Texas City Leads The Way On Renewable Energy

Mar 7, 2017
Originally published on March 8, 2017 7:59 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week we're going to spend some time in a part of the U.S. that is leading the way on renewable energy. And this place is at the center of conservative, red-state, Republican America. We're talking about Texas. Texas produces more wind energy than the next three states combined. The new energy secretary, Rick Perry, was governor of Texas for 14 years. Tomorrow we'll hear about his role in all of this. Today we're going to visit one of the first cities in the country to be entirely powered by renewables.

DALE ROSS: I don't think they're ever going to accuse Georgetown of being the next Berkeley (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Georgetown, Texas, population 50,000. The mayor is Dale Ross. We're about 30 miles north of Austin.

ROSS: Austin's phrase is, you know, keep Austin weird. Now, what we say is, Austin, keep your weird.

SHAPIRO: Mayor Ross wears a lapel pin from Trump's inauguration. He's sitting on a park bench in Georgetown's historic town square.

ROSS: You know, it is the greatest city on planet Earth.

ROSS: So I think people all over the country wonder, how is it that such a red city like Georgetown, such a conservative place, was one of the first cities in the country to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy?

ROSS: You know, because it's our love of green - green rectangles and green energy.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Green rectangles meaning dollar bills.

ROSS: Yes, so - yeah, if you got an Andrew Jackson or a Benjamin Franklin on - well, I prefer, you know - Benjamin Franklin's my favorite. But really with the first and foremost, it was a business decision.

SHAPIRO: When the old power contract was up in 2012, Georgetown city managers sat down to look at their options. They realized that wind and solar power are more predictable. The prices don't swing up and down like oil and gas. So the city can sign a contract today and know what the bill is going to be for the next 25 years. That's especially appealing in a place like Georgetown where a lot of retirees live on fixed incomes.

We're driving up to this municipal building in Georgetown, Texas, and the roof is covered in solar panels.

Hey there.

CHRIS FOSTER: Howdy - Chris Foster.

SHAPIRO: Chris Foster manages the city's energy usage. He presented a bunch of options to city managers. And when they picked a hundred percent renewable, Foster realized this could be a big deal. Only one other American city has done this in liberal Vermont.

FOSTER: I went back and said, OK, would you like to tell anybody? And they debated about that.

SHAPIRO: Some people were afraid that the city might undermine its conservative reputation if word got out.

FOSTER: They said, you know what? We should go ahead and just say it. And it'll either be a great marketing tool, or nobody will pay attention. But if it is a great marketing tool, it's free marketing.

SHAPIRO: Mayor Ross says it worked. The decision brought millions of dollars in new investment to the city. And companies in town have been happy to use clean power in their own marketing.

ROSS: It's a great economic development tool because there's a lot of high-quality companies in this country that have robust green energy policies. Wal-Mart is one of them. The Wal-Mart in Georgetown can report to Bentonville that every kilowatt of energy that they bought last year was green energy from either wind or solar.

SHAPIRO: On the town square, a toy store has Georgetown goes green painted in the window. Around the corner is a hot sauce shop where Tanya Valencia is an owner. Her best seller is called Texas Exes.

TANYA VALENCIA: Texas Exes is a - it's a hot sauce, but it's chunky like a salsa. So they call it the salsa that bites back like an ex-spouse or an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend (laughter).

SHAPIRO: How do you explain what's going on here?

VALENCIA: Well, you know what? I think one thing we can all agree on no matter what party you're from is that you want what's best for our planet. I mean it's not a Republican thing. It's not a Democrat thing. It's what's best for our, you know, our planet and our country and our world.

SHAPIRO: That said, city leaders told us the debate over renewables never mentioned climate change. In Texas politics, climate change is a wedge issue. The wind energy that Georgetown buys is produced hundreds of miles away in west Texas. The city can only get that energy because of changes to the electrical grid that former Governor Rick Perry put in place. The mayor says Perry deserves credit.

ROSS: I truly believe he was a visionary because under his leadership, those transmission lines which run from West Texas and the panhandle - if the state hadn't put those on the ground to transmit that energy, we wouldn't be having this conversation today.

SHAPIRO: Now, Rick Perry is the energy secretary. We'll look at how his home state became a renewable energy powerhouse and what it could mean for the rest of the country tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCO BENEVENTO SONG, "AT THE SHOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.