Texas Renewable Energy Faces Hurdles in Legislature

CPS Energy's Blue Wing Solar Farm in San Antonio is the largest solar array in Texas and is capable of producing enough electricity to power 1,800 households.
CPS Energy's Blue Wing Solar Farm in San Antonio is the largest solar array in Texas and is capable of producing enough electricity to power 1,800 households.

During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama doubled down on his vision for renewable energy, calling for more wind and solar power.

In Texas, the Legislature is less enthusiastic.

As the session progresses, renewable energy advocates are bracing to defend critical policies that have helped Texas become the leading wind-power state. The ascendancy of the Tea Party, an abundance of cheap natural gas and tighter budgets have reduced the sway of the wind industry. Solar power advocates anticipate limited gains at best.

Clean energy basked in political popularity about a decade ago, as wind farms sprouted atop West Texas mesas. In 2005, Gov. Rick Perry and lawmakers approved a mandate to build 5,880 megawatts of renewable power capacity by 2015. They also backed the construction of billions of dollars’ worth of transmission lines to reach wind farms.

But Texas’s renewable energy push has “been eclipsed by the effect of fracking,” said Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, referring to the drilling technology that prompted the natural gas boom.

The wind industry will focus on renewing a tax incentive for economic development known as Chapter 313. It allows wind farms to temporarily lower their property tax bills. The incentive, which also helps other industries, expires next year. Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Texas City, has filed legislation, House Bill 621, to renew it until 2024.

“If it’s not renewed, my companies will be investing in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska,” said Jeffrey Clark, the executive director of the Wind Coalition, a regional advocacy group.

Wind groups will also guard against attacks on the renewable energy mandate. Last month, the Public Utility Commission, which regulates the power industry, recommended that lawmakers repeal it. The commission’s chairwoman, Donna Nelson, has criticized wind power for straining the power grid, an assertion rejected by the industry.

With more than 12,000 megawatts of wind power and expectations of further growth thanks to Congress’s recent extension of a crucial federal tax credit, Texas has long since met the mandate’s requirements, so a repeal is arguably irrelevant. Advocates of wind power fear the symbolism of the move and the potential ramifications for a related system of renewable energy credits.

The precedent created by such a policy change would be “a really scary thing for the industry,” said Colin Meehan, an official with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Conservatives disagree. “Wind is a very mature industry here in Texas, and it doesn’t need those subsidies anymore,” said Bill Peacock, the director of the Center for Economic Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The anti-mandate mood bodes poorly for advocates of solar power, who have long sought a special “non-wind” requirement to help their technology. Nonetheless, Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, introduced HB 723, which would set a goal of 1,500 megawatts of non-wind renewable installations by 2022, a substantial amount. And Strama plans to introduce a bill that would ensure that Texans with rooftop solar panels are paid if they put extra power (beyond what they use at home) onto the electric grid.

Renewable energy groups will also emphasize their ability to deliver  power that uses no water, which is especially important during a drought.

Advocates’ greatest hopes may center on a program meant to make it easier for businesses to install solar panels or to improve energy and water efficiency. The idea is to allow property owners to pay for the improvements through higher property tax assessments, after borrowing the money initially. This strategy has several financing benefits.

Two powerful committee chairmen, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, and Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Granbury, have introduced bills to ease regulatory hurdles for businesses wanting to participate.

The program is “an amazing economic development opportunity,” said Charlene Heydinger, executive director of Keeping PACE in Texas, a group advocating for it.

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