Sunday, August 4, 2013

Soaking Up the Sun in Georgetown

Published in the Sun August 3, 2013

One of the proposed solar farm sites, the decommissioned landfill.  At the bottom left is the road crossing the San Gabriel at the east end of the park, and at bottom right is the wastewater treatment plant.  The solar panels are inserted into the photo with computer graphics.
Jim Briggs, general manager of utilities for the city of Georgetown, is a no-nonsense kind of guy when it comes to electricity.  He wants to keep your lights on, and he doesn’t want people calling him at the end of the month complaining that their electric bills are too high.  Mr. Briggs also wants Georgetown to invest in more renewable energy.


“This is not just a green thing.  I’m looking at the numbers.”  Two years ago Mr. Briggs discussed renewable energy with the city council and together they set a goal that by 2030, thirty percent of Georgetown’s electricity would be from renewable sources.  Of course, shifting from fossil fuels to wind and solar energy decreases air pollution and carbon emissions, but there are economic reasons to make the switch as well.  Fossil fuels are not only subject to the whims of the market but are also increasingly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Georgetown no longer uses electricity from coal plants, but 92% of our electricity is generated from natural gas.  It is risky to be so dependent on one source of power.  Natural gas is cheap now, but as it becomes widely used as a transportation fuel, Mr. Briggs believes the price will shoot up.  Two years ago he thought that it would be irresponsible NOT to have renewables in the portfolio as a hedge against rising fuel prices.  He is even more convinced today, because the price for renewable energy has dropped.


Later this month Mr. Briggs is going to ask the city council to authorize him to negotiate contracts for two alternative energy proposals that would push Georgetown past its goal of 30% renewable energy.


The first proposal is for a two to five megawatt community solar farm to be located right here in Georgetown.  Two potential locations are being studied.  One is the old landfill at the end of College Street and the other is near the Dove Springs wastewater treatment plant.  No up-front capital expenditure by the city would be required because, for the first 6 years, the equipment would be owned by Borrego Solar, the company that would design and build the installation.  Borrego would be eligible for the federal tax credits for renewable energy that are not available to municipalities.  Georgetown would agree to purchase all the electricity generated for the first 6 years.  Then in the seventh year we would have the option to purchase the entire solar array for a predetermined amount, and harvest free electricity from the sun for the lifetime of the panels, which could be well over thirty years.


The idea of a solar farm on a landfill is particularly interesting.  What else can you do with an old landfill?  You can’t put houses or businesses on it, but the EPA actually encourages reuse of “contaminated” sites for renewable energy projects.  The panels would be mounted on stone and concrete pads in such a way that the cap of the landfill is not disturbed or penetrated.  It’s like making lemonade out of a landfill lemon.


Here is how the solar farm plan would work for us, the consumers.  Suppose I want to reduce my carbon footprint and use solar energy but there are big trees all around my house shading my roof.  Or maybe my homeowner’s association is stuck in the Dark Ages and doesn’t allow solar panels.  Possibly I don’t have the extra cash on hand to purchase panels.  Rather than making an expensive improvement to my house, I can contract to purchase solar electricity from the community solar farm, without punching any holes in my own roof.  The city will even put a nametag on my solar panels and I can go visit them any time I want.  Then, if I decide to move to another town, I can relinquish the panels and they can be assigned to another solar customer.


A two megawatt solar farm could supply electricity for about 1400 homes.  Actually, it produces more than they would need during daylight hours, so the solar customers would share their solar electricity with everybody else while the sun is shining.  When the sun is not shining, the regular customers would share their natural gas and wind electricity with the solar customers.  Everybody gets all the power they need, whenever they need it.


The electricity generated by a community solar farm would be a few cents more expensive per kilowatt-hour than what we currently pay for electricity, but the price is locked in for 25 years, unlike the price for natural gas electricity, which can vary from day to day.


The second proposal that Mr. Briggs will make to the city council is economically even more compelling.  Out in sunny west Texas on 153 acres of desert, an experienced utility-scale solar company, SunPower, can build us our own 30 megawatt solar array to deliver pollution-free electrons that are competitive with, or even cheaper than, gas generated electricity today.  No up-front costs are required for this deal either.


Since a solar farm is not going to run afoul of the EPA or be subject to any future carbon taxes, the price comparison is just going to get better.  Many things could happen to natural gas over the next thirty years, but we can be fairly confident that the sun will keep shining in west Texas.


Mr. Briggs is an old hand in the utilities business, but he is enthusiastic about these new solar proposals.  “Economically it just makes sense.  It’s the right thing to do, and sometimes you just have to do the right thing.”


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