In the 14 months since Al Gore came to Georgetown to see for himself the story of this red Texas city’s conversion to solar and wind power, Mayor Dale Ross has become something of an international sensation.
On Tuesday, journalists from “Weltspiegel,” a popular German foreign affairs TV program, were interviewing Ross, the latest reporters to have trekked to this charming city of 65,000, the first and still only Texas city to operate entirely on renewable energy.
On Monday, Ross, a conservative Republican, will be introducing Gore, the former Democratic vice president and climate change guru, who will be the keynote speaker at the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Alliance’s third annual GridNEXT conference being held in Georgetown, 30 miles north of Austin, for the second consecutive year.
Ross is just back from an appearance with Gore at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas (a “Weltspiegel” crew was there to record it), and a screening in San Francisco of a new documentary — “Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution” — directed by Robert Redford’s son, Jamie Redford, that will air on HBO in December.
In “Happening,” Ross reprises his uplifting role as himself that he already played in Gore’s “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” which was released in July, and the anti-coal documentary, “From the Ashes,” which premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and the National Geographic Channel earlier this year.
“Being in three movies this year, especially Vice President Gore’s `Inconvenient Sequel,’ that has just taken it to a new level internationally,” Ross said. “It slowly built up, and now it’s just this big media machine, doing interviews in South America, Beijing, Japan, England.”
Ross estimates he has reached more than half a billion viewers on five continents.
“How many viewers do y’all have?” Ross asks Claudia Buckenmaier, the Washington correspondent for ARD German TV and radio, playing the part of the jaded celebrity. “Only a million?”
“You know how many Japan’s going to have? Thirty-seven million,” Ross says of the reach of NHK, Japan’s largest broadcaster, which will be paying Georgetown a visit on Monday.
“Two million,” Buckenmaier says of “Weltspiegel’s” viewership. “Two million’s a lot.”
“You set this up for 2 million?” Ross asks. “Really?”
By now, Ross knows his part well.
He is just what the environmental movement needs, straight from against-type central casting — a Texas Republican CPA with a blue suit and a comic likability.
“You look very, very good,” Buckenmaier assures him as the camera is ready to roll.
“Oh, yeah,” Ross replies. “Short and fat is in.”
“Mayor,” Buckenmaier, “why did you take the position to rely on renewable energy?”
“This is a fact-based decision we made in Georgetown, and first and foremost it was an economic decision, and what we were able to accomplish was to meet two objectives,” Ross says.
“The first objective was to mitigate price volatility in the short term, and the second thing was to minimize or mitigate regulatory or governmental risk, and so we were negotiating with wind and solar companies, and natural gas,” he says. “We were able to secure 20- and 25-year contracts with wind and solar, and the natural gas providers would only give us a guaranteed contract rate for seven years.”
“Now this is the deal, we are paying the same amount per kilowatt hour in year one than we are in year 25 with no cost escalation, so that meets the objective of cost certainty,” Ross says. “And then in terms of regulatory risk — the knuckleheads in D.C. — what’s there to regulate with wind and solar? It’s clean energy. So this as the perfect solution for the citizens we were elected to serve.”
So what, Buckenmaier asks, did he think of President Donald Trump taking the United States out of the Paris climate agreement?
“You know, I did go to Trump’s inauguration,” Ross said.
But, he said, “President Trump and I do not agree on environmental issues.”
“It was a huge mistake to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, although it really doesn’t take effect until after Trump is out of office,” Ross says, assuming Trump will not be re-elected. “And we also don’t agree on coal energy. There is no such thing as clean coal, and there is no future for coal miners. It’s a very cost-prohibitive energy source, and wind and solar is cost-effective, and in the long term, wind and solar are going to win the economic battle. If you win the economic battle, you are going to win the environmental battle.”
“Is this not putting you at risk with your Republican Party?” Buckenmaier asks.
“No,” Ross replies, “because what I do, I make decisions based on facts, and this was the best decision for the people who we were elected to serve in Georgetown because, unlike the president, in Georgetown, we want to make our decisions based on the facts.”
Trump, he says, “bases his, especially on the environment … on partisan national politics.”
“I think the lesson in Georgetown is to make decisions on the facts and not partisan politics, and you end up with great decisions,” he says.
But cozying up to Al Gore?
“My tea party friends are not so sure about me anymore and this is what I tell them,” Ross says. “Al Gore has done more in one day to make the world a better place than you have probably done in your whole life.”
“What reasonable person can’t weigh the evidence and come to the conclusion that climate change is real and it’s happening. When you say, `No, it’s not.’ Really? Well what are you basing that on? You think Irma and Harvey were just coincidences? Really?” Ross continues.
“Remember in Gore’s first movie, they ridiculed him so bad about (predicting) New York being flooded. What happened (with Hurricane Sandy)? New York got flooded, right? You have fish swimming in the streets of Miami,” Ross says. “You think all of that is coincidences? I don’t believe in coincidences. I really don’t.”
