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Some question reality of claims

Vast majority set long target dates

Houston — The population of cities receiving all of their power from clean or renewable resources will more than quadruple in 2019, if the cities meet their commitments, which industry observers acknowledge present significant challenges.

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Through the end of 2018, the Sierra Club identified six cities that have met their goal of obtaining all of their communities' electricity needs through renewable power, and their combined population is about 190,000, led by Georgetown, Texas, with about 71,000 people.

Another 11 cities are committed to meeting that goal in 2019, and they have a combined population of about 675,000, led by Oxnard, California, with about 210,000.

At an average annual consumption rate of about 10.4 MWh/year, according to the US Energy Information Administration, that would boost the annual renewable power consumption rate from about 2 TWh/year in 2018 to about 9 TWh/year by the end of 2019.

DIFFERENT CONCLUSIONS DRAWN

Some have questioned the reality - both in terms of physics but also in terms of economics - behind these renewable energy claims and commitments.

"The only way 100% renewable will work is contractually," said Gurcan Gulen, a Boston-area energy market consultant. "This is the same with most corporations that pursue similar strategies. That is, all electrons flowing physically into these cities/companies will not be from renewable generators."

But Georgetown, Texas, maintains the legitimacy of its 100% renewables claim.

"Since April 2017, the City has been credited with putting more renewable energy into the grid than Georgetown customers consumed," a news release states. "According to the statewide renewable energy accounting system overseen by the Public Utilities Commission, Georgetown's customers have been using and paying for all-renewable energy since April 2017."

Georgetown is north of Austin in central Texas, along West Texas windpower's transmission path to East Texas load centers, but some cities with all-renewable electricity goals lie at the center of a conventional vertically integrated utility's grid.

Atlanta, Georgia, for example, has set 2035 as a date by which it hopes to achieve 100% renewable power for its community.

"Atlanta should buy solar from developers in Arizona or West Texas; wind from Iowa," Gulen said in an email Thursday. "Although this is better than uncoordinated state [renewable portfolio standards] programs, it will still create issues in power systems and wholesale markets of where significantly more renewable capacity is developed: system integration costs are real."

Joshua Rhodes, a University of Texas Energy Institute research associate, said, "Cities that are locked into an unwilling utility can purchase [renewable energy credits] to offset their energy use and thus claim to be some percentage clean."

Municipal utilities such as Georgetown and electric co-ops in organized wholesale power markets "are able to contract out on the open markets, but there are always risks in making future bets."

FAR OFF TARGET DATES

Matthew Cordaro, a former Midcontinent Independent System Operator president and CEO who now resides in New York, said "it is unrealistic and technically impossible to foresee a future with 100% renewables, given the nature of that form of generation and the need for a highly reliable electric supply system."

"Most of the noise and slogans about achieving high proportions of renewable energy within 20 years and beyond are politically motivated and push the issue down the road to when current administrations are no longer seeking office and not responsible for the outcome," Cordaro said.

Indeed, of the 122 cities identified by the Sierra Club as having set 100% renewables goals, 96 set goals of 2030 or later, and 13 of those set 2050 as a deadline.

It may be seen as ironic that if electric vehicles proliferate to the point that they ramp up power demand quickly, more natural gas plants are likely to be developed than renewables.

"On the other hand, with slow and stable change in demand there is more opportunity to resort to renewables," Cordaro said.

-- Mark Watson, markham.watson@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Rocco Canonica, newsdesk@spglobal.com