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Texas City Moves To Renewable Energy Spurred By Plan That New Administration May Spurn

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Lorne Matalon

Workers install solar panels on a new city building, part of Georgetown's holistic approach to renewables.

GEORGETOWN, Texas — Donald Trump’s victory and the impending Republican majority in Congress means the Obama administration’s initiative to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the Clean Power Plan, is almost certainly in jeopardy.

The plan is 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.

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 fluctuates.

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.

Support comes from

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," said 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 said. 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.

Fred Beach, assistant director for energy and technology policy at University of Texas at Austin's Energy Institute, explained the economics of renewables.

"You're locking in that rate and ten years from now, wind and solar many be even less yet," Beach said. "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."

Now Briggs can tell customers, both businesses and residential, about that hedge, about a price that's fixed.

He said businesses in particular tell him they don’t like the historically wide swings of electricity powered by coal or gas. Right now both are super low. But that can and will change.

"We received a lot from customers saying, 'ya know you don't have to be the cheapest. You just definitely need to be consistent," Briggs said.

Wind is economical here because the state has invested in transmission lines to bring wind power from sparsely populated west Texas to cities like Georgetown in the center of the state.

History's full of examples of sending resources across large distances, from Roman Empire aqueducts to the Hoover Dam. The dam sends power from Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border to Los Angeles.

Texas has taken a page from that playbook, deploying $7 billion of taxpayer money on those transmission lines.

"We've done this kind off stuff in the past but now it's like, oh well, you're doing that for environmental reasons, you're doing it for tree-hugger reasons," Beach said. But now there’s a strong economic rationale. "It's not going to cost more tomorrow, or five years or 10 years from now, we’ll lock it for 20 years."

The city will be powered exclusively by wind and/or solar in 2017 said Chris Foster, Georgetown's Manager of Resource Planning and Integration.

"As you add more renewables to the grid, eventually those renewable plants get paid off. And once they're done being paid off, they have an operating margin of almost zero," Foster said. "So if you can own these assets super longterm, you see the cost of power should be continuing to decline."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fronteras Desk reporter Lorne Matalon is the 2016-17 Energy Journalism Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin's Energy Institute and KBH Center for Energy, Law and Business.

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