fossil fuels.

In 2012, the city electric utility ended a long-term wholesale power contract. This gave us the ability to seek new power suppliers. New electric transmission capacity from renewable energy zones in West Texas and the Panhandle were in place when Georgetown sought bids for power suppliers in 2013.

We signed a contract last year for energy from the Spinning Spur 3 wind farm 50 miles west of Amarillo. That project is currently under construction and will begin sending us power in January of 2016. Spinning Spur 3 will meet most of our current demand throughout the day, with the exception of the peak demand periods, especially in the summer.

Since Georgetown is in the fast-growing Austin metro area, we needed more capacity to meet projected growth. Due in part to a drop in price on photovoltaic solar panels, last year we received a low-cost bid on solar power and this February we signed a contract to purchase power from a solar farm in West Texas that is currently under construction. That power will be online by 2017.

The solar power produced in West Texas will provide a daily afternoon supply peak that mirrors our demand peak in Georgetown, especially during the hot summer months. Wind power production in the Panhandle exists throughout the day and is highest in the evening or early morning hours.

We have been asked what happens if the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine out west. Will the lights go out? Given the wind profile of the Panhandle, the radiance rating for West Texas and the amount of energy we have under contract, we know that our wind and solar farms will be able to provide our power throughout the day. If both resources were not producing simultaneously — an unlikely event — the lights would stay on because the Texas grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, will ensure generation is available to meet demand. In the short term, our solar and wind farms will provide more overall energy than we need. This means we will be able to sell extra solar and wind power we don’t use, providing an overall benefit to power users in the state.

Another reason solar and wind energy makes sense relates to water. Drought conditions and half-empty reservoirs have been common in Texas in recent years. Traditional power plants making steam from burning fossil fuels can use large amounts of water each day. Our move to renewable power is a significant reduction in our total water use in Georgetown.

One of the most important benefits of being 100 percent renewable is the potential for economic development. 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.

Georgetown may not be run by environmental activists, but our residents do want us to help them raise their families and run their businesses in a manner that is cost-effective and sustainable. We hope other cities follow our lead.

Dale Ross is the mayor of Georgetown, Texas