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Lawmakers push against renewable energy in hearings on the Texas grid

Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

State lawmakers held two days of hearings this week on changes made to the Texas power grid in response to last year's big blackout. The meetings touched on everything from infrastructure improvements to the higher cost of energy in Texas. But they also provided a preview into what lawmakers will focus on grid-wise in next year's legislative session. That preview may worry renewable energy advocates.

Since the 2021 blackout, officials have concentrated on increasing the amount of electricity available to the grid that can be turned off and on when needed. That type of energy production, often called “dispatchable” in policy conversations, could come from a number of sources, including battery storage or natural gas power plants.

The degree to which more dispatchable power is actually needed is a matter of debate. Some energy experts point out that reducing demand for electricity makes more sense economically and financially than building new capacity. Others say that a geographically dispersed mix of wind and solar generation can reliably provide a significant majority of the state’s energy needs, even though the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.

But in the first day of hearings Wednesday, some Republican lawmakers used the call for dispatchable energy to further a longstanding push against renewable power in favor of building more natural gas power plants.

“I think we need to figure out what percentage of our grid can be renewables and what's the best approach to do that,” state Rep. Matt Shaheen said, suggesting renewables should have a hard cap.

“If we want people to build a gas-fired generator, what do we have to have [happen]?” state Rep. Phil King asked.

Pushing against the headwinds

The comments come as renewable energy is proliferating on the Texas power grid.

Last year, nearly a quarter of the electricity used in Texas came from renewable sources. In the first three months of this year, 34% of all energy consumed came from wind and solar power, outpacing even natural gas generation, according to a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

The future of the Texas grid looks even greener. The current list of energy projects in the works shows the vast majority of planned new generators will be a combination of wind, solar and battery storage.

It is against those headwinds that cheerleaders of the fossil fuel industry in the Texas Legislature are pushing.

“The way it is now, renewables is growing like this," King said, acknowledging the discrepancy, “and gas is growing like this. And how do you flip that around?”

Market realities

King posed his questions to Katie Coleman, a lobbyist for the Texas Association of Manufacturers, the largest consumers of electricity in the state. Her answer illustrated the catch 22 faced by lawmakers who support competitive markets, but also want to see reinvestment in fossil fuel-powered generation.

“In a deregulated market, you cannot guarantee that that money is going to go to dispatchable investment,” she said. “It may get pocketed, it may go to solar, it may go to some other technology.”

Further complicating any push for a buildout of natural gas generators is the current high cost of natural gas.

“There's a strong case to be made that if you pair wind and [energy] storage together, it can provide comparable reliability benefits to the system at a lower cost than gas,” Carrie Bevins, the independent market monitor for the Texas electric grid, told lawmakers.

While that market reality could be bad news for the future of natural gas power plants, it’s good news for efforts to combat global climate change. Those efforts require a rapid transition to non-fossil-fuel power if they are to be successful.

Copyright 2022 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.