Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas, has a big smile, a big handshake and a big personality. In last year’s election, he won big, with 72 percent of the vote. The key to his success? “Without being too self-reflective,” he says, “I just like people.” He’s a Republican, and his priorities are party staples: go light on regulation, be tough on crime, keep taxes low. But the thing that is winning him international renown is straight out of the liberal playbook—green power. Thanks to his (big) advocacy, Georgetown (pop. 67,000) last year became the largest city in the United States to be powered entirely by renewable energy.
Another economic measure, closely related to the energy payback time, is the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) or energy return on investment (EROI), which is the ratio of electricity generated divided by the energy required to build and maintain the equipment. (This is not the same as the economic return on investment (ROI), which varies according to local energy prices, subsidies available and metering techniques.) With expected lifetimes of 30 years, the EROEI of PV systems are in the range of 10 to 30, thus generating enough energy over their lifetimes to reproduce themselves many times (6–31 reproductions) depending on what type of material, balance of system (BOS), and the geographic location of the system.
Geothermal power is cost effective, reliable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly, but has historically been limited to areas near tectonic plate boundaries. Recent technological advances have expanded the range and size of viable resources, especially for applications such as home heating, opening a potential for widespread exploitation. Geothermal wells release greenhouse gases trapped deep within the earth, but these emissions are much lower per energy unit than those of fossil fuels. As a result, geothermal power has the potential to help mitigate global warming if widely deployed in place of fossil fuels.
The PV industry is beginning to adopt levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) as the unit of cost. The electrical energy generated is sold in units of kilowatt-hours (kWh). As a rule of thumb, and depending on the local insolation, 1 watt-peak of installed solar PV capacity generates about 1 to 2 kWh of electricity per year. This corresponds to a capacity factor of around 10–20%. The product of the local cost of electricity and the insolation determines the break even point for solar power. The International Conference on Solar Photovoltaic Investments, organized by EPIA, has estimated that PV systems will pay back their investors in 8 to 12 years. As a result, since 2006 it has been economical for investors to install photovoltaics for free in return for a long term power purchase agreement. Fifty percent of commercial systems in the United States were installed in this manner in 2007 and over 90% by 2009.
Even with plans to grow as much as 80 percent over the next five years, the city expects to have plenty of energy from these renewable sources. (To be sure, about 2 percent of the time, the Georgetown utility draws electricity derived from fossil fuels. Ross says the city more than compensates at other times by selling excess renewable energy back to the grid—at a profit.)
Even if you can’t directly purchase and install a solar system because you rent your home, have inadequate solar resources, or lack financing, you may still benefit from switching to solar electricity, and there numerous business models that make solar easier, cheaper, and more accessible. Options such as community or shared solar programs, solar leases, and power-purchase agreements allow millions of households to take advantage of solar energy. Learn about the various ways you can go solar.
While a single dramatic victory against something like the dirty Keystone XL pipeline can be nice to imagine, the truth is this is how we’re going to win: fighting at every level and with every tool we’ve got. We can’t stop until governments and fossil fuel corporations finally get the message that we need to put our dirty past behind us and fully commit to a clean future that works for all of us moving forward.
Ross, something of a libertarian at heart, entered politics because he was ticked off that the municipal code prohibited him from paving the driveway to his historic home entirely in period-appropriate brick. (The code required some concrete.) He joined the city council in 2008 and was elected to his first term as mayor in 2014. He often likens the city to “Mayberry R.F.D.,” and it does have a town square with a courthouse, a coffee shop where you’re bound to run into people you know and a swimming hole. But it also has Southwestern University, and in 2010 university officials, following a student initiative, told the city council they wanted their electricity to come from renewable sources. The city had already set a goal of getting 30 percent of its power that way, but now, Ross and his colleagues saw their opportunity.
As the cost of solar electricity has fallen, the number of grid-connected solar PV systems has grown into the millions and utility-scale solar power stations with hundreds of megawatts are being built. Solar PV is rapidly becoming an inexpensive, low-carbon technology to harness renewable energy from the Sun. The current largest photovoltaic power station in the world is the 850 MW Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, in Qinghai, China.