Could this municipal utility in Texas show the way on climate change?
- December 31, 2018
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These days, I try to avoid reading news out of Washington as much as possible. I try as much to focus on the politics of my city, Austin, where political leaders are actually getting things done, from investing in affordable housing to reducing our local utility’s reliance on fossil fuels. The same is true in many other cities, where local leaders are getting serious about solutions for the economic, health and environmental challenges of the 21st century.
Even better, not all of these cities are run by liberals. Just look at Georgetown, Tex., just a few miles up the road from us in Austin. It’s long been led by Republicans. Its mayor, Dale Ross (pictured above), describes himself as a “conservative Republican” but led the city to adopting 100% purchased renewable energy for its municipally-owned utility, Georgetown Utility Systems.
“We’re at a tipping point right now,” said Ross during a panel at a climate change conference organized by, of all people, Bernie Sanders, in early December. “Coal cannot compete with wind and solar on cost.”
Although Ross likes to emphasize the dollars and cents, he does not shy away from frank discussion of climate change. He knows it exists and he knows it’s a problem.
“I think we have a duty and obligation to leave the world better than we found it,” he said during the panel. “We can do that; you just have to have bold visionary leaders who we can elect—with y’all’s help.”
Ross also took a jab at President Trump in an interview with a German TV station: “I make decisions based on facts… unlike the president.”
However, the utility is facing some big problems now. Last month it announced that it had lost $6.84 million due to a major drop in prices of wind and solar energy in recent months. The utility had spent $53.6 million this year for solar and wind contracts, buying much more energy than its current customers needed. Like other cities in the rapidly-growing Austin metro area, Georgetown anticipates significant population growth in the coming years and figured that it would be wise to buy in bulk in anticipation of future needs. Plus, the utility could always sell any excess energy.
At the time the contracts were negotiated, the energy market conditions were very different.
“We bought into the projection,” Jim Briggs, general manager of GUS, told a local media outlet recently. “It didn’t materialize, and it went the other direction. For this year we’re forecasting a much more conservative approach.”
Unsurprisingly, the announcement has led to the city and its mayor being lampooned by conservative media, who view the news as evidence that ambitious commitments to renewables are liberal folly. A leader with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative think-tank and lobby group, ridiculed the idea that clean energy was best for consumers, arguing that renewables are only affordable due to government subsidies, which they oppose.
I am certainly not enough of an expert to assess how significant this setback is. It does worry me, however, that Georgetown’s situation could give the Republican-controlled state legislature to move against municipally-owned utilities. That would be extremely unfortunate, considering that Texas is home to a number of well-run MOUs, notably Austin Energy, has had great success getting customers to reduce consumption (and their bills) through innovative energy efficiency programs.
I suppose much of the future of Georgetown’s approach depends largely on how its own residents feel about its renewables commitment. It wouldn't be surprising if it becomes a big political battle in local government and those opposed to the current policy win. It certainly seems like a test for renewables advocates. If the conservative-leaning voters of Georgetown are willing to stick with the current leadership, that will send a strong message to political leaders in the state (and perhaps country) that fighting climate change has bipartisan support.