Plank 39 of the 2016 Texas Republican Party Platform is devoted to “Protections from Extreme Environmentalists.” It reads, in part, “`Climate Change’ is a political agenda promoted to control every aspect of our lives. We support the defunding of `climate justice’ initiatives and the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency and repeal of the Endangered Species Act.”
But Bill Fairbrother, the Williamson County GOP chairman, said, “Contrary to the popular myth in some places, Republicans are all for clean, breathable air. We just don’t want the federal government overregulating and forcing needless bureaucracy on business and local governments, and if Georgetown has found a solution that meets the needs of its citizens in a fiscally responsible manner that just happens to be green, or whatever term you want to apply to it, I’d like to think that Republican elected officials are smart enough to find the answer wherever it is.”
“Mayor Ross is a CPA,” Fairbrother added. “I doubt he’d do anything that doesn’t make financial sense, and the fact that is pleasing to as diverse an audience as the former vice president is interesting, but fine with me.”
Ross was elected to a second term as mayor in May with 72 percent of the vote. In November, Trump carried all but three Georgetown precincts.
‘You really haven’t done anything’
In “Inconvenient Sequel,” Ross is seen telling a delighted Gore in his August 2016 visit to City Hall, “You are in Georgetown, which is the reddest city in the reddest county in Texas, and I’m a conservative Republican.” That part about Georgetown and Williamson County being the “reddest” is, inconveniently, not true.
“I was trying to make a point,” Ross said. “I’m telling him we’re bright red.”
Ross, a big-picture guy, doesn’t sweat the details.
“I like Chris being around because some interviewers like all the technical questions and my eyes just glaze over,” Ross tells the German crew.
Chris is Chris Foster, the city’s manager of resource planning and integration, who has been working with Georgetown’s municipal utility since 2008.
While Ross was on camera for “Weltspiegel,” Foster was offering a reporter a sotto voce tutorial on how Georgetown’s municipal utility fits into the Texas grid. There are three electrical grids in the Lower 48 — the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the Texas grid, which is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
“So the coal plants historically in order to run cheaply, they had to run 24-7, all the time,” Foster says. But, as the city was searching for new energy sources years ago, its officials noticed that the shape of the wind supply from the Panhandle and the solar supply from West Texas actually matched the profile of energy use in Central Texas.
“So we said, if we started to put them together, we would have an energy profile that’s better for the city, and it’s cheaper to operate than the coal plants, and eventually it will cause the coal plants to go off line because they won’t be able to compete,” Foster says.
Luminant just announced the closing of three coal plants in Texas, and it is projected that wind capacity will soon exceed coal capacity on the Texas grid.
“They can’t compete with renewables,” says Foster. “Yeah, we told you that was going to happen.”
Not everyone thinks that is good.
“It’s not kind of misleading, it’s very misleading, and it is for political gain,” Charles McConnell, executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University, said of Georgetown’s claim that it’s using 100 percent renewable energy. “It’s almost like you can’t wait to pat yourself on the back for something that you’ve done, and you really haven’t done anything.”
“Renewables and the drive toward renewables in our portfolio is a worthy effort,” McConnell said, “but declarations like this give people false belief that 100 percent renewables is a realistic target for other cities and other organizations to pursue, because if they can do it, why can’t we?”
McConnell, an assistant secretary of energy from 2011-13, worries that the zeal for renewable energy, buttressed by federal tax credits, is hurrying the grid to an unhealthy reliance on less than 24-7 renewable energy sources, leading to brownouts and higher costs in the long run.
Like Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry (who as governor played an instrumental role in the development of wind power, transmission lines and the grid), McConnell believes coal is essential to America’s energy future.
“Coal is the bedrock of affordable electricity, and it will remain so, no matter how much wishful thinking by environmental activists,” McConnell wrote in an August opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. “City Pledges for `100% Renewable’ are 99% Misleading: The power grid is built on fossil fuels, and there’s no way to designate certain electrons as guilt free.”
But Fred Beach, assistant director for energy and technology policy at the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, believes McConnell is wrong on all counts.
“Advances in technology and market drivers are combining to push coal out of the market, inevitably and permanently,” he said.
Beach said the Texas grid can handle a large increase in renewable energy, “because we built a vast fleet of peaking power plants 10 to 15 years ago to accommodate our high demand in the summer.”
“If everyone tried to do what Georgetown did tomorrow, the grid would have predictability problems,” Beach said, but that’s not going to happen, and in the meantime, the cost of utility batteries that can store electricity from any source are dropping.
Beach also noted that the federal production tax credit for wind generation is being phased out in 2020 — unlike breaks for fossil fuels — having launched a thriving industry that no longer needs it.
