The South’s Clean Energy Disruption

The region’s heritage of fossil fuels falters as clean energy rises in its place.
The Florida Power & Light Company Sweetbay Solar Energy Center in Martin County, Florida

Courtesy of FPL

This is a tale of three very different Southern communities: a rural county in central Texas, a coastal area of South Florida, and a city in western Tennessee. But each is grappling with its ability to combat and adapt to the climate crisis, with how to generate electricity while doing what’s best for the local economy, and with the overall well-being of its residents. Pollution-busting efforts tailored to the needs of individual communities are a vital component of the climate fight, and many more are needed—especially given the most recent warning of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states the chance to keeping the rise in global average temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius, and thereby avoid the most catastrophic and irreversible effects of climate change, is diminishing rapidly.

Since people first began extracting coal, oil, and gas from Appalachia and the Gulf Coast more than a century ago, the South has been a bastion for the fossil fuel industry. Yet signs—like the canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the unstable oil prices, and the death of King Coal—point to a changing energy landscape in this part of the country, especially as Texas continues to go big on renewables. The South’s solar capacity is also expected to more than double by next year, and the Biden administration’s efforts to create jobs by investing in clean energy infrastructure would benefit the region tremendously. As these changes and others accumulate into a larger systemic shift across the South, one thing seems clear: Fossil fuels are on their way out.

“There’s no doubt that the southeastern part of the United States is going through a renewable energy revolution,” says Chris Castro, a clean energy expert and director of sustainability and resilience for the city of Orlando. “We’ve seen a significant rise in the trajectory of renewables and, based on the forecast, it’s only continuing to grow.”

That said, some old and familiar hurdles, such as monopolized utilities and climate denial, remain, and the transition to clean power is playing out differently across the South.

Broward County, Florida

Home to approximately two million people, including the 183,000 residents of Fort Lauderdale, Broward County sits on the southeastern coast of Florida, where sea levels could potentially rise almost a whopping three feet by 2060. Knowing the climate crisis is at their doorstep as they experience higher tides, climbing temperatures, and increased flooding, public officials set a goal to cut carbon emissions 80 percent below 2007 levels by the year 2050—all while generating 20 percent of municipal energy from renewable resources. The challenge, says Jennifer Jurado, chief resilience officer for Broward County, is figuring out how to do it.

Florida is the country’s second-largest producer of electricity after Texas and relies most heavily on natural gas—but it’s not called the Sunshine State for nothing. One promising tool, Jurado says, is community solar. Broward County is already offsetting 60 percent of its emissions from its municipal buildings through the SolarTogether program, recently launched by Florida Power & Light Company (FPL). The program allows the county to invest in utility-scale solar projects without having to physically host the farms within its already overdeveloped landscape. By the end of the year, as FPL expands its solar farms (it plans to install 30 million solar panels by 2030), officials hope to start offsetting all of the county’s greenhouse emissions.

Construction of an FPL solar energy center

Courtesy of FPL

However, while large-scale solar projects help decarbonize the grid and stabilize energy generation and prices, these benefits don’t usually translate into significant cost savings for consumers. This is where rooftop solar shines. The largest expenses associated with distributed, or rooftop, solar comes from buying and installing panels. Funding mechanisms like solar co-ops can reduce costs. Residents can sell any excess electricity produced by their panels back to the utility to further shrink their bills.

“I still believe there is a need for local rooftop solar and want to see the expansion of distributed solar programs—especially for underserved communities, so they can realize the cost savings at the meter,” says Jurado.

But as of now, rooftop panels account for only about 15 percent of Florida’s solar generation, with the rest coming from utility-scale projects, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). A big reason for that is because utilities, such as FPL, frequently impede policies that would make rooftop solar more viable and alluring to potential consumers. Such policies include net metering rules that reimburse customers for excess energy generated, buyback rates that ensure solar customers receive the same price that the utility charges its retail customers, and third-party sales that allow solar panels to be leased instead of bought. Right now, it’s still a battle over who gets to own the electricity, and utilities continue to control most of the power.

Nolan County, Texas

The Texas legislature deregulated the state’s grid in 2002, opening its electric supply to the free market. The move lowered electricity prices and spurred the development of wind projects but, over time, also created vulnerabilities in the grid.

