In 2009, environmentalists and other advocates of cleaner-energy and energy-saving measures had particularly high hopes going into that year’s legislative session.

They ended up bitterly disappointed, however, after a number of bills they backed fell just short of passage after running into an unrelated legislative logjam.

Heading into the Legislature’s biennial session this year, advocates of those same goals had pruned their hopes considerably, especially after Gov. Rick Perry thrashed former Houston Mayor Bill White (a renewable energy proponent) in the gubernatorial race and Republicans (many with very conservative Tea Party leanings) soared to a new, overwhelming majority in the House.

Even in those circumstances, however, proponents of renewables, conservation and efficiency are heading toward another largely dispiriting legislative finale at this session’s scheduled adjournment on May 30.

That prospect became clearer last week, after a number of key deadlines for House bills to be passed as standalone measures.

“We trimmed back our aspirations [for this session], but even those were significantly daunted by the resistance to renewables and energy efficiency in the House,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, a group that promotes cleaner energy and energy conservation to protect health and limit climate change.

“We had developed modest proposals for renewables, particularly focusing on developing solar power and other non-wind renewables and have seen no progress on those initiatives,” Smith told TCN Journal.

“There has been modest progress on energy efficiency, but seemingly innocuous energy efficiency improvements go down by thin margins because they’re seen as government interference in the marketplace or government bureaucracy, even though they would have led to significant monetary savings,” he added.

Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, echoed that assessment.

“Industry put a lot of money into the elections and given the national tide, a bunch of people were swept in who are definitely more sympathetic to polluters than to environmental and public health concerns,” he said. “Even some of our allies have veered more to the right because of fears of the Tea Party and some previous allies are less supportive.”

The now-dire prospects for a major bill to boost the state’s solar-power industry – intended to help it match the rapid rise of Texas’ wind-power industry to nation-leading prominence in recent years – are emblematic of the way things appear to be turning out for cleaner-energy proponents this year.

The idea of using fees paid by utility customers to jump-start the solar industry with rebates for solar installations at homes and businesses had solidly bipartisan support.

For instance, Republican Sen. Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, who nearly secured passage of such a bill in 2009, was appointed to chair the Senate Natural Resource Committee this year and reintroduced his proposal.

The solar industry concentrated, however, on trying to win passage of a similar bill by Rep. Drew Darby, a Republican from San Angelo, on the assumption that the House would be a tougher challenge, Smith said.

That assessment turned out to be right. Darby scaled back the proposed fees, aimed at raising $300 million to $400 million for the five-year rebate program, after running into opposition from the Texas Association of Manufacturers (representing industrial power buyers) and some utilities. But after the House deadlines last week, the bill had still not received needed approval in that chamber.

In April, the San Angelo Standard-Times had quoted a policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin, explaining its opposition to Darby’s bill:

“This should all be about the consumer and giving the consumer the best price available, the best choices available, the best access to the market available and if we are passing bills that raise fees and raise the price on the consumer in order to come back and charge them for inefficient energy, that doesn’t even pass the sniff test with us.”

While other legislative avenues technically remain open in the session’s waning days, chances seem dim, at best, for the solar proposal. The Austin American-Statesman reported that it “appears to be toast.” Smith said while the House version itself is dead, the concept still has “some potential” but success is unlikely at this point.

Fans of energy conservation were celebrating last week, however, when the House gave final, bipartisan passage to a Senate-passed bill by Republican Sen. John Carona of Dallas that would revise the methods for utilities to operate state-required energy efficiency programs.

Advocates said the program would be more stable as a result, without earlier fluctuations caused by decreased electricity demand.

The Businesses for an Energy Efficient Texas coalition estimated the bill would increase spending on efficiency measures from a previously expected $103 million to $117 million in 2013 and from $115 million to $120 million in 2014.

In a last-minute effort to head off House passage last week, the Texas Public Policy Foundation asserted in an email to legislative staff members that it was “quite likely that the millions of dollars paid by Texas consumers to support this expansion would be wasted” because projected savings would probably be offset by program costs.

At the start of the session, Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had won praise from environmentalists and others when he floated the idea – as described to TCN Journal by an aide – of “gradually increasing the use of cleaner-burning Texas natural gas through market-based incentives, so we can continue to improve air quality, create more Texas jobs, increase our energy independence and provide for the future energy needs of our growing population.”

It was thought that Dewhurst was inspired, at least in part, by a Colorado law passed last year. Aimed at reducing that state’s air pollution, it would encourage and provide incentives for utilities to replace coal with natural gas, which produces less conventional health-damaging air pollution and less climate-warming greenhouse emissions.

As embodied in a bill sponsored by Fraser, which has passed the Senate but still requires House action, Dewhurst’s coal-to-gas concept has evolved into a proposal to create a new Texas Energy Policy Council. The body would draft a state energy plan that would be proposed to lawmakers for their action.

As it now stands, cleaner-energy advocates are hopeful that the measure might result in the retirement of the oldest power-producing facilities, both coal- and gas-fired, representing about a fifth of Texas’ electricity-generating capacity, Smith said.

Dewhurst deserves credit for realizing that old gas-fired plants, as well as old coal facilities, can have negative impacts on water quality, he added, though the “most immediate benefit would be cleaner air in urban areas.”

The energy planning bill does have one section that renewables proponents hope will be removed as it moves through the final steps of the legislative process.

The provision would amend the state’s current law on renewable energy, saying it is “intended to increase the amount of renewable generating capacity” but “is not intended, unless specifically stated otherwise in this section, to provide operational or competitive advantages through Electric Reliability Council of Texas protocols to renewable energy generators to the detriment of other generation resources.”

There is concern that this language might be interpreted by ERCOT, which operates the power grid in most of the state, to take actions in applying market rules that could hamper the state’s booming wind industry, Metzger said.

When the planning bill won committee approval in the Senate, Fraser’s office issued a statement explaining its intent:

The 12-member Texas Energy Planning Council will be charged with encouraging cooperation and coordination between public and private entities regarding energy usage, planning, research and development and commercialization. The plan must include policies that promote a diverse portfolio of clean, reliable, and competitively priced energy sources while also considering the impact of those policies on the environment.

“I expect the Texas Energy Planning Council will develop policies that ensure fuel resources are utilized in a balanced and efficient manner,” Fraser stated. “The recommendations from the Council will be a key part of future decisions as future Texas Legislatures consider various legislation.”

The legislation would also require the Public Utility Commission to prepare a report on electric energy generation. The report would evaluate measures that would maintain electric grid reliability, ensure reasonable electric rates, reduce air pollution, and reduce the use [of] water by electric generators. It must identify the 10 percent of electric generation capacity that will be most impacted by compliance with environmental regulations.

“I believe this report on electric energy generation will give policy makers the right information as we move forward,” said Fraser. “This report will identify combinations of market factors, plant operating characteristics and environmental regulations that might show that closing an electric generation plant is more economically feasible than complying with new regulations.

– Bill Dawson

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons