Look What’s Happening in Texas Oil and Gas Country!

by Dick Smyth

“A high-wattage Texas Republican has become the unlikeliest hero of the Green Revolution.” Ale Ross is the mayor of Georgetown, Texas. He won the 2018 election with 72 percent of the vote, and thanks to his support, Georgetown – with a population of 67,000 – is now the nation’s fifth-fastest-growing city. Fifty thousand or more residents are expected to arrive during the next five years. It is now the largest city in the United States to be powered entirely by renewable energy. 

As Ross put it, “We’re doing this because it’s good for our citizens. Cheaper electricity is better. Clean energy is better than fossil fuels.” When conservatives complain about his energy politics, he quickly reminds them that Georgetown has the lowest effective tax rate in central Texas.

Ross is a Republican, and his priorities are party staples. But surprisingly, he is friends with Al Gore, who featured Ross in An Inconvenient Sequel, the follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary about global warming. 

Ross commented, “We bonded right away.” I said, “Mr. Vice President, we’ve got a lot in common: You invented the internet. I invented green energy.”

The United States is embracing renewables gradually, with some states far ahead of others. In 2016, Massachusetts passed a law promoting a huge investment in wind and hydropower. In 2018, New York announced plans to build the infrastructure for a $6 billion offshore wind-power industry. Hawaii has pledged to be powered entirely by renewable energy by 2045. Cities are getting in on it, too: Atlanta has a similar goal for 2035. San Francisco’s goal is 2030. Nationally in 2016, the coal industry employed 50,000. The wind industry employed 102,500, and the solar industry employed 260,000.

Wisconsin lags far behind some of its neighbors, requiring utilities to have only 10 percent of their energy come from renewable resources. Iowa leads the nation in the percentage of electricity generated from renewables, mostly wind. Minnesota ranks ninth. Texas ranks 14th, but it leads the nation in wind power. In 2017, Texas ranked ninth for solar production.

Perhaps the most compelling example is California, the home of approximately one in seven Americans. In 2015, California set a goal of deriving 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030. It expects to achieve that goal 10 years early. It has set a new goal to have 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

How can this be? The answer is innovation and leadership. One obstacle to adopting wind and solar power is reliability, which is essential to health and safety. Voltage and frequency must be maintained. In the past, this has been done by large nuclear and fossil-fuel plants that run constantly. What will happen on calm, cloudy days when solar and wind power availability is low? 

Recent improvements in energy-storage-technology batteries hold great promise and are helping to accelerate the adoption of renewables. In a major achievement, Tesla installed the world’s largest lithium battery in South Australia in December of 2017. Hyundai Electric has developed a battery that’s 50 percent larger.

Now back to Ross and Georgetown. In 2015, Ross wrote an op-ed for Time magazine about his city’s planned transition to renewables.

“A town in the middle of a state that recently sported oil derricks on its license plates may not be where you’d expect to see leaders move to clean-energy generation,” he said. Recognizing this seeming anomaly, Ross was quick to add, “No, environmental zealots have not taken over the City Council.”

A little more than a year later, Al Gore was asked what lessons he takes from Georgetown.

“I think it’s important to pay attention to a CPA who becomes mayor and takes an objective look at how he can save money for the citizens of his community, even if it means ignoring ideological presuppositions about fossil energy,” Gore said. “Especially when the mayor in question is in the heart of oil and gas country.”

We have heard from our children and grandchildren. Now we have heard from a Republican mayor in the middle of Texas oil and gas country.

How about Wisconsin? Do we care? If we do care, what are we prepared to do, and when will we start? Our grandchildren are watching, and so is a “high-wattage Texas Republican mayor.”

Dick Smythe and his wife, Mary, live in Sister Bay and are on the Climate Change Coalition steering committee. Smythe spent his professional career with the U.S. Forest Service, first as a research scientist, then in a series of administrative positions. His final position was director of wildlife, fish, water, soils and atmospheric science (acid rain and climate change) research for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C.