Let’s get real about the myths surrounding “100% renewable” energy

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By Joshua Rhodes*

Georgetown, TX has received a lot of attention in the media and elsewhere for its decision a few years ago to contract for 100% renewable electricity, partly because it was one of the first municipalities to do so, and partly because Georgetown is not nearly as “blue” as the People’s Republic of Austin just 30 miles south on I-35. The irony of a conservative town going green has been just too much to resist.

So, did Georgetown, TX really go 100% renewable? In a way yes, and in a way, no. The truth is more complicated, of course. But in the end, the semantics really doesn’t matter.

After a few months of relative silence, the ‘controversy’ surrounding the issue resurfaced recently in an op-ed published in the August 2, 2018 edition of The Austin American-Statesman. The author, Cutter W. González, a policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, decries all the fuss surrounding Georgetown’s contract as an unsustainable sham and the notion of “100% renewable” as a myth. But what is he talking about?

The City of Georgetown doesn’t own any large power plants, so it has to buy power from other generators or on the daily spot market. A few years ago the City’s contract with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) was due to expire and needed to be renegotiated. City leaders, behaving as any fiscally responsible entity would, decided to look beyond LCRA and see if they could source their power at a cheaper rate for a longer term.

A competitive bidding process revealed, to some folk’s amazement, that the city could get a better deal by sourcing all of its power from wind and solar. Georgetown wasn’t trying to go green, but that was the cheapest option. What’s more, they could lock in the cheaper prices for 20 years – particularly appealing to an aging local population living on fixed incomes. That income certainty comes in handy when thinking about where to take the grandkids on a trip next summer.

In his op-ed, Mr. González points out that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. (True. But as an aside, I’d like him to show me an hour when both wind and solar were both completely off-grid – try looking at night, it might save time). And he’s correct in noting that the Texas grid operators must make up the difference, meaning they must meet demand for power from another source when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. And yes, much of the electric fleet in Texas these days comes natural gas, which we have in abundance.

The point is that even if many (if not most) of the electrons flowing into homes and businesses in Georgetown are generated by technologies other than wind and solar, it doesn’t negate what they accomplished. It wouldn’t make sense to build dedicated power lines from wind and solar farms directly to Georgetown. But with the contracts the City signed, the city essentially buys as much renewable energy as they consume.

That’s where Mr. González’ argument falls apart – it just doesn’t matter who actually consumes the electricity produced from West Texas wind farms or solar arrays; once it’s on the grid, it’s all the same at the wall socket.

Mr. González also disparages the “stabilized rates” that Georgetown offers its residents. But these are the same flat rates that 95% of Texans buy electricity with. A flat rate simply means that it costs the same to run your air conditioner at 3pm in August as it does at 3am in January (if you had it on for some reason). Why would anyone be upset about that?

It’s also disingenuous – and patently false – to say no other entity could go 100% renewable in Texas. In fact, corporations do it all the time. Now, getting the entire grid to be 100% renewable energy would be a tall order. The science indicates that getting the grid to 80% green would be relatively easy, but that last 20% would be a lot tougher. In 2017, Texas got about 18% of its energy from wind and solar, so there is room for more. That said, we have other technologies (nuclear, carbon capture, etc.) that can help us get to a low-carbon future, if that is where we decide to go.

Finally, the claim that the rest of us Texans are paying to backup Georgetown’s power delivery doesn’t pan out. Wind and solar lower the cost of electricity for all of us and act as a hedge against uncertain future prices of fuel because wind and sunlight will always be free – yet another reason why Georgetown’s 20-year contract for renewable energy makes sense.

In the end, Mr. González’ argument is rather weak at face value, but it does raise a good point about the current discussion around our electricity mix. I’d prefer to see the conversation move away from “100% renewable,” as that restricts the tools we can use, to “100% low-carbon” or “100% carbon-free” energy because the more tools we have at our disposal, the better chance we have to develop solutions to our energy problems in a meaningful way.

*Joshua Rhodes is a research associate at UT Austin’s Energy Institute.

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