Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
“The future is working in renewables, and it’s not working in coal,” Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas, tells CityLab.
Georgetown, Texas, isn’t the biggest city in Texas, or the weirdest, or the bluest. It went solidly for Trump in 2016, and for Romney in 2012. But last year, the Austin exurb became one of the greenest places in the state: It was the first Texan city to convert to 100-percent renewable energy to power its grid, and the largest city in the U.S. so far.*
“We’re at a tipping point right now,” said Dale Ross, the city’s mayor and the unlikely environmentalist who spearheaded Georgetown’s transition. “Coal cannot compete with wind and solar on cost.”
Ross was the one city leader present on a panel of environmental activists, scientists, and legislators that gathered Monday in Washington, D.C., at a climate-change town hall hosted by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The event was convened to discuss the findings of the harrowing National Climate Assessment and to lay out an inclusive, economically viable climate-change adaption plan. One proposal, pushed by Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is to pass a Green New Deal through Congress, which would hold the entire country to running on 100-percent renewables within 10 years of its passage. In the process, Ocasio-Cortez says, the country could create thousands of green new jobs.
In Georgetown, Ross has already applied some of the principles of that FDR-inspired eco-deal at the local level. Ross, a certified public accountant, moved to Georgetown in 2004 and became mayor in 2014. He has expanded the city’s park system, begun composting fruits in local schools, and installed nine charging stations for electric vehicles. This year, Georgetown won a Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge grant to create a virtual solar plant by renting out space for panels on the city’s businesses and homes.
The renewable conversion started as an economic question—last year, Ross told NPR he’s been driven by a “love of green: green rectangles and green energy”—but it’s not just about the dollar bills, even for him. “I think we have a duty and obligation to leave the world better than we found it,” he said at the town hall. “We can do that; you just have to have bold visionary leaders who we can elect—with y’all’s help.” The crowd roared.
The next morning, as Ross prepared to fly back to Texas, CityLab spoke to him about the argument he used to convince his city to make the switch, and how environmental change can be propelled at the city level even if it doesn’t move forward in Washington. Below is the conversation, edited and condensed for flow.
Start from the beginning. How did Georgetown become the first city in Texas—and the largest in the country—to go 100-percent renewable?
Well, back in 2008, when I was on city council as a council member, Georgetown had a provider called LCRA, which was managing the city’s energy portfolio. We asked them, would it be possible for y’all to have 30 percent renewables in our product mix by the year 2030? And they gave us a bunch of resistance to that.
So then you move forward to 2010, and a bunch of students from Southwestern University wanted to know if we could make it so that their campus was 100-percent renewable, and we were able to do that for them in 2010. And then in 2012, we were looking at the very real prospect that by 2016 we wouldn’t have any energy purchasing contracts, because we decided we weren’t going to renew our contract with LCRA.
So what we did is we put together requests for proposals. We sent it out to fossil-fuel people; we also sent out to the wind and solar people. And when they came back, what was interesting was that natural gas was very competitive to wind and solar—but we had two requirements.
First and foremost, we wanted to mitigate price volatility on the short term. How do you do that? Long-term contracts that create cost certainty. So we asked that everybody give us 20-to-25-year contracts. Natural gas would only give us seven years, and the pricing came back the same.
The second requirement was that it had to be an electricity source that mitigated regulatory and governmental risk. And that really only applied to fossil fuels, because there’s a lot of regulations in the production of electricity, while there were hardly any for green energy—so truly it came back as a no-brainer.
And then in 2016 we started getting our wind and solar delivered. That first year, we were 100 percent because of favorable weather conditions; in 2017 we were 90 percent; and then 2018 and going forward, we’ll be 100 percent, all the way to 2041.
How did you get your constituency on board? Was it hard to convince folks that adopting this pretty progressive energy policy was a good idea?
