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


When Adrian Garcia was the Harris County Sheriff, he wanted to reconsider what kind of energy the jail uses. Can the building have solar panels? backup battery? County leaders did not accept the idea then, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia is pushing the county toward directly purchasing renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant change in the world’s so-called energy capital.

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

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they would purchase electricity starting in 2023. What direction will they take for the debate. A county working group is looking at alternatives, and the commissioners have decided to enlist the help of an advisor.

Traditionally, the county has purchased energy through the Public Power Pool, a unit made up of about 100 political entities that negotiate together for lower electricity costs. The pool originates from the state’s overall power grid, which estimates that they are about 20 percent powered by renewable sources.

Commissioner Jack Cagle, one of two Republicans on the Democratic Court of Justice, said he hoped to continue to buy energy from the pool, which is now also offering an all-renewable option. He said it’s always good to look at other ways to buy energy, but he sees the advantages of the group’s short, long-term, fixed rates.

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

Renewable energy, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is energy derived from sources that restore themselves quickly and are not depleted. It can be purchased in a variety of ways, with 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 purchasing only renewable energy in its electricity contract, arguing in a letter a year ago that it would make communities healthier and safer. He also called for the county to install solar panels and battery storage on its buildings.

Environmental change Texas executive director Luke Metzger said making such changes to see Harris County would send a powerful message that the region is moving in a “different, exciting direction”.

Shift to renew

The city of Houston has claimed to use 100 percent renewable energy since July, electricity at locations such as airports and zoos. Some of the city’s energy is known as an energy purchase agreement, which is a common way of supporting new power sources to agree to produce longer term.

The city has an agreement with the West Texas Solar Plant. Developing a similar deal locally could be part of the county’s plan, Metager suggested.

An agreement with NRG Energy Company, Reliant, meets the rest of the city’s electricity needs in two ways: one is with renewable energy that NRG buys. A solar facility is being built at a declared location which will help NRG meet the city demand.

The other is known as the Renewable Energy Certificate or REC, another method for investing in renewable energy that does not necessarily lead to the development of new resources. There is a lack of transparency in where electricity is produced near RECs. The county has purchased these in the past, claiming that it, too, was 100 percent green, but now wants to take things further.

although Commissioner of Democracy Rodney Ellis said that while county leaders do not yet know how to change their power contract, they want to become trendsetters. Ellis hopes that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy to buy renewables, especially with increasing interest at the federal level.

Nevertheless, Ellis considers part of the opportunity to require a larger approach. He proposes to look at the county to prepare a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than taking the initiative one by one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be active,” he said. “Those problems with climate change do not just disappear; They do not disappear on their own. “

Their purchasing power matters: Local governments, big districts like school districts and retail store chains helped develop the renewable energy industry, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Texas.

“This is a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that is a homeground,” Wood said. “For me, I am a fan. It is similar to Texan in oil and gas.”

Looking for 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 only buys green energy, would rank seventh.

The county spends $ 17 million per year to power everything from county offices to park lights.

Harris County helped create a public power pool, and Garcia sits on its board. But Garcia felt that working with it no longer seemed quite clear. Renewable energy became less expensive. The effects of climate change made by the fossil fuel industry are becoming ever more pronounced.

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

Petrochemical companies have facilities in Garcia’s subfamily, but believe the time has come for the county to transition to a variety of power.

“I welcome all the energy,” he told his fellow commissioners in December. “But clearly we have a vision for the future and include sustainable and renewable energy in the future, and so we are clearly looking at it, must understand it and work to embrace it.”

Emily Foxhall covers the environment for the Houston Chronicle. Read him at HoustonChronicle.com. | [email protected] | Twitter: Emfoxhall

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