Bottom line drives Georgetown's switch to solar, wind power 

By Ali Linan
August 14, 2018
Community Impact Newspaper

 In Georgetown’s four-year-long process to become the largest U.S. city to purchase all of its energy needs from renewable sources, Mayor Dale Ross said the city had two major goals in mind: eliminate price volatility and seek minimal regulation.

“This is a long-term pocketbook issue,” Ross said. “It’s a win for economics and a win for the environment.”

The city’s shift to renewables is primarily focused on financial benefits. But the change has brought national and international attention to Georgetown at the same time that Texas, which is heavily fueled and funded by its oil and gas industries, is now the fifth leading state in renewable energy growth since 2008, according to a July report from the Environment Texas Research & Policy Center. The report ranks Texas first in wind and fifth in solar electricity growth between 2008-17.

“It shows that if you incentivize clean energy, the community values that and chooses that,” said Bay Scoggin, energy associate for the Environment Texas Research & Policy Center.

Many cities have smaller goals when it comes to renewable energy. Austin has the goal of reaching
55 percent renewable energy by 2025. Georgetown ran on 4.2 percent renewable energy in 2014 before its change to fully renewable sources, according to city data.

“This is a result of a lot of good work, vision [and]policy decisions,” Ross said. “It’s rewarding this day has come.”

Price stability

The city has contracts through Georgetown Utility Systems that include guaranteed rates with solar and wind producers to purchase 144-150 megawatt-hours from each for the next 20-25 years. The contracts do not allow rates to be disclosed, according to city officials. Texas law considers energy rates to be trade secrets and exempts their disclosures through open records requests.

Having a set rate means as inflation has the potential to hike up prices, GUS customers will see minimal difference on their bill because the rate cannot change, said Chris Foster, manager of resource planning and integration for the city of Georgetown. This is also the case if the price was to drop­­­—the cost to residents will remain the same. If there is a difference, it is due to other factors on the bill such as amount used or additional fixed rates potentially established by future city councils, he said.

Having a set rate allows for stability, Foster said, adding that rates can spike and plummet even at different times of the year. Currently, wind is the cheapest source of energy available to the city, and solar is purchased at the same price as energy derived from fossil fuels, Foster said.

Foster also said the city anticipates wind and solar energy will face less federal regulations than fossil-fuel energy sources, a factor that could lead to additional cost savings.

How it works

Georgetown has contracted with NRG Energy Inc. for solar and EDF Renewable Energy for wind. Energy generated by both the solar and wind farms is put into a statewide electrical grid, which is operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. GUS then pulls energy off of the state electrical grid to meet customers’ needs, Foster said.

NRG Energy’s Buckthorn solar plant is located in West Texas. Georgetown has contracted 150 MWh of capacity until 2043. This means in one hour, 150 MW could be produced, Foster said.

The farm’s solar panels are strategically placed to collect the most energy possible, as the panels track the sun moving east to west.

Solar energy can only be collected when the sun is out, so in partnering with EDF Renewable Energy’s Spinning Spur 3 wind farm, located near Amarillo, the city’s energy needs can also be met at night, when wind tends to pick up, Foster said.

Georgetown has contracted 144 MWh of capacity from the wind farm until 2035.

While the combined capacity is 294 MWh, Foster said at any given time Georgetown is only taking about 180 MWh off the electrical grid, as the plants do not operate at the same time of the day.

“Buckthorn will produce the most energy in the heat of the day, where Spinning Spur 3 is at its weakest,” Foster added.

Georgetown had a peak load of 145 MWh in 2017, or in one hour the city used a max of 145 MW of energy, according to the city. But this, too, varies with weather, Foster said. For example, when the temperatures hit triple-digits in July, the city’s peak load was 170 MWh.

The city did not contribute any money toward constructing the solar and wind farms. Instead, the farms used Georgetown’s promise to buy renewable energy as collateral to secure construction loans, Foster said.

Kaiba White, energy policy and outreach specialist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer rights advocate, said Georgetown’s milestone could inspire similar changes elsewhere.

“Georgetown did it,” White said. “And municipal power utilities leaders need to step it up because the bar is now 100 percent, and anything less is not leading.”

Handling population growth

Georgetown continues to be one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, ranking sixth among cities with populations of 50,000 or more, according to U.S. Census data released in May.

The amount of energy GUS is purchasing today is the amount needed for its current customer base and should meet the demand for at least the next five years, Foster said.

Future contracts beyond the five years would need Georgetown City Council approval, Foster added.

Excess energy Georgetown brings in can be put back on the electrical grid and sold for profit, Foster said.

“There’s still a lot of room to grow and time to plan,” Foster said. “We can incrementally grow as the population grows.”