A or B? Denton’s Energy Future

This week, Denton Municipal Electric (DME) released a plan, called “Renewable Denton,” that would greatly alter our energy portfolio. We now find ourselves in a conversation about the future of electricity consumption in our city. This is the benefit of being part of a municipal utility: we exercise public liberty by deciding together what kind of community we want to be.

Unfortunately, at this point, the conversation is binary. The choice on the table takes an either/or form. Either we stick with the status quo or we adopt the new plan.

IF we take this framing for granted (and that is the big ‘if’ I’ll return to in a second), then I think the choice is pretty clear: the new plan is better than the status quo.

Why? First, Renewable Denton would greatly increase our consumption of solar and wind energy. We would go from getting 40% of our electricity from renewables to getting 70%. We would eliminate our use of the TMPA coal-fired power plant.  The environmental benefits of this shift, DME informs me, are equivalent to removing something like 81,700 cars from the road. According to my own, admittedly dicey, calculations, the Renewable Denton plan would slash our emissions by 60%.

energy mix

Second, Renewable Denton is actually cheaper than the status quo. Estimated savings by 2030 total $500 million. Third, reliability remains unchanged. So, the trifecta of reliability, sustainability, and affordability is a net gain.

Now, the reason why this plan is generating some resistance is not because people want fewer renewables. It’s not that people think DME is going in the wrong direction. They think it is not going far enough and fast enough down the right path.

The biggest sticking point for me (and I think for most others) is the new, $220 million natural gas-fired power plant as part of the proposal. Why get bogged down in the business of building new fossil fuel facilities on the road to 100% green energy? DME claims that the best way to achieve these emissions and cost savings is to build our own peaking power plant that can provide quick, on-demand electricity when wind and solar are flagging.

rates impact

I think there is an array of legitimate concerns about the power plant – concerns that need to be addressed in the upcoming public forums.  For example:

  • Shouldn’t this kind of expenditure go up for a public vote?
  • Should we be investing in fossil fuel infrastructure, especially for fracked gas?
  • What kind of health and safety hazards come with the plant?

When we start asking questions like these we very quickly run up against that big ‘IF’ I mentioned above. What if this A or B framing is a false one? Aren’t there other alternatives to be explored?

I think it is premature to endorse A or B. This is a time when we should be asking: What about C or D or E…?

The problem is that A and B have lots of momentum behind them: all challengers face an uphill climb. But that shouldn’t deter us from thinking creatively. Maybe at the end of the day, we wind up with A or B…but it seems to me that should only happen after other possibilities have received a fair hearing.

Clearly, this thinking isn’t going to happen in one blog. We need to get together. I’m hoping to host a “drink and think” about this. Others are planning similar events.

So, let me just here venture three preliminary musings.

First, what would a plan look like that is 70% renewables without the power plant? Maybe it is 70% renewables and 30% ERCOT market. Now, I can imagine the response: that would increase both emissions and costs. The market is more expensive. And it is dirtier on an average MWh per MWh basis than the proposed “Denton Energy Center.”

In building the power plant are we effectively increasing demand for fracked natural gas? I am told that there is no real difference in our total natural gas consumption between A and B (status quo and Renewable Denton). So, if we are consuming the same amount of natural gas, isn’t it better to do it with a more efficient plant that is more cost-effective and cleaner? Someone told me that budgets are moral documents. That’s right on. But it seems to me that either way we are investing in fossil fuels…

But, second, that raises the biggest question: Can’t we go 100% renewable like Georgetown is doing? I mean, why consume natural gas at all? We know the standard answer, which has all the force of technological determinism: we simply cannot do without fossil fuels (that is, if we want reliable electricity). I wonder how Georgetown is claiming 100% renewables, then. I have been told they are still going to consume natural gas, it’s just that they will buy extra renewables to offset their gas consumption. Is that right? How much does that cost? Should we go that route?

The rebuttal continues: Maybe battery technology will improve to the point where storage of renewables on a municipal scale is cost-effective, but we are not there yet.

I am wondering: When will we get there? How far are we from a renewable-based peak power scheme? Because if it is in five years, we will make a big mistake in building this plant. But if it is thirty years down the road or even twenty, then we will have made a huge stride in reducing our overall emissions as we bide our time waiting for the technology to get us to that final stage of 100% renewables.

Third, why is there no mention of reducing electricity consumption…no demand-side management as part of the plan? I can imagine lots of rebuttals to this one, but still…let’s think about it.

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4 thoughts on “A or B? Denton’s Energy Future”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful reflections on the DME proposal. Regarding your last point of reducing consumption of energy, the city and DME have been proactive about energy conservation for years. Free energy audits are available to help folks improve efficiency. DME has the most generous rebate programs for those wanting to install solar panels. And the City Council has higher reqirements than called for in the International Energy Efficiency Code. But Denton is growing by about 80 people a week! New retail, commercial, office, and manufacturing are opening monthly. The demand for energy will increase in Denton with this growth.

  2. I would like to see long term study comparing the cost of building and maintaining a new natural gas peaker plant to the cost of buying energy from ERGOT. A study over 10 years comparision. I would also like to see it there are other existing power plants or energy sources we could purchase from. Say existing natural gas plants we do not have to build. If there is no way to atop the DME, and having worked with the city before I suspect this is the case, then the power plant should be build using best practices with leak monitoring equipment ect. If this is too costly then don’t build it.
    I so not feel we need to build a gas power plant that would be antiquated and an albatross for the city by the time it is paid for. Denton expects it’s grow to occur on the west side of town and the gas power plant would be in that path. Was this power plant part of the 30 year plan?

  3. I agree with your big thumbs up on the pro-wind, pro-solar, and anti-coal part of the plan, and with your big thumbs down on the giant elephant in “Renewable Denton”‘s proverbial room: the toxic and outrageously costly new gas-powered urban electric plants that DME has bundled into the deal as “back-up.” You make many excellent and important points here, although I myself am more skeptical than you seem to be about DME’s boast that it will reduce emissions equivalent to removing “81,700 cars from the road” and that it’s “cheaper than the status quo.” Surely those projections are speaking for the wind and solar additions (and coal deletions) alone and can’t possibly be taking into account the huge environmental and financial costs of those new gas power plants. And what about the emissions and safety/environmental/health hazards caused by all the refracking this new plan will encourage in Denton and the risky compressed gas storage, transportation, and use?

    As Cathy McMullen points out, DME’s plan is counterproductive r.e. the city’s ambitious residential development plans as well: If we want to create a livable west side to meet the needs of our city’s growing population then what are we doing adding giant gas-powered plants to that part of town, or to any part of town for that matter? Can’t our energy needs be met in some other new or existing way? True, ERGOT is dirty, but ERGOT already exists, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. But we can prevent new dirty and expensive infrastructure from being built.

    From a purely financial perspective, it’s easy to see how Denton’s favorite gas companies intend to profit from DME’s new plan, but there’s no gain at all for the people of Denton or the air we breathe when the benefits of the increase in wind and solar are cancelled out by all the expensive and dangerous new urban gas infrastructure. Besides, who’s to say (as someone pointed out recently in a comment on a DRC article) that DME will only use those new gas plants for wind & solar backup and not for regular use? And why should we trust DME on this one when they’ve gone out of their way to circumvent voters in the recent past (see: http://www.dentonrc.com/local-news/local-news-headlines/20120204-power-plant-sidesteps-voters.ece )?

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