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Denton's Power Plan Raises Questions About How To Back Up Wind, Solar

Solar would account for 17 percent of Denton's energy under the plan.

In Denton, city council members dug into a plan on Tuesday to boost the amount of power the city gets to 70 percent by 2019. It would also eliminate the city’s use of energy from coal-fired power plants. But the Renewable Denton plan relies on building two new natural gas power plants to help make up the rest of the city’s energy mix, and that has some worried.

Energy analyst Tom Smith told the council paying $250 million dollars to build gas generators doesn’t make financial sense – the cost of the energy produced will be above market rates -- and ties the city to old technology.

“Are we at a moment similarly to where people were building land lines in the past and cellular telephones were beginning to be on the market and took over?” he asked.

  The problem with wind and solar is that their energy output varies based on weather and time of day. Buying power from green sources that are spread throughout the state will help decrease instability, but Smith said using conventional power generation is necessary for the foreseeable future. He said some demand reduction like energy efficiency programs and incentives to shift power use to off-peak hours would help. And he said batteries get better able to store energy for the times when wind and solar power dips.

“Just think about battery storage in cars and cell phones,” Smith said. “Who would’ve thought that we’d have this kind of battery power in something this small ten years ago, or five years ago that you’d be able to build a Tesla that is as fast as it is and is able to store that energy.”

City Council member Greg Johnson, though, said he worried relying on energy from the open market in lieu of building the proposed back-up power plants would leave Denton’s residents would be vulnerable to market fluctuations.

“If you’re eliminating coal, and you’re saying don’t build a gas plant, then what do we build or buy? Because in my mind saying we’ll get the rest from the open market has far too much risk for our rate payers,” he said.

Denton has been at the center of the energy debate for the last several years. First voters approved a ban on fracking within city limits, and then the state Legislature made it illegal to enact fracking bans.

Now, the focus has turned to renewable energy. The city already gets more than 40 percent of its energy from wind and solar. Across Texas, just over 10 percent of energy comes from renewables. The city council is expected to decide on the plan before the end of the year.