Expert says renewable energy in reach

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Ranjani Groth/DRC
An audience listens to Cornell University professor Robert Howarth’s presentation, done through Skype, on Friday at UNT’s Environmental Education, Science and Technology building. Three experts discussed renewable energy and answered questions during a meeting on the Denton Renewable Plan.
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Professor, doctor weigh in on DME's plan to power city

A plan to build two new natural gas-fired power plants to help Denton meet its future electrical needs got more scrutiny in a town hall-style meeting Friday night.

Nearly 100 people came to the three-hour meeting to hear from two scientists and a medical doctor about the rapidly changing energy market and the risks of using natural gas for electricity. The meeting was moderated by council member Keely Briggs. Many of the city staff members who work with her on the council’s Committee on the Environment also attended the meeting, as did fellow council member Joey Hawkins and representatives from Denton Municipal Electric.

Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University engineering professor, condensed some of the information he has presented for many years on how the world can use wind, water and sunlight for electricity. A video of his popular TED Talk (TED stands for technology, entertainment and design) on the topic has been viewed by more than 1.1 million people online. In 2013, he and his group, The Solutions Project, developed individual wind, water and sunlight energy plans for each of the 50 United States.

Jacobson told the crowd that the energy market has changed rapidly in the last five years. The Solutions Project recommended wind and solar energy for much of Texas. Many low-cost, low-tech energy storage solutions are available today — the city doesn’t need to wait for battery storage technology to make it work, he said.

Currently, wind energy costs between 1.6 cents and 3 cents per kilowatt-hour to generate, Jacobson, said. (In Denton, the base rate, customer charges and energy costs would bring the average ratepayer’s electric bill between 8 to 10 cents per kwh.)

Solar energy is more expensive, but the cost is coming down rapidly, at about 7 to 8 cents per kwh. That puts solar energy close to the cost of a gas-fired power plant, which is between 5 to 7 cents per kwh, Jacobson said.

A concentrated solar power plant — producing the kind of solar energy that can be used 24 hours a day — appears to be coming down in price, too, from about 13 cents per kwh to 9 cents.

Jim Maynard, a purchase power specialist for DME, said Jacobson’s estimates were good, but was skeptical that a utility of Denton’s size could afford to build a concentrated solar power plant.

“I still think natural gas is the way to go,” Maynard said in an interview after the meeting.

According to DME officials, the new gas-fired power plants are needed to help the city get the best price on future contracts for wind and solar energy. DME also expects to run the plants when Denton itself doesn’t need the power. DME would sell the electricity back into the Texas grid, both on the hottest summer days and coldest winter nights.

Brian Daskam, spokesman for DME, said he was interested in Jacobson’s assertion that electricity is the most efficient way to power our world, and everything should run on electricity — including cars and other forms of transportation. For example, electric cars could be charged overnight, when wind energy is most plentiful and least expensive.

Robert Howarth, an earth science professor at Cornell University, cautioned the crowd that scientists are just beginning to understand the risk methane presents to climate change.

Natural gas consists primarily of methane.

For many years, scientists have known that burning fossil fuels makes carbon dioxide, and that has contributed to a gradual warming of the planet. But it’s only been in the last five years that scientists have begun to examine the risk of methane, Howarth said.

In the short term, methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas. Emerging research shows that controlling methane may be the most effective way to slow climate change in the near future, Howarth said.

Atmospheric research also shows methane emissions increasing the most in the United States, likely from the shale drilling boom and leaking natural gas infrastructure, Howarth said.

DME’s plan to buy more wind and solar power as well as build the gas-fired plants is getting a second look at the City Council’s request. City Manager George Campbell recommended that the Brattle Group, an economics firm based in Massachusetts, perform the independent study.

The plants are expected to cost $240 million, or more, to build. One is planned for the west side of the city, on land near Denton Enterprise Airport. A second plant is planned for the east side of town on Shepard Road, near the intersection of a major gas pipeline and electric transmission lines.


PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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