From National Geographic to the praises of Al Gore, Georgetown has caught the attention of the media with its transition to a power supply of 100 percent renewable energy. The city touts the decision as making economic and environmental sense. But do the noble ideals of lower prices and improved environmental outcomes match the real effects of going “100 percent renewable?” Not quite.
For one, the pricing scheme vastly understates the true cost of renewable energy. Georgetown is offering stabilized rates to consumers well into the highly unpredictable future. This only makes sense because the impressive tax subsidies that make renewable energy production feasible. These subsidies are so immense that renewable energy generators often drive the market price of their electricity into the negative yet maintain profitability — that’s right, they can pay people to take their product. No other industry can stay afloat in such a situation, but taxpayer dollars make it so for generators of renewable energy, as recent research from Texas Public Policy Foundation suggests.
What about the second goal, improved environmental outcomes? It’s true, wind and solar do not produce greenhouse gasses as they generate electricity as more traditional sources do. But the manufacturing and installation of wind turbines and solar plants certainly do. Plus, using a single measure as an indication of environmental quality is bad logic, bad science and bad policy. In measuring renewable energy’s environmental impacts, one must also consider the impacts on birds, bats and land animals that use the surrounding airspace and land for habitat or navigation.
The results are mixed and ill-investigated, which should — and does — cause concern among conservationists. Couple that with the fact that dispatchable energy sources like coal and natural gas must stay online to supplement when wind and solar fail, and you quickly realize that it’s not such a great deal after all.
Georgetown’s mix of wind and solar power is a 50/50 blend, generated from a solar plant in West Texas and a wind plant in the Panhandle, according to the city’s website. So, what if clouds blanket the sky and the wind stills when demand crosses the threshold of supply?
Well, the lights will stay on, because the Texas grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, will ensure power is available to meet demand. But ERCOT makes no guarantee of 100 percent renewable sourcing and, as electrons don’t have fingerprints, Georgetown won’t be able to guarantee that its electricity is from renewables. In fact, its energy mix would combine all sources known to the Texas grid.
Even if all these concerns were met with good answers, another question arises: Could Georgetown’s purported success be replicated elsewhere? Quite plainly, the answer is “no.”
For starters, even though renewable energy’s reliability issues are mitigated by the existence of dispatchable energy sources such as coal and natural gas, the system is only kept afloat by citizens being forced to pay for the backup. And the greater renewable energy use grows, the more expensive and unsustainable the system becomes.
It’s obvious: If every Texas city adopted Georgetown’s model, we would have an energy supply that is extremely unreliable and a burden on taxpayers’ pocketbooks. The bottom line is that 100 percent renewable simply is not doable.
This commentary was originally featured in the Austin American-Statesman on August 2, 2018.