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Battle Over Renewable Energy Takes Shape At The Texas Capitol

Texas leads the country in wind-energy production.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Texas leads the country in wind-energy production.

Wind power in Texas is often seen as one of the state’s great success stories. It’s grown so much in the last 20 years that the state now leads the country in the amount of electricity it generates from wind. Experts say that’s brought the price of electricity down and helped reduce air pollution.

But wind is facing a lot of opposition this year at the Texas Capitol. The fight centers around subsidies and incentives that have helped grow the industry here.

Starting in the '90s, the state and federal governments set up subsidies to encourage wind farms. Local communities also offered tax breaks. Most crucially, Texas built out transmission lines from windy parts of the state to urban centers like Dallas and Houston. That meant the electricity generated in the West could move across the state.  

The plan worked.

“Texas was really a world leader in figuring out how to solve the chicken-and-the-egg problem,” says Dan Cohan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “No one wanted to build wind farms when there weren’t enough transmission lines to carry power to the cites, and no one wanted to build transmission lines where there weren’t any wind farms.”

By tackling both of those challenges head on, Texas began to break wind-production records year after year.

But opponents argue all this wind power is disrupting the grid, and lawmakers have been hearing proposals this session to draw back or cut some of the very incentives and federal subsidies that helped the industry establish itself.

The effort has supporters of renewable energy nervous.

Jeffrey Clark, director of the Advanced Power Alliance, says efforts to cut incentives and subsidies for renewable energy in Texas are "unprecedented."
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT
Jeffrey Clark, director of the Advanced Power Alliance, says efforts to cut incentives and subsidies for renewable energy in Texas are "unprecedented."

“What we’re seeing is somewhat unprecedented,” says Jeffrey Clark, director of the Advanced Power Alliance, a business association that represents renewable and natural gas companies. “It is a very organized, very well-funded effort to slander renewable energy in Texas.”

Clark says the push against renewable energy started about a year ago when the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, started traveling around the state talking to residents who didn't like wind and solar farms in their communities.

The reasons they gave are the same ones you hear from people who oppose development near their homes.

“I’ve recently been called a NIMBY,” George Clay told the House State Affairs Committee last week, using the acronym for the phrase "not in my back yard."

“Well, I’ll wear that badge proudly," the Bowie landowner continued.

But the complaints TPPF has with solar and wind farms go beyond how they look from your backyard.  

The group says renewables, or at least the incentives that have helped them grow, are bad for the state. It produced a series of studies arguing wind subsidies are responsible for the tight electricity supply in Texas. It argues cheap wind depresses investment in fossil fuel plants, which are needed to guarantee uninterrupted power on hot summer days.

“Wind is bringing prices down, but not in a good way,” says Bill Peacock, vice president of research at the TPPF.

The thing is, most energy experts disagree with that.

“You can make anything not look great without context,” says Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the Energy Institute at UT Austin.

Rhodes says it doesn’t make sense to call for a reduction in incentives for wind and solar power without looking at the subsidies that go to fossil fuels. And, he says, low-cost renewable energy has, in fact, been good for Texas consumers.

“The cheaper energy is, the more growth we can have in the economy,” Rhodes says. “So just because a new technology is pushing an old technology out [doesn't make it] a market failure; it’s just the market working.”

There’s something else that sticks out about this debate. Two words that haven’t come up: climate change.

Rhodes says renewable-energy supporters don't point out that wind and solar are needed to fight global warming because the argument doesn’t win any points at the Capitol.

“There are certain aspects of the country that aren’t ready to talk about it yet,” he says. “The idea is that if you can win your arguments based on price and efficiency, for some people, that’s just going to be better received than talking about climate change.”

The Texas Public Policy Foundation is skeptical and even dismissive of climate science. When asked if he was concerned about climate change, Peacock took a few seconds before answering: “I'm concerned about the damage renewable-energy subsidies are doing to the marketplace.”

Critics say positions like that show TPPF is basically an arm of the fossil fuel industry – that the group takes money from oil companies, then works to advance the industries' interests at the Texas Capitol.

TPPF’s status as a 501(c)(3) means it doesn't need to disclose donors. About eight years ago, however, a document was accidently made public and published by the Texas Observer showing TPPF accepted a lot of money from fossil fuel companies like Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil.

Clark says that comes as no surprise.

“We have seen a lot of money come into the state hidden by organizations that use their nonprofit, their charitable status, to lobby against renewable energy,” he says.

Clark says his biggest fear is that lawmakers will follow the TPPF’s direction and make renewables ineligible for local tax incentives.

As dominant as Texas wind power has become, experts say, the state can still go a long way to growing its renewable-energy resources. For one thing, other states and countries run a larger portion of their electricity grid off renewables than Texas does.

“In Texas, we still get just 19 percent of our power from wind, just 1 percent from solar," Cohan says.  "There are other states, like Iowa, that are up around 40 percent."

Texas could go nearly full renewable and still reliably keep the lights on if it built out wind and solar in the right parts of the state, he says.

Of course, that would be harder to do without some of the tax incentives and subsidies under scrutiny at the Capitol. 

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.