An aerial panoramic of the Denton County Courthouse Museum around the streets and buildings of Denton, Texas

A High-Renewables Tomorrow, Today: Denton, Texas

Denton, Texas, a bustling community near Lewisville Lake 30 miles northwest of Dallas, is known for its festivals and eclectic music scene, often compared to the Austin of 20 years ago. But Denton (pop. 113,000) is also a leader in clean energy, boasting more wind power per capita than any other city in the nation.

Denton’s electric utility company, Denton Municipal Electric (DME), has been municipally owned since 1905. Up until 2008, DME provided Denton with energy from a mix of equal shares gas and coal. But the advantage of being owned by its 48,000 customers means DME does what its customers want, which was more green energy.

In 2009, DME signed a multi-year power purchase agreement with NextEra Energy Power Marketing, which owns and operates the Wolf Ridge Wind Farm near Muenster, Texas, north of Denton. NextEra now sells 60 megawatts of wind power to DME, providing approximately 40 percent of Denton’s electricity needs on an average yearly basis.

According to Brian Daskam, energy services development officer for DME, “Having citizens own the company instead of shareholders, there’s the potential to make this decision to go green easier. We’re not putting out our monthly returns to shareholders who live all over the country. It’s people that live here. Denton is an environmentally progressive city, and it’s our job to get people what they want.”

Another thing DME had going was that it could invest in wind power without raising rates. The Wolf Ridge Wind Farm is only 30 miles from Denton, keeping transmission costs low, and allowing retail electricity prices to stay consistently below the north Texas deregulated market. (Denton residents pay rock bottom residential prices of less than $0.096 per kWh.)

DME also receives electricity from methane captured from the local landfill. The landfill gas energy project, implemented in 2008, produces 1.6 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1,600 homes. Homeowners who would like an even higher renewable mix can opt in to the GreenSense program, which uses RECs to achieve 100 percent renewable supply.

For industrial users, Denton will be offering a natural-gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant that provides steam and chilled water, which means industrial facilities don’t have the costs of owning, operating, and maintaining their own chillers and boilers.

All of these measures have helped Denton avoid the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of 61.3 million gallons of gasoline each year. It has also provided Denton residents with extremely reliable power. According to Daskam, a recent ice storm left a quarter million people in nearby Dallas-Ft. Worth out of power for days. “In Denton we had 160 people out of power; that’s less than one-third of one percent of our customers, mostly for under one hour.” In fact, Denton has received American Public Power Association’s RP3 Award, which recognizes utilities that demonstrate high proficiency in reliability and system improvement, the past three years in row.

Denton doesn’t have much available land within city limits, making it difficult to install a utility-scale solar farm. So DME is opting to put small solar demonstration projects throughout the city instead. An RFP will be going out soon and Denton plans to have the systems up and running later in 2014.

Meanwhile, Denton is going beyond renewable energy to invest in efficiency as well. The city’s energy-saving activities include replacing all traffic lights with LEDs, saving approximately $35,000 annually since 2006; the installation of advanced metering programs, which include pre-paid metering and time-of-use rates; and extensive energy-efficiency upgrades in city buildings saving approximately 1,436 MWh and $143,600 annually.

Denton’s Apogee Stadium, home of the University of North Texas football team, is rated LEED Platinum, using three large wind turbines for six percent of its energy needs. And at Denton’s fire station—the second in the country to be awarded LEED Gold Certification—the landscape is irrigated entirely with rainwater captured in four 5,400-gallon cisterns.

DME also offers free thermal imaging audits, rebates for home energy efficiency improvements, and the largest rebate for residential PV systems in Texas.

Reinventing the transportation system is also on Denton’s radar. Since 2006, the city has increased the use of alternative fuels in its fleet from 5 percent to approximately 35 percent. In 2011, it installed an alternative fueling station for city vehicles. The city has also installed EV charging stations at two locations with plans to install more in the future. “We want to have an EV charging infrastructure in place so it’s not a hindrance for people to get electric vehicles,” Daskam told RMI. “We’re watching to see what the response is like, so we can expand the infrastructure in the future.”

Denton is using its utility as an economic development tool. City employees produced a video describing the benefits the CHP plant will bring to industrial customers moving to the city. The video states the CHP plant provides reliable green energies as well as thermal commodities such as steam and chilled water while saving industrial users 10–15 percent on their energy bills.

The focus on economic development is paying off—a 2012 report from CNN Money ranked Denton County as the No. 7 best job market in the nation. “The quality of life here in Denton is amazing,” Julie Glover, economic development program administrator for the City of Denton, told the North Texas Daily. “Our downtown area is booming, and people are constantly being exposed to the unique art and music found here.” And now they are also being exposed to reliable clean energy, thanks to having a municipally owned utility that listens to its customers.