Georgetown, located north of Austin, was the first in Texas to go 100 percent renewable energy in 2017. Now, the city of nearly 70,000 thousand people wants to generate power locally in a move staff say could change how neighborhoods are designed in the future.
The Republican town in a dark red county got a lot of attention when it signed 20-year energy deals with renewable providers.
National interviews, mentions, stories all led to $19 million in free publicity, according to a city-commissioned study.
“There are cities in the U.S. that have already reached the goal of 100 percent renewable energy," said Vice President Al Gore in his film "An Inconvenient Sequel," "Look what's happening in Georgetown, Texas."
The city is doubling down on its green strategy. Last month, Bloomberg Philanthropies gave the city a million dollars for its next innovation.
“This is our idea,” Mayor Dale Ross said. "What if we had a virtual power plant in the city of Georgetown, and what would that look like?”
Ross said by renting residential rooftops, installing solar panels and backing it up with state of the art battery technology, the city can offset the quickly growing community’s energy needs at a savings. They want to start with 14 to 15 residential rooftops, or 90 kilowatts worth, along with eight to nine battery backups.
Since announcing they would go renewable more than two years ago, Ross, a self-described conservative Republican, has maintained that this was a business decision. Fossil fuel companies came in with bids that were less attractive in length and cost, he said.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment.
“It’s all driven by a bunch of hidden costs,” said Cutter Gonzàlez, with the conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Government subsidies and government programs have allowed that energy to be priced in ways that are artificial.”
The TPPF is currently suing Georgetown for documents related to spending on solar panels.
The federal Solar Investment Tax Credit is set to expire in 2021 and many researchers project that solar rates will be highly competitive, especially when batteries are added.
“By some projections, solar — plus storage — will be the most competitive (energy) resource by as soon as 2020,” said Eric O’Shaughnessy, a market research analyst with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Georgetown joins a number of other communities in trying to make distributed residential work.
“Well, this is definitely new and shiny. There are not that many projects like this,” he said
Eric O’Shaughnessy, a market research analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, identified 23 utility-led virtual power plant pilot projects across the country from Maui to Chattanooga, Tennessee. He said they all use rooftop solar, and some have battery backup.
“Across the board, they are demonstrating that this works, at the very least,” he said. “There’s still are a lot of open questions.”
O’Shaughnessy said these decisions are easier in Hawaii, where energy runs more than 32 cents a kilowatt hour, but in Texas — where it's less than 12 cents per kWh — it gets trickier.
“We are right at the cusp of this making financial sense with battery and solar technology,” said Jack Daly, with the Georgetown city manager’s office. “So if we can make it work with today’s technology, the financials should only get better.”
Behind a security fence on the western edge of town is where Georgetown’s utility service center sits. More than a dozen service trucks, rows of poles and pad-mounted transformers take up space in the parking lot. Solar panels line the long, south-facing structure’s ribbed roof.
“There’s about 460 of these panels up here, and it supplies enough energy not just for this building but about 17 houses up the line,” said Chris Foster, manager of resource planning and integration.
This array cut the cost of energy in this area nearly in half, Foster said.
Future savings from the pilot program is expected to come from resilience the batteries provide for maintenance and in an emergency. The batteries will also allow them to reduce the impact of broken transformers and allow them to more quickly identify issues on the line.
If successful, the project can change how neighborhoods in this country are built, he said.
“But, it’s also a system that’s going to take countries that don’t have transmission lines today and show them, you can provide power without ever building transmission lines.”
Cities across the country, including Austin, are amending building codes already to require buildings to be “solar ready,” or able to host a solar installation. California now requires all new homes and buildings to have solar.
“Building codes are increasingly embracing solar, so you can design entire neighborhoods as south facing,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Georgetown could make similar requirements based on the pilot’s outcome.
The city continues to be known for things like its annual poppy festival and its idyllic downtown square, but some residents said they are starting to get a new reputation.
“When we talk to them, almost everyone has heard the green story. It has made a big impact,” said Karen Soeffker of out-of-towners visiting her toy store and ice cream shop, All About Kids, which is a two-minute walk from city hall downtown.
Soeffker embraced the 100 percent renewable energy deal. She now uses it in her marketing materials for the store.
“We have 42 flavors all powered by green energy,” she said.
It takes a lot of energy to power her hot-water tanks and commercial freezers, she said, and they wouldn’t have built the ice cream shop had they not had they not seen the rates from the long-term renewable contract.
“No, I don’t think we would have even looked at it,” she said.
She, for one, is all in on the city’s efforts.
Georgetown won’t know for more than a year how this project impacts the community, and officials are not certain if the project will expand past the first 15 homes. Whether this is the virtual power plant project that changes neighborhoods forever understanding that will take far longer.