Republican Mayor Dale Ross tells CanWEA why going 100 per cent renewable was right for his Texas town
October 12, 2018
In September, Georgetown, Texas Mayor Dale Ross visited Alberta to discuss how his city was able to go 100 per cent renewable.
You may have seen Mayor Dale Ross a few weeks ago speaking at the Alberta Climate Summit, meeting with Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and hitting the media circuit. It’s not surprising that he had so much attention. Mayor Ross is a bit of an anomaly: he’s a conservative Republican from Texas and he’s selling the benefits of renewable energy for his city. In fact, since 2017, all electricity within the city’s service area has come from wind and solar power.
I had a chance to ask Mayor Ross a few questions about his city’s journey to renewables and how to “sell” renewables to conservatives. Check out our interview below.
Why did you make the decision to go renewable in Georgetown?
Georgetown’s decision is a classic business case, but it’s important to recognize that the renewable decision was reached through a process, and it was not an intentional goal outright. Georgetown faced a reality of being a utility with no power contracts or utility plants in 2012, due to their current long-term contract expiring. This offered Georgetown the unique ability to craft a long-term strategic plan to meet the needs of their customers without being tied to any existing resources. After several discussions with the governing bodies in Georgetown, and customer engagement, the City Council crafted four goals for the utility staff to pursue when bringing back a new resource plan:
- Relatively low-cost power. Didn’t have to be the cheapest if it met the customer needs, but couldn’t be far out of the market.
- Long-term fixed cost power supplies. Designed to protect fixed income residents, and also a major request of industrial customers with long lead time production processes.
- Mitigate as much financial and regulatory risk as possible. Concern here was rapidly rising energy prices, and potential carbon taxes/penalties being discussed nationally at the time.
- 30 per cent renewable content by 2030. Specifically the local university and a few other commercial customers were requesting the option of renewables in the energy portfolio for their own marketing and LEEDS type certifications.
Following that goal setting process Georgetown ran two rounds of silent auctions, one each in 2013 and 2014, for the purpose of getting the wholesale energy market to bid on supplying Georgetown with energy. In 2013, the wind industry massively underbid all other fuel types as they cut prices with the threat of the tax credits* expiring. The wind farm that Georgetown’s staff ultimately recommended – Spinning Spur 3 – met all four of the goals the Council had set out, and was also the cheapest energy bid.
Council agreed that the wind farm met the baseload needs of the utility. In 2014, the utility was only looking for power that would be produced during daylight hours, with more available in summer months, which is the time period where the wind supply is the weakest. The strategy was to diversify the supply. In this auction the cheapest form of energy was tied between solar and natural gas. However, the solar bids carried no regulatory risk, and guaranteed a fixed price for 25 years, whereas the gas bids did not exceed seven years of fixed pricing. Council recognized that a second renewable contract wasn’t needed to meet goal number four, but stuck with the goals two and three to choose solar – Buckthorn – over gas.
After the contracts were finalized and the projects set for construction in 2015, staff brought Council a final report on their projected supplies versus the needs, and in that report they noted that the utility would be capable of being 100 per cent renewable if they chose to retire their renewable energy credits instead of selling them as they were produced at the wind and solar farms. Council viewed the decision of being 100 per cent renewable at that time as a marketing tool for new economic development, and that is when the decision was made.
The short answer is, it made the most business sense for our customers and provided an excellent marketing platform for the City.
There seems to be growing interest among conservatives in alternative energy sources. How do you “sell” renewables to your Republican colleagues and friends?
I “sell” renewables to more than just my Republican colleagues. I “sell” green energy to all of those that believe fossil fuels, especially coal, are the future. Georgetown reached its decision via a thoughtful process that was fact-based, and these facts lead us to the best decision for our city. In short, I encourage each elected official or citizen to thoughtfully follow the facts regarding the best choice of energy, without passion or prejudice, for their community in order to arrive at the optimal decision.
In terms of selling the physical energy, we sell it directly to the broad energy marketplace, which doesn’t discriminate between political parties.
How do you convince conservatives that renewables are the way to go?
As a conservative mayor I was re-elected to a second term in 2017 with 72 per cent of the vote. It is clear to me that citizens will reward elected officials for doing the right thing for their community. The moral of the story to conservative office seekers and holders is that green or renewable energy is no longer an item in the sole domain of those associated with “progressive” or “liberal” political parties. In fact, the political term of “conservative” should be taken as an environmentally-friendly one and my conservative friends can learn from the renewable energy story of Georgetown.
I spread the green gospel of Georgetown by giving speeches and participating in panel discussions all over the world. I also do interviews with national and international media and have been in six documentary films, including Al Gores’ “An Inconvenient Sequel.” To date, 2.1 billion people have heard, read or saw my message and I speak to the facts and hope that individuals will be open-minded and agree that fact-based decision making allows for optimal outcomes. With respect to the local Georgetown area, we host multiple forums including focus groups, neighborhood town halls, and various community and chamber association meetings, as well as responding to various media that wish to tell the story in print, radio, and video.
