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%.
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.
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.