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On March 18 the city of Georgetown, Texas announced that it would soon be generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.
Georgetown agreed to purchase the power from a 150-megawatt solar farm that is to be constructed by SunEdison (NASDAQOTH:SUNEQ) and online in 2016. Coupled with a 2014 agreement to buy wind power, Georgetown will be able to generate all of its electricity needs without any help from coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear power.
Texas, the largest oil producer in the United States, is not normally known for its green tendencies. But Georgetown will be the first of many cities in Texas and around the country that will increasingly turn to renewables for electricity. And that has less to do with environmentalism than it does with dollars and cents. Solar has seen its panel prices fall by more than 63 percent since 2010, with wind posting similar cost declines. As a result renewables are the fastest growing form of electricity.
That is upending monopolies held by utilities, which are fighting back against insurgent solar and wind. Utilities are trying to block new entrants into the market, which has earned the solar and wind industry some new and unlikely allies. In North Carolina, for example, a Republican state representative is sponsoring legislation that will open up the market for third party ownership and financing of solar, something that is currently illegal. Dubbed the "Energy Freedom Act," the legislation could provide a dramatic boost to renewable energy in a state that has in the past banned state agencies from preparing for the threats of climate change.
That is because conservatives and libertarians are balking at utilities trying to prevent a free market from taking form. "Many conservatives prefer renewables because it offers significant freedom of choice over the status quo," Kevin Haley, a spokesperson from the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), wrote to OilPrice.com in an emailed statement. He says that the enormous strides renewables have made in beating out fossil fuels on cost are winning over politicians that were once ideologically opposed to renewables.
"When I was elected in 2012, I was an opponent of solar," Representative John Szoka, the sponsor of the North Carolina solar legislation told UtilityDive. "I was convinced by the numbers and the facts that my position on solar was based on emotion and not on facts, so I changed my position," he added.
And those facts are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Even when setting aside subsidies, wind power is quite possibly the cheapest form of new electricity generation in much of the United States.
Wall Street firm Lazard published a September 2014 analysis that pegged wind power's levelized cost of electricity at $37 to $81 per megawatt-hour, cheaper than coal, gas, or nuclear. Utility-scale solar, a bit more expensive, still competes favorably against conventional fossil fuel power plants. Solar is the cheapest form of electricity in the southwest and in several New England states where conventional grid-electricity is expensive.
That is why cities like Georgetown, Texas, will increasingly be the rule, rather than the exception. With renewable energy offering the cheapest cost of electricity in many places – and crucially, a fixed price over many years – it will become more and more attractive when compared to the rising cost of electricity from fossil fuels. In a shot across the bow for the coal and natural gas industry, Georgia Power signed a 2014 deal to purchase solar at 6.5 cents.
"Now that Georgetown has taken the leap and shown that solar and wind can be paired to beat prices on fossil fuels, we expect many more municipalities to follow," Ben Harborne, a spokesperson with SunEdison, told Oilprice.com
Utilities and fossil fuel industry groups may try and slow down renewable energy, but we may be at an "inflection point," says ACORE's Kevin Haley. Renewable energy will continue to get cheaper, whereas fossil fuels will only get more expensive. That means it is all but inevitable that solar and wind will continue to grab market share from fossil fuels.