Energy in one Texas city: Good planning makes good business

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Texas may be known for its oil and gas, but one city there plans to get nearly all of its electricity from renewables.

Denton, Texas, became a renewable energy pioneer when Denton Municipal Electric (DME) started getting 40 percent of its electricity from nearby Wolf Ridge Wind Farm in 2009. Now this town northwest of Dallas aims higher, with a goal of getting 70 percent of its electricity from renewable energy resources by 2019.

Cows on grassland near wind turbines (Courtesy of DME)
Cows munch grass near Wolf Ridge Wind Farm, which provides power to Denton Municipal Electric. (Courtesy photo)

When DME signed on for all that renewable energy, the company knew it was a departure from the way utilities traditionally do business, according to Mike Grim, DME’s executive manager.

This commitment to getting the major share — the baseload — of DME’s electricity from solar and wind energy came after a three-year study. The city council supported upping the mix to 70 percent renewable energy.

“Instead of fossil fuels — coal or natural gas — providing your baseload, and sprinkling in renewables,” he says, “we decided to flip that paradigm. We want to get … as much from renewables as we possibly can, and then we’ll sprinkle in backup fossil fuels to make up for the variability.”

To be able to provide electricity on demand until high-capacity storage technologies are perfected, DME invested in quick-starting “reciprocating engines” that operate like car engines.

Twelve natural gas–powered reciprocating units will generate 18.75 MW each — a total of 225 MW. The units will provide a cheap and resource-efficient power supply to fill in when renewable energy sources are not delivering.

“We have to provide power when our customers demand it,” says Grim, adding that the units will supply clean power and reliable service “at competitive rates.”

Testing group for the energy market

Denton’s renewable energy setup is attracting attention from three important sectors: national laboratories, university research labs and big business. The universities want to pilot smart-grid technologies they’ve developed in their labs and try them in the real world of grid transmission and distribution. Closely watching are top-flight businesses that want to market these technologies once they’ve been proven.

“We want to be a leader in deploying some of these devices and allow the citizens of Denton to use them,” Grim says.

Drawing of industrial complex (Courtesy of DME)
This artist’s rendering depicts the Denton Energy Center, which will provide backup power for solar and wind energy resources. (Courtesy photo)

According to an independent analysis by the Brattle Group, the utility will save more than $500 million over 20 years under the plan, as they refine integration of renewables into their transmission and distribution. And it will reduce polluting emissions by 78 percent.

“We are not only trying to look at what is, but what will become. It’s not the typical municipal utility,” Grim says.