'It just makes sense': Harris County turns to renewable energy to power its buildings

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia is pushing the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners have decided to seek a consultant’s help.

Traditionally, the county has bought energy through the Public Power Pool, an entity made up of around 100 political entities that negotiates together for lower electricity costs. The pool draws from the state’s overall power grid, which they estimate is about 20 percent powered by renewable sources.

Commissioner Jack Cagle, one of two Republicans on the majority-Democrat court, said he expects the county to continue buying energy from the pool, which is also now offering an all-renewable option. He said looking at other ways to buy energy is always good, but he sees advantages to the group’s reduced, long-term, fixed rates.

Cagle also believes a mix of energy sources is best. And, with employees of the oil and gas industry among his taxpaying constituents, he said a desire for renewable energy should not be the county’s sole driver: “The question is, what is the cost?”

Renewable power, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is energy drawn from sources that restore themselves quickly and don’t diminish. It can be purchased in various ways, with the electricity not necessarily used in Houston homes but added to the grid. The grid is also supplied by plants using natural gas and coal.

Environmental advocates have called for the county to shift toward buying only renewable energy in its power contract, arguing in a letter a year ago that it would make communities healthier and safer. They called for the county also to install solar panels and battery storage at its buildings.

To see Harris County make such changes would send a powerful message that the region is heading in a “different, exciting direction,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas.

Shift to renewables

The city of Houston has claimed to use 100 percent renewable energy since July, powering places such as airports and the zoo. Some of the city’s energy comes through what’s known as a power purchase agreement, a common way to support new power sources by agreeing to buy what they produce long-term.

The city’s agreement is with a West Texas solar plant. Developing a similar deal locally could be part of the county’s plan, Metzger suggested.

An agreement with Reliant, an NRG Energy company, meets the rest of the city’s power needs in two ways: One is with renewable energy that NRG buys. A solar facility is being built in a to-be-announced location that will help NRG meet the city’s demand.

The other is what’s known as renewable energy certificates, or RECs, another method for investing in renewable energy that doesn’t necessarily mean new resources are developed. RECs may also lack the transparency of where the power is produced. The county has bought these in the past, staking the claim that it, too, was 100 percent green, but now wants to take things further.

Though county leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract, they want to be trendsetters, said Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat. Ellis expects the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one by one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

Seeking the right mix

The city of Houston is the largest green power user of any local government, according to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency data. Harris County, if it bought only green energy, would rank seventh.

The county spends some $17 million a year to power everything from offices to the jail to park lights.

Harris County helped create the Public Power Pool, and Garcia sits on its board. But Garcia felt working with it no longer seemed like the obvious best way. Renewable energy had become less expensive. The effects of climate change, spurred by the fossil fuel industry, are becoming ever more apparent.

The group proposed a last-minute green option, which some county staff found lacked information. But it could be considered by Harris County and others in the future.

Petrochemical companies have facilities in Garcia’s precinct, but he believes the time has come for the county to transition to different types of power.

“I welcome all energy,” he told his fellow commissioners in December. “But obviously we do have a view to the future and the future does include sustainable and renewable energy, and so we obviously should be looking at it, should be understanding it, and should be working to embrace it.”

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