With the recent release of the National Climate Assessment, the threat of climate change has never been clearer. Addressing this will require a fundamental transition away from fossil-fuel sources of energy in favor of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar power. Electric utilities vary in their progress towards delivering a future powered by clean energy. Notably, Central Texas, with its combination of energy know-how, creative thinking, and technology entrepreneurship, is home to many utilities leading the way in clean energy resources and smart grid technology.
Austin & San Antonio are leading the pack
Although Texas has a deregulated, competitive electricity market where most energy companies compete for customers, the San Antonio-Austin-Hill Country corridor is mainly comprised of public electric utilities, like municipals and cooperatives that are community-owned. For years, Austin and San Antonio’s municipal utilities have benefited from an engaged customer base that cares about the transition to a clean energy economy.
The City of Austin passed its landmark Austin Climate Protection Plan in 2007, well ahead of most other utilities. The plan calls for 35 percent of Austin Energy’s electricity generation to come from renewable sources by 2020. Austin Energy’s forward-looking policies have made them a leader in clean energy. Recently, Austin Energy unveiled its largest downtown solar array ever, and made national news by purchasing 150 megawatts of utility-scale solar power at an unprecedentedly low price. This project will not only become the largest solar installation in Texas, when complete in 2016, but makes Austin the "largest city in America with a public power utility delivering 35 percent Green-e certified energy.
The City of San Antonio’s CPS Energy is another Central Texas clean energy leader. The utility already has nearly 90 megawatts of solar generation online – enough to power over 14,700 homes – and is constructing another 400 MW of solar power, which will catapult Texas into the top five solar-producing states.
Furthermore, CPS is a long-time investor in the smart grid technologies needed to maximize renewable energy. Ten years ago, CPS worked with Honeywell to implement a residential demand response program for its customers. Demand response is an invaluable component of the smart grid that relies on people, not power plants, to meet electricity demand. Through this innovative tool, utilities reward people or businesses who use less electricity during times of high energy demand. This prevents utilities from having to turn on ‘peaker power plants,’ which only operate for a few hours each year and emit tons of harmful air pollution. Since 2004, 81,000 homeowners have signed up for CPS’s residential demand response program. Recently, CPS announced it would work with Honeywell to expand its demand response program to commercial and industrial customers. Already, their demand response program averts up to 130 megawatts of electricity. By 2020, CPS hopes to grow that number to 771 megawatts—nearly the capacity of an entire coal power plant.
Rural electric co-ops are as advanced as ever
While San Antonio and Austin lead the way on the municipal utility front, rural electric cooperatives, Pedernales and Bluebonnet are keeping pace. Central Texas electric cooperatives (co-ops) have benefited from a strong community of customer-owners. These electric utilities are serving as models for the nation by transitioning to renewable energy resources and implementing technologies that improve customer service and reduce electricity bills.
Despite having limited resources and rural obstacles, co-ops still take on leadership roles and, in fact, co-ops lead the nation in smart meters and demand response. Co-ops are deploying infrastructure for their customers/owners so they can be integrated with smart appliances, thermostats, rooftop solar, and other technologies that allow rural communities to be self-reliant and resilient. This is a good hedge when you're miles away from nowhere, but cooperatives still need to be further enabled by better policy and more investment.
Bluebonnet was one of the first electric utilities to provide comprehensive electricity use data to their customers by installing thousands of smart electric meters. Bluebonnet’s innovative web portal uses smart meter data to show customers exactly when they use the most energy and how much it costs them—empowering customers to reduce both their energy use and their electricity bill. Similarly, Pedernales Electric Cooperative’s uses smart meters to provide daily energy reports to customers through its MyUse Energy Analyzer.
With clean energy, comes tremendous growth
Not only do Austin and San Antonio have rich culture, nightlife, and charm, but their economies are booming. Austin is ranked at the top of many desirable lists, including the number one economy in the U.S., and has “enjoyed double-digit growth in GDP, jobs, population and birthrate since 2007.” San Antonio, not to be outdone, ranks as the number two city in Texas for economic momentum. CPS Energy, under CEO Doyle Beneby, has used its buying power to lure corporate relocations and investments from renewable energy companies, including KACO and OCI Solar, the developer of San Antonio’s massive solar project that pledged to create 800 jobs.
To further enable Texas’ clean energy ecosystem is CleanTX, a non-profit organization focusing on Central Texas’ clean energy innovators. Through its efforts, CleanTX is able to foster a community of entrepreneurship that will catalyze innovation for utilities and municipalities.
As you drive between these two cities through the rolling Hill Country covered in prickly pears and centuries-old oak trees, it is comforting to know that city leaders are making the right decisions to advance energy resources that preserve this vast landscape (home to one endangered songbird EDF works to protect, the golden-cheeked warbler). As the price of renewable energy steadily decreases and smart grid technologies develop, Texas needs to remain steadfast in removing the barriers that inhibit this growth, lest we fail to transition away from climate-disturbing fossil-fuel energy.