We often hear misconceptions about reliability and cost from conservatives. How do you respond to misconceptions about renewables?
The misconceptions about the cost are often rooted in outdated information. Typically, Georgetown just has to show people that current prices are very competitive, or often below traditional fuel types. Our most tangible example has been how renewable resources bid in at a lower cost than all other resources in our two largest Request for Proposals. We’ve also demonstrated a deployment of local, distributed solar that is competitive with the current wholesale energy market. For people who think it’s too expensive, we just show them the real results.
There are real concerns about reliability, but for the most part they are rooted in a lack of understanding of how the larger electric grid operates.
For our customers who were concerned about possible power outages if the wind stopped blowing, we were able to show them that our local university hadn’t lost power despite going 100 per cent wind powered in 2010. Their story made a lot of our early customer engagements much easier.
The truth is that the large electric resources are not physically tied directly to the customers they serve. Those contracts serve two purposes, they lock in the customer’s energy price, and they determine the amount of renewable content in their energy portfolio on an annual basis. The physical energy is produced as available, and when it exceeds the customer’s needs, it is sold to another consumer of electricity, but when the production is below the customer’s needs, the larger energy market supplies the energy from other resources, keeping the grid balanced. The customer buying renewables only ever pays for the renewable energy, and they really do offset what would have been fossil based generation. The customers buying traditional energy pay for their energy use, unaware that they have received renewable energy during times the renewable customer had too much of it.
For our customers that worry about reliability for the State grid, the answer is more complex. Currently, the amount of renewables in Texas have not reached a level where traditional resources have been unable to maintain frequency and power quality that the grid requires. This is unlike case studies from the early days of California or Germany. Texas benefits from a much larger geographic diversity, and we’ve seen wind profiles on the coastline that offset wind profiles in the panhandle, thusly increasing the ‘firm’ capacity of renewables overall, and lessening the chance of a reliability issue. Texas also has the ability to build solar west of its major energy consumers, which allows the power to be produced later into the day for those consumers, and greatly reduces the chances of the ‘Duck curve’ that California faces daily. Texas’ grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), also spent significant time researching forecasting methods for wind and solar, and their accuracy in daily/hourly forecasting is allowing them to operate traditional energy supplies around the availability of renewables with unprecedented efficiency. Finally, Texas is benefiting from all of the advanced research that was done in terms of storage, automatic switches, advanced meters, smart inverters, etc. which all have design capabilities to help make renewable integration easier. Texas wasn’t the first mover for renewables, so they are bypassing some of the worst headaches by learning from others.
Finally, renewables have shown to be more reliable for natural disasters that traditional energy supplies. During Hurricane Harvey, the coastal wind farms avoided the vast majority of damaging winds by turning the blades into the wind, and cycling the power down. After the storm they turned back against the wind and immediately were able to begin powering communities closest to them. Flooded power plants couldn’t do the same, and in long-term supply disruptions, generators depending on coal, natural gas, oil, gasoline all become useless if the infrastructure to deliver their fuel is damaged. That same immediate recovery after a disaster has Georgetown evaluating strategic placement of distributed solar and batteries in our community. It’s common to use natural gas or diesel backup generators for water plants or hospitals, but as we saw in Harvey, getting the fuel can be a problem. The renewables would give us an option for power when traditional fuel supplies fail. It’s the same agreement the military uses for diversifying their own energy supplies into renewables even in the combat field.
I saw a comment in a recent article that if Georgetown had not bought wind power from the Spinning Spur 3 project, it might not have moved ahead. It seems you are driving the development of wind energy. What advice can you give to corporate buyers and municipalities?
Every energy project, and every energy user is going to be unique in terms of the best strategy for them. Georgetown allowed all options to be put on the table, compared them to their long-term goals, and picked the best fit. We also benefited greatly from our geography, market timing, and our lack of owning physical resources with sunk costs at the time of our strategic change. So, our best advice to other businesses and cities is to thoroughly vet all of your options.
Any utility or corporate buyer of energy will and should conduct the economic evaluation of the resource and how it meets the goals of the purchaser. Georgetown’s purchase of energy from Spinning Spur 3 was such a small percentage of the overall wind production in West Texas that it would be difficult, certainly not defensible, to proclaim that the investment was driving development of wind energy on a macro scale. The fact that Georgetown and Garland combined to contract for the energy from this project certainly provided the backstop for the developer to secure investment in the project. That is a fact but that would be correct in any financial investment in a generation resource being considered.
The investment in the sources of generation for Georgetown met the acquisition goals of our system and community desires. The best advice for anyone considering investing or purchasing energy resources is to have a well-planned and thought out strategy that seeks to meet the needs of the purchaser. In Georgetown’s case, it was mitigation and hedges to prevent negative pricing impacts of fuels components of energy production. Those take many forms and are often debated but certainly are a major component of electric generation pricing that use any form of fuel component in the process. Best advice, set your goals and use those as a guiding principle to acquire needed resources.
*Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC)
Photo: Provided by City of Georgetown