More and more, large entities in North America are deciding they no longer want to use fossil fuels like coal to generate electricity. They’ve decided the cost and the externalities—poor air quality, bad publicity, health issues—just aren’t worth it. And so they’re rejiggering their electricity supplies to depend heavily on renewables and other lower-emissions sources. Those taking the plunge include the Canadian province of Ontario, progressive towns like Palo Alto, California, and image-conscious Fortune 500 companies like Walmart, which is now nearly one-fourth of the way toward its stated goal of getting 100 percent of its global electricity supplies from renewable sources.
Now this movement has spread to another unlikely place: deep in the heart of Texas.
Last week Georgetown, Texas, a town of about 50,000 about 30 miles north of Austin (and the home of Nolan Ryan) announced that the utility that it owns, Georgetown Utility Systems, would soon get 100 percent of the electricity it provides from renewables.* How? At the beginning of last year, Georgetown made a deal with EDF Renewable Energy to acquire about 75 percent of the output of the 194-megawatt Spinning Spur 3 wind farm, now under construction in West Texas, for 20 years. That accounts for about half of the utility’s needs. Last week it announced it would purchase the output of two large solar plants, with a combined capacity of 150 megawatts, that Sun Edison will build in West Texas, for 25 years. That’ll cover the rest, ensuring the 104-year-old utility at least 20 years of emissions-free electricity.
The combination works because the demand for electricity is greatest during the day, when the sun is shining, and the wind in Texas tends to blow in the night and the early morning. It’s a truly noteworthy deal for several reasons, and not just because of Georgetown’s location in the middle of a fossil-fuel-dependent and climate-change-skeptical state whose governor sued the Environmental Protection Agency more than a dozen times when he was the state’s attorney general.
Georgetown Utility Systems doesn’t own power plants; it agrees to buy the output of power plants for fixed prices over long periods of time. But contrary to renewable energy’s reputation as a luxury good, the new deals come at a discount to what Georgetown was paying for fossil fuel electricity. “The new renewable power contracts signed by Georgetown provide electricity at a lower overall cost than its previous wholesale power contracts,” the city notes. That’s a sign that as the wind and solar industries gain scale, one of the biggest arguments against renewables—their higher comparative cost—is evaporating. As the New York Times reported last fall, other utilities in Texas and Oklahoma have reduced costs by signing deals for renewable energy.
What’s more, while natural gas and coal prices have fallen, that doesn’t mean the price of electricity generated through these sources necessarily will. Coal and natural gas prices could rise again. More significantly, new environmental standards and regulations on emissions are making it more expensive to generate electricity from coal, regardless of the market price of the raw material. A national cap-and-trade regime or a carbon tax—both of which are possible at some point in the next 20 years—would further amplify the cost differences.
Aside from cost, the town cited a second crucial factor, albeit only in passing. “Georgetown Utility Services isn’t required to buy solar or other renewables” by state or regional mandate, interim City Manager Jim Briggs said in a press release. “[W]e did so because it will save on electricity costs and decrease our water usage.”
This is one of the first times I’ve seen water cited as a reason to purchase green energy. But it makes sense. Much of the country—the Southwest, the Great Plains, California—has been suffering from drought for years. Throughout the West, less snow in the winter translates to less water in the spring. Aquifers are being tapped for farming, drinking water, and industrial uses like hydraulic fracturing. Reservoirs are receding. Texas is suffering, too. This map shows that 56 percent of the state is abnormally dry, and about 15 percent of the Lone Star State is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought, including the area around Georgetown.
We generally regard water as something close to a free resource—I live on a well and have never paid a water bill in 13 years of homeownership. But the drought, intensive use, and climate change are all forcing us to rethink the way they use water—from how frequently we shower and water our lawns to whether we should be growing water-intensive crops, like almonds. People, businesses, and governments across the country are already facing pressure to use less, to pay more for the amount they’re using, and to figure out ways to be more water-efficient.
What does this have to do with the relative attractiveness of solar and wind compared with natural gas and coal? Well, creating electricity from fossil fuels doesn’t simply require lots of natural gas and coal. It requires a huge amount of water. “Production of electrical power results in one of the largest uses of water in the United States and worldwide,” the U.S. Geological Survey notes in this infographic. At power plants, water is heated to make steam and huge amounts of water are needed to cool the equipment. Producing the fuel that powers these plants—mining coal and fracking natural gas—also consumes a huge amount of water.
But creating electricity from wind turbines and photovoltaic panels requires virtually no water. This 2011 paper by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (see Tables 1 and 2) breaks down the median amount of water used to create a megawatt-hour of electricity through various power generation methods. For photovoltaic solar, the total is 26 gallons. For wind, it is zero. By contrast, generating a megawatt-hour of electricity using coal and natural gas requires several hundred gallons of water.
Now, Georgetown’s approach isn’t a solution for towns in every state. Texas is blessed with both significant sun and wind resources and the vast open spaces in which wind and solar farms can be planted. But as time goes on, and the cost and availability of water become bigger issues, it may be an option for an increasing number of Sun Belt municipalities. And it goes to show that if we start to think more deeply about the true costs, externalities, and byproducts of fossil fuel use, renewable energy can look like a pretty good alternative.
*Correction, March 23, 2015: This article originally misstated that Nolan Ryan was born in Georgetown, Texas. He lives there but was born elsewhere. (Return.)