The system allowed hundreds of electricity generators to capitalize on Texas’s vast energy resources, including the powerful winds in its rural western corner. Retail electric providers could then buy electricity from these power plants and sell it at competitive rates to residents. The lower prices sounded great, but it also reduced incentives for companies to shoulder the cost of weatherizing the grid or creating fail-safes during demand surges, such as the one experienced in February, when an ice storm crippled the grid, leaving millions of people to freeze as homes and businesses lost electricity for days on end. The crisis highlighted the fragility and isolation of Texas’s grid, as well as the need to make the system more resilient not only to immediate crises but also the long-term impacts of once unimaginable weather events.

A herd of cattle grazing in a field near wind turbines in Texas

Robert Coy/Alamy

That said, the wind industry flourished on the wings of the free market. Texas leads the country in wind power production, and Nolan County, which got into the game early back in the 1990s, leads the state in number of turbines with more than 1,400. Here, many ranchers lease their lands to wind developers, resulting in cattle and turbines coexisting on the landscape. In addition to supplementing their income (a single turbine can lease for between $10,000 to $20,000 per year), ranchers have seen their property values skyrocket.

According to a recent report by Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin, in the two decades between 1998 and 2018, taxable property values in Nolan County more than tripled from $608 million to nearly $2.2 billion. The money helps fund schools, build community centers, and improve local roads and electric lines. Even landowners without wind turbines can benefit from the infrastructure that accompanies wind farms. For example, the report cites the story of Miesha Adames, the marketing and administrative director of Sweetwater Economic Development, who profited from having a wind-farm substation built near her home. “I wouldn’t have been able to keep my land in the family if it were not for the landowner payments associated with the wind farms and their supporting infrastructure,” she says.

Such infrastructure grew in tandem with the area’s wind farms and includes a turbine technician program at the local college. Other rural counties in the state are also likely to benefit from the expected growth in renewables, though perhaps to a lesser degree. A projected 3.6 gigawatts of new wind power (or about 1,483 utility-scale wind turbines) is scheduled to come online in Texas by the end of the year. Although there is some infighting among Texans regarding pending legislation that would make it harder to build renewable energy operations, areas like Nolan County that saw which way the wind was blowing early are already well positioned for the future.

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Memphis

The utility Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW) has been tossing around an idea for a while now: whether to continue to source its electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned utility that provides the city with all of its power, or make the switch to a wholesale electricity provider, such as MISO (Midcontinent Independent System Operator).

Memphis, where electric bills eat up huge portions of residents’ income, is frustrated with the TVA, which has been slow to integrate renewables into its operations and to implement energy efficiency programs that could help slash emissions as well as power bills for consumers. The benefits of leaving, says Herman Morris Jr., former MLGW president and a consultant for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, would include MLGW saving hundreds of millions of dollars per year, a dramatic expansion of its clean energy portfolio (upwards of 75 percent) and of course, fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, the city’s electricity production would become cleaner and cheaper.

The Tennessee Valley Authority's Allen Fossil Plant coal power plant seen in the distance beyond power lines running across T.O. Fuller State Park

Brandon Dill

Studies done by Siemens and the Brattle Group show MLGW seeing savings ranging from about $100 million to $300 million. The cost savings come from both buying cheaper power and avoiding rate increases as the TVA’s fleet of nuclear and coal power plants age.

“With a high percentage of renewables in your portfolio, you have the chance for a future that contributes less to climate pollution, air pollution, and water pollution, and one that has more health benefits,” says Morris’s colleague Karen Orenstein, director of climate and energy justice program at Friends of the Earth, which commissioned the Brattle Group study. “A more distributed model offers a greater chance of self-determination.”

Should MLGW decide to remain with the TVA, it would commit to a 20-year contract, where it would buy at least 95 percent of its power from the TVA for a 3 percent rebate on the price of electricity. The TVA claims that MLGW would also receive the benefit of a more reliable grid that’s less susceptible to power outages from storms.

Memphis must now make a decision that utilities and governments at all levels face when considering power generation, the climate crisis, and the well-being of its communities. At heart, it’s a question of creating an equitable sustainable future—or not. At this point in time, MLGW has retained a consultant in Georgia that will gather proposals for wholesale power generation. Memphis must also give TVA a five-year notice before ending its contract.

“It doesn’t cost a thing to find out whether there’s power out there that’s cheaper—and cleaner—and better for the community,” says Morris. “If there’s not, then we can continue to be tethered to TVA.”

What holds true across these three communities and elsewhere is that an energy transition is underway in the South. The EIA projects that by 2030, renewables will be the predominant source of U.S. electricity generation, surpassing fracked gas, and by 2050, renewables will generate 42 percent of the country’s electricity. And with its strong solar and offshore and onshore wind resources, the South should welcome this transition with open arms.

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