As Texas legislative session nears end, Republican lawmakers try one last push against renewables
“Self-defeating,” “discouraging” and “backward-looking.” These are just some of the words that renewable energy advocates have used to describe the 2023 Texas legislative session.
Now, with only a few days left before the session ends, it could become even worse.
The reason is an 11th hour effort by state senators to push through some of the proposals considered most damaging to Texas’ wind and solar sector, many of which had been introduced in standalone bills earlier in the session but failed to win enough support to become law.
The policies have now been resurrected and added as amendments to a make-or-break piece of legislation to continue the operation of the state's Public Utility Commission, known as a sunset bill.
It will be voted on by state representatives this weekend.
"The Senate decided to use that [sunset bill] as a Christmas tree and hang all of their previously rejected, expensive proposals onto it and send it back to the House,” said Doug Lewin, head of Stoic Energy and author of The Texas Energy and Power Newsletter.
Among those proposals are: One that would make it more difficult to build wind and solar projects in Texas by adding layers of regulation not required of other developments; one that would add billionsin costs for renewable power generators to sell electricity in Texas; and one that would make it more expensive for wind and solar farms to connect to the state grid.
Supporters of the proposals say they would increase electric reliability by cracking down on the intermittency of wind and solar power, which rely on the weather to generate electricity. Critics say the plans amount to a massive wealth transfer from consumers to the fossil fuel power sector.
Energy experts and engineers say the policies could, in fact, make the grid less reliable by reducing the state’s power supply.
“The only way to keep the lights on affordably through the end of the decade is to allow wind and solar to keep growing as quickly as they have,” said Daniel Cohan, a civil engineering professor at Rice University who researches the Texas grid.
Lewin believes the proposals would kneecap renewable energy projects across the state and add “tens of billions” of dollars to peoples' energy bills.
"We’re just talking [about] crippling costs for businesses, homeowners, renters throughout the state of Texas," he said. "And they put those into the bill."
A clean sunset?
At the start of the 2023 legislative session, a group of Republican lawmakers in the state Senate, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Charles Schwertner, vowed to incentivize natural gas generators and curtail renewable power.
They have been met with success. One of their proposals — to use $10 billion in public money to finance the construction of new natural gas power plants — has been approved by the full Texas Legislature. Another that reshapes parts of the Texas energy market and re-orders policy at the state Public Utility Commission also passed.
But some of their preferred bills targeting renewables did not get approval by the state House. So, on Wednesday, Schwertner added them to House Bill 1500.
That bill is a must-pass piece of legislation this session because it allows the Public Utility Commission of Texas to continue operating. If it is not passed, the PUC, which regulates utilities and the state power grid, among other things, would technically be abolished.
These bills are called “sunset bills” in Texas legislative jargon because they are a part of a regular “sunset review” process to determine whether a state agency is still necessary or should be dissolved.
It is not uncommon for lawmakers to load up a sunset bill with amendments that relate to the activities of the agency (sometimes called turning a bill into a "Christmas tree"). But the practice is often frowned upon because it subverts the normal legislative process.
“There's been a real effort in the Legislature in recent years to try to keep those bills ‘clean,’" Lewin said. “The Senate has had a very different focus ... motivated by animus, and even vitriol, toward renewable energy.”
The bill, with the new amendments, will now be considered in a reconciliation process by a conference committee made up of members from both the state House and Senate.
State representatives have until Sunday night to finalize all bills. The legislative session ends Monday.