Despite natural gas boom, this Texas town is going 100% renewable

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Ed Soph, a retired University of North Texas jazz studies professor, and his wife Carol stand in front of solar panels they installed on their roof ten years ago. They are local environmental activists in Denton, which earlier this year became the second city in Texas to commit to derive 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources.
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The natural gas boom has been good to the state of Texas. But residents in Denton, a midsize college town north of Dallas, aren't banking on a fossil-fuel-driven future. Instead, they hope to make their community the second city in Texas to get all of its electricity from renewable energy. Denton is twice the size of the first Texas city to achieve that goal, but officials expect they will be able to reach 100 percent renewable by 2020 without having to increase rates residents pay. In conservative-minded Texas, that last point is key. Even in Denton, a city that voted to ban fracking four years ago, going 100 percent renewable would have faced significant backlash if residents would have had to pay more for it. Texas is widely considered a cradle of innovation in this area, however, in large part because its electrical grid is wholly confined within the state. That openness to innovation, experts say, will likely drive the growth of renewable energy in the state and encourage larger cities to increase their renewable energy capacities.

Why We Wrote This

As US communities shift away from fossil fuels, cities and towns are grappling with the challenge of just how much they can rely on renewable energy. Denton, Texas, aims to show the way.

When Ed and Carol Soph first installed solar panels on their roof in 2007, the rest of the town’s gaze was fixed underground. It was the dawn of a natural gas revolution that seemed like it would alter Denton, Texas, forever.

Today, however, some 150 homes in this mid-sized college town sport rooftop solar panels and Denton, about 40 miles north of Dallas, is on track to become the second city in Texas to draw all of its electricity demand from clean energy.

With explosive renewable energy growth and a uniquely isolated electricity grid that doesn't cross state lines, some analysts say the Lone Star state could become a model for local communities around the country looking to transition from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of electricity.

Why We Wrote This

As US communities shift away from fossil fuels, cities and towns are grappling with the challenge of just how much they can rely on renewable energy. Denton, Texas, aims to show the way.

“The tide has really turned,” says Mr. Soph, a retired jazz studies professor at the nearby University of North Texas.

“Thank God we got to this point,” he adds. “It took going to the opposite extreme.”

Indeed, in a state renowned for drilling anywhere and everywhere, Denton became a poster child. Soon after the Sophs installed their solar panels – and encouraged the city to help others do the same – high oil prices triggered a natural gas boom. Energy companies began drilling hundreds of natural gas wells within the city limits, including near hospitals, children’s playgrounds, and the UNT football stadium. Today, there are more than 300 wells in the city.

As more and more residents complained of nosebleeds, headaches and breathing problems, the town voted in 2014 to ban horizontal hydraulic fracturing (better known as “fracking”) in the city. Five months later, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law prohibiting cities and towns from enacting local bans on fracking.

In that context, Denton City Council’s pledge in February to transition to 100 percent renewables may seem unsurprising. But environmental concerns were not the decisive factor in the city’s decision.

The city had already approved a 70 percent renewable energy plan in 2015 – the furthest they felt they could go without raising rates. When renewable energy prices continued to drop, however, a full-scale transition began to appear within reach, says Jessica Rogers, deputy director of Public Affairs for the city.

By 2017 “it became financially feasible to move to 100 percent,” she adds. “The city could purchase enough renewable energy to maintain rates [and] maintain reliability.”

Not the first, not the last?

When Georgetown, a city about 30 miles north of Austin, pledged in 2015 to become the first city in Texas to go 100 percent renewable (a goal they met in 2017), the economic benefits were also cited as the primary factor.

“Make no mistake, this was a business case,” Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross told the Monitor at the time. In his eyes, going 100 percent renewable would protect the town from volatile fossil fuel prices and better control energy costs.

While the cost of coal or natural gas may spike or crash depending on new discoveries or international trade policies, the guarantee that the wind will always blow and the sun will always shine means cities and towns feel comfortable signing long-term, fixed-rate contracts for clean energy.

“You don’t know what the price of natural gas is going to be in five years, but you know the sun is always going to be free,” says Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute.

“Producing solar and wind means you can lock in a price for 15 or 20 years these days,” he adds. “Even if it wasn’t the cheapest [energy resource], having that price certainty is valuable.”

Scaling up?

Denton’s move to 100 percent renewable energy is significant not just because it is the second Texas city to do so, but also because it has twice the population of Georgetown. More people means greater electricity demand, and more demand means lower prices for renewables. If those prices are at the point where Denton can afford to forgo fossil fuels entirely without raising rates, experts believe that larger cities in the state could soon follow their lead.

“The cost is going down, and volume helps get that cost down,” says Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club. “The more megawatt/hours of solar and wind that go into the system the better, because it means less of that is being filled up by coal and natural gas.”

It could be difficult for cities larger than Denton to meet a goal of 100 percent renewable energy, however. Not only do they simply need more power, but many of them also have long-term contracts with fossil fuel plants that can be prohibitively expensive to terminate.

Austin Energy, the municipal utility for the Texas capital, has a goal of increasing its renewable energy capacity to 55 percent by 2025, for example, but the utility also has ties to a coal plant and some natural gas units. Meanwhile CPS Energy, the utility for San Antonio, plans to generate about half its power from renewable energy by 2040, a pledge that is partially shaped by long-term commitments to coal, nuclear, and natural gas facilities.

“You’re more likely to see [aggressive renewable energy adoption] in the smaller cities, just because they haven’t made those larger investments,” says Mr. Reed.

Uniquely poised

Characteristics unique to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the grid covering most of Texas, have allowed renewable energy to flourish in the state – characteristics that other electric grids in the country could emulate if they want to increase their clean energy capacity.

To be sure, west and coastal Texas in particular are two of the windiest and sunniest regions of the country. But some of the same freewheeling, market-driven policies that have helped fossil fuels thrive in the past are now benefiting renewables.

About a decade ago Texas embarked on a now $7 billion effort to add vast amounts of wind power to its energy grid, including 3,600 miles of transmission lines from west to central Texas.

That effort was made easier by ERCOT's relatively unusual policy: If a new transmission project will reduce costs for everyone, the costs of building that infrastructure is “socialized,” or shared by every member of the grid, taking pressure off of developers. Furthermore, unlike most grid operators in the United States, ERCOT is confined to just one state, meaning its initiatives aren’t slowed by federal oversight or conflicting state regulations. (Wind producers were also fortunate that those transmission lines were built just before natural gas production surged and prices plummeted. Today, ERCOT likely wouldn’t approve such a buildout.)

Nevertheless, the supply of renewable energy in Texas is increasing. Eighteen percent of the energy generated in the state last year came from wind and solar power. And as of the end of 2017, more than 10,000 megawatts of new wind and solar capacity awaited connection to the ERCOT grid.

“There are limits to the amount of renewable energy that we can get onto the system, although we haven’t run into those limits yet,” says Dr. Rhodes.

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