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America's Emerging Clean Energy Capital:How Houston Can Lead the Nation to a New Energy Future
by Jordan Schneider, Frontier Group, and Luke Metzger, Environment Texas Research & Policy Center
In recent years, Houston has emerged as a nationwide leader in expanding its production and use of clean energy. The City of Houston has adopted strong, energy-saving building codes, ramped up purchases of clean, renewable energy, and begun laying the groundwork for widespread adoption of electric cars – all steps that have jump-started the area’s transition toward a clean energy economy.
However, Houston and the surrounding eight-county area (hereafter “Greater Houston”) still have a great deal of untapped potential to save energy and avoid pollution. Local governments should build on the Houston area’s current momentum through a number of clean energy technologies, including net-zero energy home construction, rooftop solar installations and electric vehicles (EVs).
By 2030, improvements in energy efficiency and expanded solar power could reduce demand for electricity from fossil fuel sources by enough to power 627,000 Houston homes, while expanded deployment of electric vehicles would avoid consumption of more than 104 million gallons of gasoline annually.
To continue reaping the benefits of clean energy into the future, Houston should build on its track record as an emerging environmental leader, and other local governments in Greater Houston and elsewhere should follow suit.
Houston is using clean energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
• In 2008, Houston set standards for building energy efficiency that exceeded the international model standard 15 percent, becoming among the first cities in Texas to do so. Two years later, the state government raised minimum standards statewide to match those in Houston.
• The City of Houston is the largest municipal purchaser of renewable electricity in the country. It purchases enough renewable energy credits to cover 32 percent of electricity consumption by city facilities each year.
• In recognition of Houston’s commitment to clean energy, the Department of Energy named it an American Solar City in 2008 and contributed resources to help the city develop solar initiatives.
• The City of Houston has the third-largest hybrid-electric municipal vehicle fleet in the country.
• As part of a city-wide effort to foster widespread adoption of electric vehicles, the City of Houston has installed dozens of electric vehicle charging stations for its municipal fleet and helped several private firms develop plans to build at least 150 more publicly available electric vehicle charging stations, some of which have already opened.
Houston has the potential to deploy much more clean energy technology. Key areas for progress include:
• Building net-zero energy homes. Local governments in Greater Houston could ensure that all new single-family homes are built more efficiently and with the capability to generate their own power by the end of the decade. Steadily strengthening building energy codes could help achieve this vision, as shrinking demand for electricity allows more homes to draw their power entirely from small-scale solar or wind installations.
• Installing solar panels. Existing rooftop space in Greater Houston represents a huge untapped energy resource. Houston receives more sunlight than several of the world’s leading solar producers, including Germany, where policymakers have launched the world’s largest solar market.
• Deploying electric cars. Greater Houston can avoid consuming millions of gallons of gasoline by replacing more of its gasoline-powered vehicles with electric vehicles.
Building net-zero energy homes can prevent pollution, protecting our health and our environment.
• By 2030, new net-zero energy homes could avoid the need for more than 6 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity from fossil fuel sources per year through energy efficiency savings and electricity generated by solar panels. That’s about 7.8 percent of Greater Houston’s annual electricity use (at current rates of consumption).
• By 2030, net-zero energy homes could annually prevent more than 2.3 million metric tons of global warming pollution, 1,150 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions, and nearly 60 pounds of highly toxic mercury pollution.
Taking advantage of rooftop space for solar panels would generate vast amounts of electricity.
• If Greater Houston achieved just 15 percent of its total rooftop solar potential (including installations on net-zero energy homes), it could generate 5.4 billion kWh of solar electricity. Combined with the energy saved through efficiency in net-zero energy homes, that number would increase to 9.2 billion kWh, which would allow Greater Houston to avoid 5.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year – the equivalent of taking approximately one million cars off the road.
Increasing the percentage of electric vehicles on the roads could cut Houston’s dependence on fossil fuels for transportation.
• Ramping up electric vehicle sales so that 22 percent of all new light-duty cars and trucks sold annually by 2030 are electric would put more than 378,000 electric cars on the road, resulting in oil savings of more than 104 million gallons of gasoline annually.
The City of Houston and neighboring local governments should build on Greater Houston’s emerging status as an environmental leader by implementing policies and programs that move the region toward a clean energy economy. Specifically, they should:
1) Maintain a strong commitment to increasing building efficiency and renewable energy in new homes. By 2020, local governments should ensure that all new homes achieve net-zero energy performance, meaning that they are at least two-thirds more energy efficient than conventional Texas homes and they generate as much energy as they consume through small-scale renewable energy systems.
2) Reward builders for going beyond minimum energy efficiency requirements using financial incentives, either through a state program or a ratepayer-funded program through CenterPoint Energy.
3) Facilitate widespread installation of solar panels on existing homes and businesses. In order to achieve the benefits outlined in this report, Greater Houston should set a minimum goal of installing the equivalent of 1,000,000 residential solar power systems by 2030.
4) Continue to make electric vehicle charging infrastructure widely available to the public by facilitating further development and expansion of the charging network.
5) Create incentives to encourage widespread adoption of electric vehicles by individuals and businesses. The City of Houston should offer property tax breaks for businesses that install electric vehicle charging infrastructure or purchase electric vehicles for their fleets. The city should also offer “preferred parking” or other privileges for EV owners at city-owned facilities.