Mayor Dale Ross and Georgetown, TX Getting National Recognition for Going All-Green

Austin’s northern neighbor of Georgetown has been making surprising waves in the national press and in several movies and documentaries, including Al Gore’s latest. This town of 67,000, “one of the redder towns in one of the redder counties in Texas,” in the words of its mayor, has become one of “the first US towns, and the largest in Texas, to depend entirely on renewable energy,” in a process that began in 2012.  We spoke with Mayor Dale Ross recently to hear about his vision and to discuss how green and tech innovation in Georgetown and Austin might influence each other.

 
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Mayor Dale Ross: When we started the review of our energy contracts in 2012, there were two key points in our strategy. One, first and foremost, eliminate /mitigate price volatility. Second, reduce cost. We paid an exit fee from our previous provider and still believe we will come out ahead.

So, these are exciting times for Georgetown. I just saw a preview of the April Smithsonian magazine, which will feature Georgetown, and I think they picked the perfect cover and tagline. It will say, “The Future’s So Bright (Gotta Wear Sunglasses)”. That makes sense. We are the first city in the State of Texas to be powered solely by wind and solar, and the largest in country. We recently traveled to California, to learn about what we can do with hydro, too.

 

SmartAustin: You’ve hit the jackpot in terms of publicity, it seems.

MDR: Yes, we’ve had millions of dollars of free advertising. But it started with this: If you win the economic argument, by default, you win the environmental argument.  And we’re proud to be a low-regulation, pro-business municipality, and to own our own utility. We invite collaboration from outside partners. For instance, we just became a finalist for a grant, from Bloomberg Philanthropies, and are being supported in a testing phase [SA note: Austin also achieved this status for a blockchain-based concept designed to support the homeless.]. The project is a local microgrid, with city-owned solar panels distributed across businesses and residences--we would pay rent, and it would help us free ourselves of centralized regulatory control. As we go forward, we know that there is expertise in Austin--our favorite suburb, as I call it!--and we would be happy to find ways to collaborate.

 

SA: How do you plan to leverage this publicity for Georgetown?

MDR: Let me focus on the environment since I know that’s what’s driving a lot of interest. First of all, we’re set until 2028 on current electricity contracts, but we are working on our energy strategy through 2050. Over the last few years, we have been one of fastest-growing cities with a population of 50-100,000. So, we’re trying to make sure we take that growth into account. I admit, though, I probably won’t be breathing oxygen then!

Another question we’re asking is, “Is our model repeatable?” We are unique in that we have a city-owned utility. We have an obligation to create certainty, to give citizens the lowest-possible rates. We are interested in identifying other cities of modest size, with city-owned utilities, that can repeat our model.

We’re also working on composting. We plan to start with schools, then expand from there. Also, we have the Red Poppy Festival coming up and are expecting 50-60,000 people. Last year, 69% of waste was composted or recycled. This year, we’re trying to get to the high 90’s.

We are getting so much attention. Williamson Country is fairly conservative, one of the redder counties, and Georgetown is one of the redder cities. The environment, though, is not a Republican or Democratic issue item, it’s an American one, and I’ll meet with anyone who will help. We know that Austin is engaged in ambitious composting and recycling activities and we want to share best practices. I’ve connected with Mayor Adler but we need to have more connections, through the rank and file of our city governments, and with startups that are working on these issues.

 

SA: Earlier, you touted the ‘low-regulation’ environment of Georgetown. I can see an opportunity for startups connected to Austin, addressing environmental problems, to run pilots in your community. For instance, we are aware of an innovative eScooter company that’s seeking to gain traction in Austin, but has had trouble gaining permits.  Should they reach out to you?

MDR: We love Austin’s startup culture and I can see that opportunity. I would like to talk more about that idea when we get together with startups and Austin officials in May.