Editorial: Wind and solar aren't the enemy in Texas. Neither is natural gas.

State regulators appear poised to shun renewable energy in its energy market reforms.

Some politicians in Texas, and their enabling cable news hosts, would like nothing better than for us all to think the oil companies are run by patriotic wildcatters donning 10-gallon hats and American flag pins while the wind and solar farms are being instigated by card-carrying Green Peace members in Birkenstocks.

In truth, there's a lot of overlap. And these once very distinct energy industries are finding ways to coexist, adapt and evolve into hopeful new hybrid organizations. 

Six months ago, the London-based oil giant Shell announced it would begin selling electricity generated from renewable sources to residents and businesses in Texas. 

Fossil fuel companies in Texas are rushing to file applications for the Chapter 313 incentive program before it expires on Dec. 31 in order to build wind and solar energy projects. 

Even Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — who rakes in campaign contributions from oil and gas donors and helped push a pernicious falsehood that renewable energy sources were to blame for power outages during Winter Storm Uri  — acknowledged to a group within the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last spring that having a diverse energy portfolio is good for Texas. 

“You can have fossil fuels while at the very same time be leaders in renewable energy,” Abbott said. “We’ve got to be very clear that all forms of energy are essential.”  Where's that guy when he's talking to Sean Hannity? We'd like to hear more from him. 

Fossil fuel purveyors and boosters alike seem to all agree that renewable energy is here to stay. Total electricity generation from renewable sources has risen fourfold during the past 10 years and its share of total power production has increased from 8 percent to 25 percent. Texas is the national leader in clean energy capacity, and it's not particularly close. Texas brought 7,352 megawatts of new wind, solar, and energy storage projects online this year, with another 20,000 megawatts in development, far outpacing runner-up California in both categories.  

Yet even as our grid becomes increasingly reliant on renewable power, there will still be a need in the short term for high-efficiency, dispatchable thermal energy —  mostly from natural gas — that can fill in the generation gaps when weather conditions don't favor wind and solar. 

Unfortunately, instead of a planned transition, the Public Utility Commission appears intent on incentivizing thermal power at the expense of long-term investments in clean energy. Texas' energy regulator released a report last month authored by E3, a San Francisco-based energy consulting firm, to study proposals for how the state's new electricity market should function. The commission settled on a market design that would give generators extra money for providing power during the highest-demand periods. Conspicuously excluded from this proposal are renewable energy sources such as wind and solar that could supply markedly cheaper energy than natural gas and coal. 

In fact, the authors of the report suggested that a "subset" of PUC commissioners favored market design proposals that "would exclude the participation of wind and solar resources" in the long run. 

That shameless admission is hardly surprising given the chummy relationship state officials have with oil and gas. As the Chronicle's Shelby Webb noted recently, Abbott — who appointed each of the five PUC commissioners — wrote to the PUC in July and asked them to create more incentives to develop and maintain thermal sources of power such as natural gas and coal, and that renewable energy generators should pay additional costs when they don't provide power to the grid. Six of the 12 members appointed to the Legislature's State Energy Plan Advisory Committee, which studied how the power market should be redesigned, work for thermal generators or companies that produce natural gas. If you wanted to rig the state's energy market to shun renewable energy, this is how you'd do it. 

That's bad news for residential consumers, particularly since wind and solar are often the most reliable energy sources during times of peak demand. When an extreme heat wave brought Texas' grid to the brink this past summer, wind and solar sources accounted for nearly 40 percent of the state's energy output

Wind and solar have kept electric bills from soaring out of control. A recent study found that renewable energy sources reduced wholesale energy costs in Texas by $7.4 billion in the first eight months of this year, creating average monthly savings of $925 million. Over the past 12 years, solar and wind power has saved Texas residents a whopping $28 billion. 

In its market redesign study for the PUC, E3 noted that in every proposal it modeled, the wind and solar industry would save the state $4 billion annually.  "Right now the price of natural gas is two to three times higher than it has been in the past, the price of coal is twice as much. If we build more of those power plants, we're going to pay more for electricity," Joshua Rhodes, a research scientist at UT Austin who specializes in energy systems, told the editorial board. 

Why, then, is the commission so keen on incentivizing thermal energy that is both more expensive and less reliable? 

While it's imperative for power generators across the state to continue to invest in energy sources that reduce our carbon footprint, natural gas and coal plants do still have some advantages over wind and solar. While those renewables are still largely contingent on weather conditions, thermal energy sources can typically — Winter Storm Uri being a notable and catastrophic exception — be dispatched to the grid year-round. The growth in battery technology that can store and distribute renewable power to businesses and homes should increase over time, but for the time being oil and gas will continue to play an outsized role in power generation. 

What we don't need is lawmakers putting their thumbs on the scale to reward fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy. During the last legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick unsuccessfully sought to shift the financial burden of providing ancillary energy services — the break-in-case-of-emergency reserve power generators that supply the grid for short periods of peak demand — entirely onto wind and solar producers. In remarks last week unveiling his legislative priorities for the 2023 session, Patrick once again is signaling his intention to favor natural gas-powered plants, referring to wind and solar power as a "luxury." 

Perhaps Patrick should listen to businesses such as Amazon and Google, which are setting up shop in Texas and investing heavily in renewable power. Those corporate behemoths played an outsized role in pushing back against the Legislature's attempt to target wind and solar energy and protect oil and gas interests. 

It seems everyone but our state legislators understand that renewable energy and fossil fuels don't have to be mutually exclusive. If we want to keep the lights on for the foreseeable future, especially during severe weather events, we need as much reliable thermal power available as possible. But our short-term needs shouldn't derail Texas from the long-term goal of having an efficient, more affordable grid powered mostly by clean energy. If we want to remain the nation's leader in renewable energy, we can't treat it like an inconvenience. 

Republished from an editorial from The Editorial Board of the Houston Chronicle.

< Go Back

© 2012-2024 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.