The downtown area of Georgetown, Texas.
The downtown area of Georgetown, Texas.
The downtown area of Georgetown, Texas.
The downtown area of Georgetown, Texas.
April 17, 2018

The greenest town in oil country

In Georgetown, Texas, residents have seen an evolution now that the city is powered by 100 percent renewable energy.

The energy is greener in Georgetown, Texas.

Karen Soeffker started serving “green ice cream” in her toy store — and sales went up.

Rita Healy said the hotel she manages advanced its corporate sustainability goals — and started hosting more guests at its local conferences.

Even the town’s top leader has gone green. Mayor Dale Ross went from not being a “gung ho environmentalist who thought about climate change,” to rubbing elbows with top environmental experts around the world.

All of these changes have occurred because Georgetown — a city 25 miles north of Austin with a population of about 61,000 — is now powered by 100 percent renewable energy, becoming one of the largest cities with municipally owned utilities in the nation to do so.

Once it’s completed in July, the Buckthorn Solar farm will be able to generate enough energy to power more than 100,000 homes when at full capacity.

“It’s sort of neat to be a trailblazer,” Ross said. “It may not work for everyone. You use what works for you. In Washington, it’s hydropower. In Texas, it’s wind and solar power.”

Since 2015, the city has been powered by a 144-megawatt wind farm in Adrian, Texas, 500 miles from Georgetown. Beginning in July, a solar plant owned by NRG Yield, operated by NRG Renew and financed by Wells Fargo in Pecos County, Texas, about 300 miles from Georgetown, will provide 150 megawatts of energy, supplying about half of Georgetown’s power.

A ‘green’ decision, so to speak

Ross is quick to say that the decision to power the city with renewable energy was first and foremost a business decision.

In 2014, the city was in a dispute with its energy provider and didn’t agree with its mandates, so city officials began exploring different options, Ross said. City staff members realized they could sign a seven-year contract and continue with fossil fuels as a power source or agree to a 20- or 25-year contract for wind and solar power.

The wind farm in Adrian, Texas.
The wind farm in Adrian, Texas, helps provide clean energy in Georgetown.

“If you’re paying $18 for solar and coal is $25, who are you going to buy from?” Ross said. “Are we going to have more fossil fuel or wind and sunshine in Texas? The wind factor is off the charts.

For most people, at the end of the day, it’s about how much they’re paying for electricity. We know exactly what we’re paying for 25 years.”

The longer-term contract would also mean that power bills wouldn’t fluctuate. “Usually you see spikes in the winter and summer,” said Jim Briggs, general manager of utilities and assistant city manager for Georgetown. “That doesn’t happen here.”

So the city, which owns its utilities, ended its previous utility contract and committed to an agreement for wind power through 2035. In 2015, the city committed to an agreement to purchase solar power through 2043.

An infographic states: 1,696,500 solar panels at the Buckthorn Solar farm can power more than 100,000 homes at maximum capacity, enough to cover all the homes in Georgetown -- and more. Buckthorn Solar farm is the size of 1,300 football fields.

‘It’s an American thing’

Some residents were initially concerned about changes to their power. “We told them, ‘You’ll go home and turn on your lights like you do now. You won’t see a difference,’” Briggs said.

But there have been some positive changes around the city — and some publicity — since the city’s switch to using 100 percent renewable energy. The mayor has been featured in national media outlets and several films.

“I’m a Republican and in support of environmental issues,” Ross said. “The future of clean energy is not just a Republican or Democratic thing. It’s an American thing. I think if I was a Democrat, it wouldn’t be as big of a story.”

Ross said he’s always supported clean water and air, but as the city has switched to renewable energy, he’s become more aware of and passionate about environmental issues.

Mayor Dale Ross of Georgetown, Texas
Mayor Dale Ross of Georgetown, Texas

“It’s just this cycle. You do a couple of things, and that generates more,” Ross said. “After hanging out with subject matter experts, I think it’s an admirable goal to try to make the world a better place than you found it. I’ve learned a lot in the last three years. I think I can do my part and try to be helpful. That’s the legacy I’d like to leave.”

In his personal life, Ross recycles at home and drives an electric motorcycle (he plans to replace it with a pickup truck, also electric).

As the city’s mayor, Ross hopes Georgetown will take on even more “green” efforts. He was inspired, during a trip to Canada, by the sorting and compost bins he saw in Canadian restaurants. He’s hoping the schools and restaurants in Georgetown will adopt the same methods. City officials also are working to reduce the waste produced during their annual Red Poppy Festival to zero percent.

“The best example of the conversation changing is at the city council and mayoral level,” Briggs said. “It was never a part of the conversation before the renewable contracts. Since they began, it’s opened up doors.”

Toy stores, it turns out, pair well with ice cream

Businesses around the city have also embraced the city’s shift to renewable energy in their marketing efforts and business models, city staff members said.

Soeffker, who owns All Things Kids, a toy store in downtown Georgetown, was already exclusively selling toys that don’t use batteries. But when the city moved to renewable energy, she and her family decided to convert one-third of their toy store into an ice cream parlor.

“The equipment uses a large amount of electricity, but we now have a reasonable source of power that is low cost,” Soeffker said.

Carl Soeffker, 12, with “green” ice cream at the All Things Kids toy store in Georgetown, Texas.
Carl Soeffker, 12, with “green” ice cream at the All Things Kids toy store in Georgetown, Texas.

She and her family had been looking for a way to increase foot traffic and meet the citizens’ request for ice cream options in downtown Georgetown. Since beginning to serve ice cream about a year ago, All Things Kids has increased its revenue by 128 percent “just by adding what I call ‘green ice cream’” Soeffker said.

The store is also using recyclable cups and spoons to serve their ice cream in. “It has to be contagious because you can’t be in a city that’s 100 percent renewable and contribute with products that aren’t recyclable,” Soeffker said. “Kids are very aware of what’s happening in the city and talking about it. It is very unusual to have a city like this in Texas, but we’re raising the next generation of adults that are going to be conscientious.”

A source of Texas pride

The city’s shift to renewable energy is also helping national companies with locations in Georgetown advance their sustainability goals.

“We have always, as a hotel, promoted Georgetown’s responsible environmental status,” said Healy, general manager of the Sheraton Austin Georgetown Hotel and Conference Center. “As the city has moved to 100 percent renewable, we’ve promoted it to guests. It also works with the strategy of our parent company, Marriott International, of environmental responsibility: to achieve a minimum of 30 percent of renewable energy use.”

The Sheraton Austin Georgetown Hotel and Conference Center.
The Sheraton Austin Georgetown Hotel and Conference Center has hosted more guests at local conferences since advancing its corporate sustainability goals.

The hotel is also working on achieving LEED Gold certification for its “green” features, and Healy thinks the city’s overall movement will inspire other investments, like converting the pool heating source to solar power. “Georgetown is taking the lead on sustainability,” Healy said. “It makes our community more attractive as a place to live and visit. They’re considering the future and not just today.”

As a result, the hotel has hosted the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Alliance Conference twice; its October 2017 conference brought former Vice President Al Gore to the city.

“All of the work the city is doing builds on opportunity for businesses to take their own initiatives,” Healy said.

As he reflected on the past few years, Ross said the biggest change he has seen in Georgetown since shifting to 100 percent renewable energy is community pride. “It’s truly a blessing to share the Georgetown story,” Ross said. “It’s my favorite story to tell.”