Instead of progressive, the word we use is “innovative.” The reason we use innovative instead is because part of a [narrative] I heard when we were first trying to do renewable was, “A bunch of Al Gore clones have taken over city council!” People want to put labels on everything and that’s not a good thing. I think you just do things for the right reason, and that works out in the end—and it certainly has for the city of Georgetown.
What we did is we put together a communication plan to explain what we were doing, when we were doing it, and why we were doing it. Every time you get a utility bill from the city, there’s a newsletter in there, so that was a great way, because then we could reach out every month to every customer we had. I also gave a lot of speeches; we did town-hall meetings; and we posted lots of Q-and-As to our city website. Many of the frequently asked questions were, “What happens if the wind doesn’t blow?” Or, “What happens if the sun doesn’t shine?”
But really, it was just a matter of time before people understood that their utility bill was not increasing—it was stable, and there wasn’t anything to fear. I think as a rule people want to know that, when they flip the switch, the electricity will come on. They want reliability, and they wanted the cheapest possible price.
We also communicated that, first and foremost, it was a business decision. The environmental impact didn’t have that much of an impact on the decision, in the beginning. But as we’ve gone down this learning curve for us, too, we’re realizing that we can be a shining example for others to follow because the environmental benefits are so good.
It seems like it’s been effective to frame climate adaptation as an economic question. What do you say to the people who fear they’ll lose their jobs in coal or oil as more cities and states make the switch to renewables?
The transition can’t occur overnight. But I remember way back when many tobacco farmers were put out of business, because people quit smoking. What the federal government did was they provided training programs, so the people that worked in agriculture could be retrained for a job in another industry.
I think that’s what needs to happen today. I don’t think you can throw people under the bus that have been in the coal industry all their lives. There has to be a reasonable transition period, and then they have to be retrained, whether it’s in the renewable energy field or another field, because I think we have a moral and ethical obligation to take care of those people that have really made their life plans working in the coal mines.
But I think everybody understands the coal industry is a dying industry. So when somebody says we’re going to bring back coal jobs, that’s just not true, because the economics just don’t make it so. Coal is the most expensive form of energy to produce right now, so they’re not going to be able to compete in an open market.
There are 360,000 people in the solar business in Texas alone. Natural gas is also being mined in Texas, and it’s being produced pretty much at record levels now, even though its cost is at record lows. So the future is working in renewables, and it’s not working in coal.
I'll ask you this, if you want to go philosophical: In 10,000 years, are we still going to have fossil fuels in the earth, compared to wind blowing and sun shining? I’m betting on Mother Nature. I’m betting on wind and solar.
Cities have been called the incubators of change, places where change is easier to compel than on the federal or state level. You mentioned last night that already, Denton is trying to follow you in becoming the second all-renewable city in Texas. Do you think climate-change adaptation more broadly is starting in the U.S.’s cities?
I think that at the local level, as elected officials, we have to get direct results. And the problem I think in Washington and at the state level is sometimes they don’t deliver results. They’re just in office, and I’m wondering why the heck are they even there, if they don’t want to get any good stuff done?
Generally, the cities and the counties are the ones that are responsible for delivering electricity and water and wastewater [service] to their citizens. Local officials can—whoever their electricity-service provider—make sure that they can go to them and say, “This is the type of electricity we want: We want renewable energy.”
Last night, you were up on stage with Bernie Sanders, a progressive Democratic politician, joking and agreeing with him. Do you think environmental issues are one of the last things Republicans and Democrats can—or should—agree on?
I think if you let the facts indicate what kind of decisions you’re going to make, everything works out pretty well in the end, and I would hope that they would do [that] in Congress. Especially at the federal level, they don’t reach across the aisle toward each other very often. I think the biggest problem is you have competing economic interests between the fossil-fuel industry and renewable energy. My hope is that we will all remember that we’re Americans first, and the party comes second.
*CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Georgetown is the second-largest U.S. city to have converted to 100-percent renewable energy; it is the largest.