A train brings pieces of the Rio Grande Valley wind farm through Brownsville.
For all of Austin’s much-vaunted reputation as the blue island in the middle of a red state, one fact sometimes gets left out: that Austin’s liberal island is beset by neighbors who are very conservative. In Williamson County, just north of the capital, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama in the 2012 election by 22 points. And Jim Briggs, the interim city manager of Georgetown, the Williamson County seat, proudly shares the politics of those he serves. But that hasn’t stopped him from making his city the first in Texas to achieve a longtime liberal dream. Namely, being powered entirely by renewable sources of energy.
As the Guardian reports, Briggs accomplished this for Georgetown—but for reasons that are way more Ted Cruz than Al Gore:
“I’m probably the furthest thing from an Al Gore clone you could find,” he says. “We didn’t do this to save the world – we did this to get a competitive rate and reduce the risk for our consumers.”
In many Texas cities the electricity market is deregulated, meaning that customers choose from a dizzying variety of providers and plans. In Houston, for example, there are more than 70 plans that offer energy from entirely renewable sources.
That makes it easy to switch, so in a dynamic marketplace, providers tend to focus on the immediate future. This discourages the creation of renewable energy facilities, which require long-term investment to be viable. But in Georgetown, the city utility company has a monopoly.
When its staff examined their options last year, they discovered something that seemed remarkable, especially in Texas: renewable energy was cheaper than non-renewable. And so last month city officials finalised a deal with SunEdison, a giant multinational solar energy company. It means that by January 2017, all electricity within the city’s service area will come from wind and solar power.
A conservative-identified Texan in a conservative Texan town that beats most progressive strongholds in the race to secure 100 percent renewable energy is the sort of man-bites-dog story that attracts attention even from an international paper like the Guardian. They didn’t send a reporter out to Burlington, Vermont, last year when that Hobbit’s Shire-like bastion of liberalism became the first U.S. city to become fully renewable, after all.
But the culture-war aspect of renewable energy is very real. Conservative blog NewsMax reported on the Burlington development in February with the withering headline, “Renewable Energy: Burlington Vermont Brags It’s Totally There,” and many in Georgetown seemed to share the contempt for anything that the hippies are into to fight global warming, according to the Guardian. “I was called an Al Gore clone, a tree-hugger,” the paper quotes Briggs as saying.
People in Georgetown may balk at the connotations of being tree-hugging hippies living in solar-powered houses, but the pursuit of renewable energy makes sense in more ways than one: not only does it lock in a fixed-rate plan for home energy costs for the community regardless of what happens to fossil fuels but it also makes Georgetown an appealing site for businesses who are compelled, either for personal or PR reasons, to plant themselves somewhere a little greener.
Chris Foster, Georgetown’s manager of resource planning and integration, said that since the announcement he had “gotten calls from businesses as far away as California and Maryland wanting to know: what does it cost to move over here? [They say:] ‘We’re out here trying to be renewable; it’s cheaper over there to be renewable’.”
He said that for manufacturing companies conscious of their carbon footprint, basing themselves in a place that offers 100% wind and solar energy would be an easy way to boost their green credentials.
Of course, high-profile Texans have touted renewable energy before. Kate Galbraith and Asher Price wrote extensively of wind projects in the state for Texas Monthly in 2011, and Skip Hollandsworth’s 2008 profile of T. Boone Pickens focused on the billionaire’s commitment to wind power. Companies from Google to Ikea have invested in Texas real estate with an eye on renewable energy, and it makes sense as to why: we have a lot of land, a lot of sun, and a lot of wind, all of which make Texas a very attractive place for those looking to find power outside of fossil fuels.
Ultimately, the story of renewable energy as it relates to Texas has always been a story about business as much—if not more—than it’s been a story about environmentalism and conservation. And that’s why Georgetown is making headlines by going green: it simply makes economic sense.
(AP Photo/The Brownsville Herald, Miguel Roberts)