The Texas Renewable Energy Landscape: From Aspiration to Execution
by Scott Macmurdo, Sustainability Specialist
Georgetown, Texas, is perhaps best known for its antiques and retirees. So what led former Vice President Al Gore and hundreds of renewable energy leaders to converge on this small Central Texas town last month?
In 2016, Georgetown became the nation’s largest city to rely on 100% renewable electricity after signing a solar agreement with NRG. In this context, the city provided a fitting backdrop for the GridNext conference organized by the Texas Renewable Energy Industry Alliance (TREIA). Each year, GridNext convenes private, public, and academic sectors to discuss the rise of renewable energy and the implications for the Texas grid.
Over two days, participants discussed fresh ideas, new opportunities, and barriers to renewable energy integration in what is already the nation’s leading market for wind and solar production. Here are my main takeaways from the conference:
1. Economics drive renewables—not regulation.
Did I mention that the man driving Georgetown’s pursuit of renewable energy, Mayor Dale Ross, is the Republican leader of a deep red town? By his own telling, Ross never set out to lead the way on sustainable energy. A former accountant, he simply “added up the numbers” and found that renewables were the best deal for his constituents. His decision was shaped by economics rather than politics.
It was this dynamic that made Georgetown a feature of An Inconvenient Sequel, Gore’s most recent climate change film. Since that time, Ross has become an unlikely ”climate celebrity” featured in news stories from Japan to Columbia. Gore and Ross could not be further apart on the political spectrum, but they used their time on stage to demonstrate how renewables can succeed on their own merits in a rapidly changing energy system.
2. Technology is progressing faster than we imagine.
Several presenters dusted off the renewable energy growth projections that were made 5, 10, and 15 years ago to show the extent to which modelers have historically underestimated the market. Technological advancement has reduced solar and wind prices more dramatically than ever envisioned, making renewables more attractive than incumbent technologies in many circumstances. As one of the presenters put it, grid parity is like the difference between 32 and 33 degrees—one yields ice and the other water. Texas has crossed this melting point, and now stands as the nation’s largest wind and seventh largest solar producer.
We can forgive the modelers for missing the growth of renewables. After all, TREIA’s own vision statement calls for 50% renewable energy in Texas by 2030. On a particularly windy day last year, renewable energy generation reached the 46% threshold. Call me Nostradamus, but I believe we can achieve that additional 4% in the next 10 years. As Rudi Dornbusch once observed, “in economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.”
3. Corporations are driving the adoption of renewables
I had the good fortune of moderating a panel with representatives from General Motors and Dell, two companies that are leading the way on corporate renewable energy purchasing. GM has contracted for over 80 GW in Texas over the past two years, along with additional projects throughout the country. Dell has a goal to reach 50% renewable energy worldwide by 2020 and runs at least 9 facilities on renewable electricity exclusively.
The private sector’s appetite for renewables is insatiable. Corporate energy consumers have contracted for over 200 GW of Texas renewables in the past two years, corresponding to 80% annual growth. The private sector is also becoming more vocal about its desires. Half of all Fortune 500 companies have a sustainability or renewable energy commitment, and over 100 companies have pledged to buy 100% renewable energy. Corporate leadership on renewables is making it easier for governments, individuals, and small businesses to enter the market themselves.
Perhaps my most striking observation from GridNext is how much the industry has progressed in just a few short years. Members of the community have gone from discussing what is around the corner to what is here today. The window between aspiration and execution has been closed, and members of the community are more optimistic about the future than ever.
Of course I’ll wait for the end of the post to confess my bias, but I am a resident of Georgetown. I take pride in the fact that that drive to renewables isn’t confined to the coastal communities you might expect. For renewables to succeed, they must work for the Georgetowns of America. After GridNext 2017, I’m convinced that they will.
 Georgetown has since been displaced by Las Vegas as the largest 100% renewable energy city, but remains one of the first cities to reach this milestone in the United States.
 “Renewables on the Rise: A Decade of Progress Toward a Clean Energy Future,” Environment Texas, 2017.
 “BRC Deal Tracker,” Rocky Mountain Institute, accessed 30 October 2017.