Tucked away just about 25 miles north of Austin, Texas is the nation’s fifth fastest growing city: Georgetown. The community’s southern hospitality, diverse outdoor offerings and burgeoning food scene are just the icing on the cake for Georgetown’s real draw – a thriving economy.
With a focus on long-term sustainability and growth management, Georgetown’s mayor Dale Ross credits much of the city’s economic success to their shift toward renewable energy. By 2018, the city will run entirely on wind and solar power.
While climate change conversations often feel like a rigorous political debate, Ross (a Republican) has pushed the city’s shift toward renewable energies on the basis that environmental responsibility is a nonpartisan issue.
“For us to be a really conservative city, in a conservative county, in a real conservative state, we’re pretty progressive, but you know what? These are all nonpartisan issues,” Ross said.
“There’s a certain amount of pride in our city. It’s neat to be innovative, and to lead, especially based on our politics,” he continued. “I mean, you would have thought that this green energy thing would be led by the northeast, because that’s where liberals and progressives are, but you know – green energy doesn’t have a political party. It’s all about economics, sustainability and being able to make decisions that are best for the people we were elected to serve.”
The Business of Sustainability
Georgetown’s shift toward sustainability represents an example of how going green is not just a better option for our environment, it can also be a good business decision. The increased economic prosperity and decreased environmental impact certainly seems like a no-brainer solution, but Ross explained that the transition has not been without its share of naysayers.
“The most common reaction from the skeptics is that it’s too good to be true. They ask, ‘How can you say you’re going to save us money?’” he framed.
Part of the secret to the success of renewable energy in Georgetown is their focus on long-term contracts. Ross explained that with wind and solar energy, under a 25-year contract, there are no cost of living or inflationary adjustments, which means that it’s the same cost throughout the duration of the contract. While prices fluctuate for other energy sources, the long-term contract system means that Georgetown’s utilities program will continuously remain one of the least expensive options in the region – and other cities will be left at the mercy of the short-term market.
“The wind blows all the time, the sun shines all day… Let’s play this out 1,000 years… Are we in Texas going to run out of sunshine before we run out of fossil fuels?” he asked.
Cities that run on renewable energies are also attractive to corporations looking to set up shop in destinations where they can report back to headquarters that they’re run on 100% renewable energy, the more cost-efficient method. Ross explained that this is particularly appealing to data centers, which run on a tremendous amount of electricity.
“What that’s been able to do from the economic development standpoint is that if you were one of these companies that wants to expand your operations or move your operations here, but you need electricity that’s green, affordable, and available, Georgetown is your spot,” he said. “We can do adjusting on their pricing, so it gives us another tool to recruit quality companies.”
Ross also cited the overall low maintenance costs of wind and solar energy as a driving reason they’ve transitioned to renewable energies. In comparison, fossil fuels have a much higher rate of economic volatility.
“It will not be economic for coal to continue,” he said, explaining that many wind turbines can be paid off in 15 years, and have a lifetime of 40 years, which means that the costs associated with those remaining 25 years are regular maintenance and repairs. “And on the other side, if you’re a fossil fuel generating company, you still have to pay for it. So how are you gonna compete with windmills and solar panels once we get the solar farm and windmills paid off?”
And these opportunities are just the beginning. Renewable energy technology is constantly being refined and improved, so the solar panels are becoming more efficient, which means there will continue to be additional cost-saving opportunities.
Boosting the Economy & Job Growth
The state of the industry is certainly ripe for a change. As big companies like Exxon, Shell and others continue to invest in renewable energy research, alternatives to fossil fuel options are becoming more and more prevalent – which means energy providers are able to adopt innovative models, as well as create new jobs.
“Say if you were working on the oil fields in Texas, as fossil fuel production declines, and renewable energy increases, you may have to shift industries. But there’s going to be demand for you in the renewable energy field,” Ross said. He explained that anyone who is currently working on an oil rig can easily transition to a solar or wind farm, and it will be a much safer and cleaner environment.
He shared an anecdote of time spent in Amarillo, Texas, where he spoke with the workers at the wind farms, “and they said, we plan on working on these the rest of our lives.”
“Talk about job security – we have 97 windmills to manage,” Ross said. “(With maintenance), by the time we start on windmill number one on the first of the month, by the time we go through at the end of the month, it’s time to do them again.”
“The number of jobs on renewable energy is going to continue to increase each and every year because there’s going to be more and more demand,” he said.
Renewable energy also offers economic stability and growth through exportation. Under the way laws are currently written, Ross explained that it “is not impossible, but it is difficult” to export wind and solar energy to other states – but if the laws were reworked, there’s a great amount of potential for even more economic growth.
“I would love to have Texas sell some of this energy to Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama – I think it’d be fantastic,” he said.
The Power to Create a Wider Political Impact
The restructuring of these laws to allow for more imports from state-to-state, an action which has the power to potentially impact wider societal standpoints. Since the 20th century, the United States political policy has been largely driven by our dependency on oils from foreign countries.
“Now if you want to go to maybe a more national, political level (…), if we weren’t dependent on foreign countries for oil and gas, would we possibly have a rational foreign policy?” Ross framed. “It would make our foreign policy decision-making a little easier, because we wouldn’t have that dependency on whether it’s Iraq or Saudi Arabia or Iran.”
The United States currently imports about 25 percent of our total petroleum consumption – with top providers from five countries: Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela and Nigeria. Shifting away from some of this dependency could mark the start of a new era where the American economy becomes more self-sufficient.
Change that Starts at Home
An improved economy, more resilient environment toward climate change, and a refined political system are all tempting arguments to shift toward renewable energy, but these benefits cannot come to fruition if we do not take action as individuals. A pivot toward a more sustainable future starts at home.
“There’s a lot of folks in cities that when they come home, they just turn on the light switch and they don’t really think about how that electricity arrived to their doorstep,” Ross said. “And a lot of cities don’t have their own city-owned utility, so there are multiple providers. In Houston, you can choose from about 80 different providers… One of the choices is 100% renewable, but a lot of people don’t think about that. They’re just thinking about the cheapest price.”
If our decisions are always impulse-based on the best immediate and short-term solutions, we are not preparing for the future of the environment, economic development, and long-term sustainability.
“If this is an issue that’s important to you, you have to get numbers of people to ensure that your elected officials know your point of view,” Ross said. “That’s the way to make change, because politicians do listen, especially if there’s power in numbers and you have a lot of people that are saying we want renewable energy. That’s the best way to get things done.”