This Texas town will pay residents to put solar on their roofs

Georgetown Texas has been making renewable energy news since it first announced back in March of 2015  its intent to be powered by 100% renewablesOn the face of it, the town of about 50,000 is an unlikely candidate for greening. It has a Republican mayor at the head of a municipality in the heart of a state that made its fortune on oil. Interim city manager Jim Briggs told The Guardian newspaper he was “called an Al Gore clone, a tree-hugger.” 

Mayor Dale Ross became a bit of a green energy media darling, appearing in: HBO’s Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution, directed by James Redford (son of Robert); a documentary for National Geographic; and Mr. Gore’s latest film ‘An Inconvenient Sequel’.

Mayor Dale Ross and James Redford
Mayor Dale Ross speaks with James Redford in ‘Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution” Click to visit Trailer

The decisions to embrace renewable energy were not made out of any altruistic desire to save the planet but cold hard capitalism. Mr Briggs told The Guardian “We didn’t do this to save the world – we did this to get a competitive rate and reduce the risk for our consumers. I’m a good little Republican, a rightwing fiscal conservative, but when it comes to making decisions based on facts, that’s what we do.”

The facts, Ross said, are that when Georgetown negotiated power supply deals the cost was about the same between natural gas and wind and solar, but the natural gas option would provide only a seven-year guaranteed contract whereas 20-25 year proposals were on the table from renewable providers.

The way the town reached its 100% renewable goal was by purchasing energy from wind farms and solar farms in other parts of the huge state. Now the goal is to take matters into Georgetown’s own hands. Or roofs.Jack Daly, assistant to the city manager, told local TV station KXAN “Instead of being regulated by the state grid and relying on transmitting energy long distances, wouldn’t it be cool if we made all our power here in Georgetown?” So the town is offering to pay residents and businesses to put solar panels on their roofs and create a ‘virtual power plant’ 

Aerial view of Georgetown, TX
Aerial view of Georgetown showing sunshine on future solar installation sites

Buying solar panels is the next step

Georgetown was recently awarded $100,000 in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 Mayors Challenge competition that “encourages city leaders to uncover bold, inventive ideas.” In part the money is being used to refine the virtual power plant idea and compete for the contest’s $5M grand prize or one of four $1M runner-up grants.

But even if they don’t get the money, the plan will go ahead, simply because it makes fiscal sense. As the city grows it will use utility payments from its customers to fund the solar initiative. “We would have to invest in new generation to continue to supply additional power,” Daly said. “The virtual power plant is an alternative form of generation.”

One aspect of this potential virtuous circle is that growth is coming partly because companies find Georgetown attractive in meeting their own corporate renewable energy goals.

Georgetown joins a growing list of cities that are looking at decentralized solar power as viable additions to their power supply. Last October Singapore launched a program where industries can sell power directly from new rooftop solar farms to the city’s utility, and Tesla is involved in another virtual power plant in Australia which has a goal of rooftop solar and Tesla Wall batteries in 50,000 homes.

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