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Texas state lawmakers unveil plan to curb renewable energy, subsidize natural gas

Courtesy of Gabriel C. Pérez

The story of what comes next for the Texas power grid took another twist Thursday as state senators unveiled a package of bills aimed at dramatically reducing renewable energy generation in Texas while pushing public money toward the construction of natural gas power plants.

Lawmakers pitched the bills as a way to increase energy reliability in response to the catastrophic 2021 blackout. But the proposals rely on discouraging Texas' fastest growing energy sources – wind and solar power – while incentivizing the construction of natural gas power plants that will take years to build.

Failures at gas plants in freezing weather were the primary cause of the 2021 blackout.

“We know that it will take several years from this day forward to get [power] plants in the ground to add more power,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said at a press conference touting the bills. “But this is the beginning of that process.”

The plan to create a backup fleet of power plants, outlined in Senate Bill 6, is not a new one. It was first proposed last legislative session by the company Berkshire Hathaway as a way to protect Texas from further blackouts.

"This program is a true backup program,” said Georgetown Republican Sen. Charles Schwertner, one of the authors of the bill. “That's why people buy generators for their home. The same reason that Texas needs its own backup generation.”

He said Senate Bill 6 would also create a bank of public money to help finance the maintenance and operations of existing power plants.

Another bill, Senate Bill 607, would force wind and solar power generators to pay a sort of credit to guarantee they can deliver power, something that would increase the cost of renewable energy in Texas.

Still another bill, Senate Bill 2015, would require at least 50% of new power generators built to be “dispatchable” generators.

State lawmakers often use the term “dispatchable” to refer to fossil fuel and nuclear generators, which can be turned off and on, and are not dependent on the wind or sun to generate power.

Senate Bill 2015 would also direct state regulators to encourage the marketing of gas-generated electricity as "green" energy.

Doubling down

Raising the cost of renewable energy on the grid, and investing billions into new power generation infrastructure would all-but guarantee higher energy bills for consumers. It would also increase pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas use.

'It’s essentially saying we, the State of Texas, do not join with the rest of the world in looking to a brighter, cleaner energy future,” said Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star Sierra Club. “We're going to double down on the use of gas going forward.”

Environmental advocates, like Reed, as well as many energy analystssay the Texas grid does not need a massive investment in new gas power generators to bolster its reliability.

Instead, they say, improvements to energy efficiency and energy conservation programs would be cheaper and easier to implement.

When it comes to many of the state senators’ proposals, Reed said, “those costs ultimately all flow to consumers."

The state Senate plan comes in response to a proposal to overhaul the Texas energy market, approved by the Public Utility Commission of Texas and supported by Gov. Greg Abbott.

But state senators also framed their plan as a reaction to the Biden administration's efforts to combat climate change by encouraging the growth of wind and solar power.

Federal policy “certainly incents more and more solar, more and more wind," said Rep. Schwertner, pointing out that every year more renewable energy is flowing over the Texas grid.

“Over time, we'll turn the dial back.”

Copyright 2023 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.