Q&A with Marilu Hastings

Texas has a surprising clean-energy policy story to tell, one based on market initiatives and deregulation rather than a government-driven approach, said Marilu Hastings, vice president of sustainability programs at the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

Those market signals were heard loud and clear last month when VistraEnergy Corp. announced it would retire three Texas coal plants with 4,100 megawatts of capacity. The three plants—Monticello, Sandow and Big Brown—are expected to close early next year, and renewable energy is forecast to become the state’s second-largest source of power, trailing only natural gas. Texas also leads the nation in wind power.

Hastings talked with Bloomberg New Energy Finance about the energy picture in Texas and the foundation.

George Mitchell, who died in 2013 at age 94, established that hydraulic fracturing was a reliable and profitable way to extract oil and gas from shale formations, leading the way for the Texas energy boom. He sold his company, Mitchell Energy & Development, in 2002 for $3.1 billion.

Q: You’ve made the case that Texas is a clean-energy model. How is that so?

A: Before the 2016 election, I had written about Texas as a clean-energy leader and how we did it with a deregulated market. We had some early policy decisions that very conservative governors and legislators had adopted. We were one of the first Renewable Portfolio Standard states, some of the first [with] energy efficiency requirements, we’re great at building codes.

[Former Governors George W.] Bush and [Rick] Perry deregulated the market, then Perry invested the $7 billion in transmission lines to bring the wind power to the cities. We have a slate of infrastructure investments, policies, and market tools.

At the foundation, we want to continue that legacy and explore where markets, [via] investment in things like charging stations for electric vehicles, can continue to be made in this state that will continue to reduce our carbon emissions, water use and land use.

Q: What changes have occurred from deregulation?

A: If not for deregulation, consumers in Texas wouldn’t be able to see the price signals that wind is cheaper. We have a market that was set up for us to already beat the requirements of the Clean Power Plan if it was not defunct.

Now in the past month, you’ve seen the announcement of [coal-fired plants] Big Brown, Sandow and Monticello being closed. That’s not because of environmental action, it’s because of natural gas and some renewables driving coal out of the market. We ought to be cheering that in Texas.

Q: How do you take this approach beyond the power sector?

A: Transportation is the largest share of carbon emissions in Texas. The other two-thirds are industrial emissions and power generation. We have focused on building a center and right-of-center answer to the carbon problem, politically.

Q: How do you do your work?

A: The overall framework for our grantmaking is what we call knowledge-to-action or science-to-policy.

We fund applied research studies and we fund policy work. We don’t do any lobbying. We educate people about a different metric to use in measuring the overall costs and benefits of a particular energy type.

We don’t use carbon emissions as the only way to determine what is good or bad. We look at water, we look at land use, we look at community impact. There’s no clear answer and there’s no perfectly clean energy technology.

Q: What have you found to be the most effective energy combination?

A: Natural gas combined with renewables is the game changer. We aren’t convinced that a 100 percent renewable world is on the horizon or that we’d even want it. So we’re very focused right now on impacts of utility-scale solar and other types on West Texas.

Q: What other concerns are there?

A: Energy sprawl is a concern. Energy is the largest user of undeveloped land. In far West Texas, with the new oil and gas development plus renewables and transmission and pipelines, you have a very undeveloped and beautiful area that’s going to be under intense energy development pressure over the next 20 years.

We’re looking at everything out there including oil and gas and utility-scale solar. There’s $1 billion worth of utility-scale solar to be developed out there on the books. Our calculations show that it will be 450 square miles of solar panels in undeveloped West Texas. That’s the associated roads, storage, everything. It’s a lot of space.

Q: What are the policy solutions?

A: We prefer solar on already developed land, like roofs, and in communities. You save transmission costs. If it’s going to be utility-scale solar, better to have it on already degraded land. Because Texas is privately owned almost exclusively out there, you can’t stop a landowner from setting aside part of his or her land for solar development. We’re exploring what role public policy has in that.

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