HOUSTON (CN) — In their rush to go green, U.S. cities relish statistics showing they are leading in renewable energy. Even Houston, the oil industry’s epicenter, has claimed a title in this tournament.
The city itself gets 92 percent of its power from wind and solar energy, and ranks higher than any U.S. city in renewable energy use, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Home to dozens of pollutant-belching oil refineries and chemical plants, and freeways packed with rush-hour traffic at all hours of the day — the city that calls itself “The Energy Capital of the World,” hosting headquarters of energy behemoths Shell, Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil?
Yes, Houston is trying to remake its image so Energy Capital does not refer only to oil and gas.
After Hurricane Harvey’s climate-change uppercut flooded thousands of Houston homes in 2017, the city launched a climate action plan to meet the goal set out by the Paris Agreement of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
In an EPA list released in February this year of the top 100 green-power users in the United States, Houston ranks No. 11, one spot behind the U.S. General Services Administration, the agency that manages government buildings.
At 1.072 billion annual kilowatt hours (kWh), Houston is ahead of Starbucks and Walmart, Nos. 12 and 13. Microsoft is No. 1 at a whopping 4.55 billion kWh.
But visual evidence of this green streak is nowhere to be found. Only two city-owned buildings downtown have rooftop solar panels.
That’s because Houston buys most of its power from operators of wind turbines located far from the city: 10 percent of it from a 350-acre solar farm in Alpine, Texas, 562 miles to the west.
Lara Cottingham, Houston’s chief sustainability officer, said in an interview that it makes economic sense for the city to buy solar energy from a large producer.
“If you have a lot of relatively small buildings with small surface area, it’s less expensive to always purchase energy from one large solar facility,” she said. “And it’s less expensive for the actual capital costs to generate the energy rather than putting a few panels on every city building.”
The city’s residents have been slow to adopt solar energy, despite its long, sun-baked summers and state laws that bar homeowners’ associations from preventing people from installing solar panels on their homes, and exempt from property taxes the value added to homes by solar arrays.
Houston ranks No. 50 in the amount of solar energy installed per capita among U.S. cities, between Cleveland and Philadelphia in an April 2019 report by nonprofit Environment Texas Research and Policy Center.
David Altuna, sales manager for Hays Energy Services, said he believes area residents don’t see the need to switch to solar because their electricity rates are relatively low, due to an abundance of cheap natural gas that electric plant operators burn to produce power.
“We’re deeply entrenched in oil and gas out here. And with those cheap rates, homeowners aren’t educated enough to see the savings basically,” Altuna said.
Based in Greater Houston, Hays Energy does solar installations in 26 states. But Altuna said it’s focused on Texas. “We think Texas is about to go through a solar boom,” he said.
The savings are immediate, he said.
“The systems that we sell are cash-flow positive from Day 1. So what they do is, their payments on the solar system are less than what they are currently paying for electricity. That’s how they save money from Day 1. They are eliminating the light bill and bringing in savings.”
Houston resident Dori Wolfe owns a solar energy consulting business and also works for Solar United Neighbors, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that helps homeowners around the country set up co-ops.
The co-ops form committees to vet contractors who bid to put up panels on co-op members’ homes.
“We guide them, and they select the best installer for their co-op,” Wolfe said, “at usually what’s a decent competitively good price and good quality. And we make it effortless, or less effort, to go solar. We take care of all the hurdles for customers.”
She had solar panels installed on her home in January 2018, and bought a charger that she and her husband use to power up their electric cars’ batteries.
“I haven’t paid a power bill since then, which is really awesome,” Wolfe said. “But I actually have to confess there was $3 I paid this past March when my daughter came to visit with her kids and they drove the electric car all over. So we did a lot of charging that month.”
Wolfe’s electricity provider, Green Mountain Energy, buys the excess electricity produced by her solar panels.
“We’re the only provider in the market that gives the customer 100 percent, 1-to-1 credit for the energy they send back to the grid, with no limits or caps,” the NRG Energy subsidiary said in an emailed statement.
Green Mountain offers plans to environmentally conscious apartment dwellers by which all the energy they purchase is produced by Texas solar parks — clusters of panels installed on the ground.
Wolfe said it’s great the city of Houston is getting most of its power from renewable sources, but because the energy is transmitted by power lines, city buildings have no way to keep the lights on during outages such as those caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Wolfe can use solar energy stored in the battery in her home to stay online.
“What a good feeling it is when there’s a power outage and I can still have my office. I can still have my cold refrigerator and all that good stuff,” she said.
Cottingham, Houston’s sustainability director, agrees that Hurricane Harvey exposed the city’s dependence on the power grid. But she said more rooftop solar is in the offing and the city is constantly getting proposals from contractors.
“We’re still looking at that, because in terms of individual building efficiency it’s really important. … Also, when we construct new buildings, that’s another opportunity,” she said. At a recent meeting on Houston’s climate action plan, Cottingham said the city’s nickname is no longer all about oil and gas.
“We are the Energy Capital of the World. And we should use that as a pole to vault ourselves into renewable energy,” she said.