As for McConnell’s first assertion, that Georgetown isn’t really powered 100 percent by renewable energy, Beach said that it is technically true that, unless Georgetown were to get off the grid, the energy it receives is a fungible mix from all sources, but that’s not the point.
“Nobody knows where their electrons actually come from, not that it really matters,” said Beach, who lives in Georgetown. “It just meant on an annual basis we were procuring enough wind energy that we could say we’re being covered on a net basis.”
In 2015, Georgetown contracted with Spinning Spur 3, a wind project 50 miles west of Amarillo, for wind power, and with the NRG solar farm under construction near Fort Stockton. The solar farm will begin providing power next summer and account for 40 percent of Georgetown’s energy.
On days its supply falls short, Georgetown can buy energy. On days it has more than is needed, it can sell the excess.
If Georgetown had not bought wind power, Foster said, “Spinning Spur 3 would not exist today, and in its place Georgetown would have gas contracts. The entire state portfolio would have less renewables, and more fossil fuels. Georgetown pays for, and thereby deserves, full credit for the renewables it caused to be built in the market.”
Foster also doesn’t feel guilty about Georgetown raising expectations for renewable power.
“You know what will happen if you set the expectation that you will reach Mars by 2025, right?” Foster said. “Well, you might not get to Mars, but you will significantly advance your capability of traveling throughout the solar system.”
‘People do want renewables’
Georgetown didn’t set out to meet some kind of renewable energy goal, it just happened, Beach said.
“This was never the intention,” he said. “This was never, `Hey, we want to be 100 percent renewable by a certain date.’”
“It’s true that Georgetown is a very Republican, very conservative town, and yet, inadvertently, we backed into this situation where now, truly, 100 percent of our electricity on an annual basis comes from renewables, primarily for economic reasons,” Beach said.
“I was on the utility board from 2008 to 2012-13, when we actually did all the work that made this possible,” Beach said.
Georgetown had been getting its power through the Lower Colorado River Authority.
“With LCRA we had no control over the mix whatsoever, and didn’t care to,” Beach said. “It was 75 to 80 percent coal with a natural gas fill.”
But Georgetown, one of the fastest-growing cities of its size in the country, was loath to renew with LCRA.
“We felt the combination of committing long-term to LCRA, which was doubling down on coal, and the first term of Obama, when he was seriously talking about a carbon tax, did not bode well for electricity prices if we committed to LCRA,” he said.
Meanwhile, Beach said, “the renewables just kept getting more and more cost attractive. We were being offered contracts, at extremely competitive prices, that were locked in for 20 years with zero volatility.” Georgetown entered into its first wind contract to satisfy Southwestern University, one of its biggest customers, which wanted to operate exclusively on wind power.
“Can other cities in Texas do what Georgetown has done? The answer is `yes,’” Beach said. “Can everybody in Texas do what Georgetown has done? The answer is, ‘hell no.’”
“You can’t really have 100 percent of anything without having problems, but to say there’s a limit or some theoretical limit on how much renewable energy you can have in the grid is not true,” Beach said.
“Originally people said if you hit 10 percent renewables, the grid will crash. We hit 10 percent. It didn’t. ‘Well, if it’s 20 percent renewables the grid will crash.’ We hit 20 percent. ‘If you hit 30 percent, the grid will crash.’ We hit 30 percent,” Beach said. “We’ve had days here in Texas when wind was 50 percent of the grid and it didn’t crash.”
Altogether, in 2016, about 44 percent of energy used on the grid was natural gas, 29 percent was coal, 15 percent was wind, 12 percent was nuclear, and a fraction of a percent was solar, according to Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
“What Georgetown has done for whatever reason has had some impact in that it has sent a market signal,” Beach said. “It has sent a signal to the utility market, at least in Texas, that people do want renewables, for whatever reasons, whether it’s the price reason or environmentalist reasons, and in Texas it’s primary for the price reason – cost.”
Perhaps, but of such dollars and cents, environmental heroes are made, and, as he prepared for Tuesday’s interview with the German news crew at the former post office that is now City Hall, Ross made a request of Buckenmaier, his interviewer, standing on the opposite side of a counter over which clerks once sold stamps.
“Can you take one step back?” Ross asked Buckenmaier.
“Ja,” she said, German for “yes,” without budging.
“That way,” said Ross, waving her away from him.
“Ja,” said Buckenmaier, not sure what Ross was up to, and still not budging.
“Now,” Ross insisted.
“Ja,” said Buckenmaier, stepping away from the counter. “Are you going to jump over?”
Everyone laughed, but Ross finally had Buckenmaier right where he wanted her.
“You’re standing in the exact space that Vice President Al Gore stood in when he came to visit,” Ross said. “Are you feeling the Gore aura?”
CORRECTION: The story was corrected to to indicate that 12 percent, not 2 percent, of energy used on the Texas grid in 2016 was nuclear.