Q&A

'No such animal as clean coal': Mayor of Texas city powered by solar and wind pokes the bear

Despite being a Republican, the mayor of a Texas city that runs fully on renewable energy is taking on Donald Trump’s pro-coal policies.

'In Georgetown, we make our decisions based on the facts,' says Dale Ross

Dale Ross is the mayor of Georgetown, Texas. It runs on renewable energy and is the largest city in the state to do so. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Despite being a Republican, the mayor of a Texas city that runs fully on renewable energy is taking on Donald Trump's pro-coal policies.

Georgetown, with a population of almost 70,000, is perhaps the largest city in the United States to look solely to wind and solar to keep the lights on and is the first city in the Lone Star State to do so.

Mayor Dale Ross is in Calgary speaking at the 2018 Alberta Climate Summit this week and stopped in to share the story with CBC's The Homestretch.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the complete interview here.

Q: What kind of renewables are we talking about?

A: Wind and solar. We had a windmill farm up in the panhandle near Amarillo and a solar farm out in far, far West Texas.

Q: How is it that a red city in a red state is one of the first cities in the U.S. to be powered 100 per cent by renewable energy?

A: In Georgetown, we make our decisions based on the facts.

This was a decision between wind and solar and natural gas. Wind and solar would give us fixed rate pricing for 25 years. With natural gas, it's only seven years.

So we know, all the way through 2041, what we are going to pay for our electricity, which gives us cost certainty, which minimizes and mitigates volatility in the short-term market.

It also mitigates regulatory and governmental risk because those knuckleheads in Washington, D.C., they can screw up a good deal for you with over-regulating.

There is nothing to regulate with wind and solar. It's very clean energy, no pollutants go back into the air, so what can they possibly do?

Q: Do you get a lot of sun and a lot of wind in your area?

A: Actually, our wind farm is more than 600 miles (965 kilometres) away up in the panhandle and our solar farm is about 700 miles (1,125 kilometres) away, and so through the transmission lines, that's how we get the electricity.

Q: You are a Republican in a traditionally conservative state. Why are you such a strong supporter of this?

A: I am a fact-based decision maker.

My daytime job is being a Certified Public Accountant and we make our decisions based on facts. In Georgetown, we put silly national partisan politics to the side and we just do what's good for the voters and citizens that put us into office.

In our situation, you can't go wrong with renewable energy.

Q: You are in the heart of oil country. What kind of response or resistance have you received from this?

A: The fossil fuel industry doesn't like any more competition, so they like to point out all of the deficiencies of wind and solar, and I like to point out all the deficiencies when it comes to fossil fuels.

I am not saying it's going to work for every city, but we had to do what was right for our community.

Q: What about the cost to the consumer?

A: Right now, it is comparable to what you are paying for fossil fuels. But our strategy wasn't to be the lowest cost but to be one of the lowest costs and it was to create cost certainty over 25 years.

With normal inflation, what's it going to look like 10 years into the contract?

In Texas, it's $2.50 per gallon of gasoline. If I made you an offer that for 25 years I can guarantee you $2.50, would you take it? I would lock in, for sure.

Q: What about things like recycling?

A: We have had single-stream recycling for years. Last year, I was in Halifax and I learned about composting. Paper, plastic, composting and trash.

Right now, we are in the first portion of getting that implemented.

Q: What about scaling this up in the future, for population growth?

A: As long as you have plenty of sunshine and wind, you can scale it.

It has to be in close proximity. And even if you could only do 40 per cent renewables, wouldn't that be better than zero?

Q: You have been in four documentaries, including Al Gore's An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. How did that come about?

A: We got a call from his people asking if we wanted to film with him.

I said, absolutely. We welcome anybody to Georgetown that wants to come and learn about our story.

Q: Have there been discussions with other larger Texas cities?

A: It's a little bit more complicated in Austin because they have pre-existing contracts and you can't just walk away from contracts.

We had to break our contract and we had to write a pretty good cheque, but we ran the numbers and it certainly made economic sense to get out that and go to wind and solar.

Houston and San Antonio have some renewables but not like Georgetown.

Q: A lot of Alberta's economy is based right now on fossil fuels. What kind of advice would you have for transitioning without too much economic hardship?

A: You have to do what's good for your community.

I don't think very many communities can do it like Georgetown did, in two years. I think it's a transition.

West Virginia is a state that has a lot of coal. They have been transitioning their workers into renewable energy and other sectors with government-provided job training.

It doesn't happen overnight. There has to be a smooth transition. It could take 30 years or longer to make that transition.

Q: Donald Trump has been supporting coal in the U.S. and making changes at the Environmental Protection Agency. What do you think about that?

A: I couldn't disagree with him more on environmental or energy policy.

Coal has reached its peak and we are at a tipping point with renewables. Coal is not going to be able to compete with wind and solar, price-wise.

He says it's clean coal. There is no such animal as clean coal.

If he would invite me to the White House, I could show him the art of the deal when it comes to energy.

A republican mayor in Texas is leading the way, when it comes to renewable energy. Dale Ross is the mayor of Georgetown. Population 70,000. Georgetown is the first city in Texas,and the largest in the United States, to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy. He's in Calgary to share his story at the 2018 Alberta Climate Summit tomorrow. He joined host Doug Dirks in studio. 7:48

With files from Ellis Choe and The Homestretch.