Can the fourth largest city in the US, previously known as the “Oil & Gas Capital of the World,” shift from powering its municipal operations with fossil fuels to renewables? The City of Houston, Texas has been quietly transitioning to clean energy and is now getting 100% of its electric power from wind and solar. Its political leaders had the foresight to contract with renewable energy developers to buy clean power from Texas wind farms, where there’s a lot of wind (including at night) and Texas solar farms. They could build and operate both at a cost less than natural gas fired electric generation. Houston reports a $9 million annual savings from shifting to renewable power.
Texas’ independent ERCOT electric grid is largely UNREGULATED with limited landowner restrictions; new renewable projects move swiftly from plans to reality. The build out of solar and wind across Texas wasn’t driven by left wing “greenies” but rather free market participants. Beyond Houston, The State of Texas now makes more renewable power than any other state in the US. It must be noted that the downside is that generators never had to “winterize” their gas, coal and nuclear plants and, tragically, 246 people died in the Texas big freeze of February 2021. Finger pointing at renewables turned out to be fallacious.
Houston is heavily challenged when it comes to climate change, carbon emissions and air pollution. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey, the largest rain event in North American history, pummeled the city with 24 inches of rain. It killed 100 Houstonians and caused $125 billion in damages — about $20,000 per resident of the greater Houston area. In response, the city launched a climate action plan in 2020 to improve its resilience to climate hazards. It said it would meet the 2050 carbon neutral goal of the Paris accord. Houston is now trying to rebrand itself “The Energy Capital of the World.”
It has an enormous task ahead. Houston has an amazing number of vehicles driving its massive highway system. It has more oil refineries and petrochemical plants than anywhere in the US. The Federal Clean Air Act regulations have vastly improved Houston air quality, but it is still poor (though largely invisible) – and thankfully, not as bad as Shanghai and Beijing. Air pollution harms health and shortens lives. Many fail to realize that cutting CO2 emissions from vehicles and industry simultaneously reduces toxic pollutants like ozone and fine particle matter. To help clean the air, Houston and the rest of Texas can start plugging in millions of Texas built EVs from the new Tesla Austin plant to its increasingly clean energy grid. Industrial emissions are the next frontier, but Texans have shown they can be both tough, and green.