Already No. 1 in wind power, and home to a fast-growing solar industry, Texas is poised to become a renewable energy powerhouse — timely because President Biden’s climate bill is about to deliver billions in subsidies.
“Every state has legislation related to the placement of projects, but what we’re seeing in Texas is far beyond anything we’ve seen anywhere else,” said Jeff Clark, chief executive of the Advanced Power Alliance, an Austin-based trade group for renewable energy companies. “The aggressiveness of some of this legislation and the volume is unprecedented.”
Texas embraces a famously laissez-faire approach to energy development, but now some of its most anti-regulatory lawmakers are pushing new rules and permitting requirements for solar and wind, while backing measures that would bolster natural gas. Some Republicans have justified these moves by arguing that renewable energy is inherently unreliable and that more fossil fuels are needed to avoid another electricity blackout crisis — even though most of the loss of generating capacity during the 2021 outage came from gas power plants.
Other GOP officials say they are acting, in part, because the rapid expansion of solar and wind projects threatens the scenic character and way of the life of the state’s rural communities.
Solar and wind developers and environmental groups say these arguments are a cover for a politically driven effort to penalize renewables. After years of enjoying a hands-off environment, they say renewable energy has gotten caught up in a polarized culture war that has conservative state lawmakers attacking the industry to establish their national bona fides.
One of the bills in question would require large-scale wind and solar farms to win the approval of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, whose members are appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a staunch supporter of fossil fuels. New projects would be subject to a state environmental impact review, developers would have to pay a yearly fee, and they would need a new permit anytime they made significant changes to existing projects. Senate Bill 624 would also require wind turbines to be built at least 3,000 feet from any property lines — a little more than half a mile — a distance Clark called “absurd.”
The bill’s supporters include Houston billionaire Dan Friedkin, chairman and chief executive of the Friedkin Group, a collection of automotive and travel companies. Friedkin — who also co-owns film production and marketing companies — has not said why he is backing the measure. A lobbyist for the company who registered its support did not respond to messages seeking comment.
But some rural landowners in Texas have banded together to torpedo solar and wind projects, and Friedkin is the owner of the sprawling Comanche Maverick Ranch near Carrizo Springs. State records show he has previously intervened to prevent an electric transmission line from being built on the property, saying it would harm the ranch’s aesthetics, fragment wildlife habitat and lead to increased illegal drug trafficking.
Friedkin is not alone — standing behind the bill is a group of landowners, called the Texas Real Estate Advocacy and Defense Coalition, whose members say they are alarmed by the size and number of solar farms popping up across the state, particularly near pristine landscapes and in areas where developers have cut down trees to clear land. While some landowners have cited environmental concerns, others have claimed that nearby renewable projects are lowering their property values.
Jessica Karlsruher, the coalition’s executive director, cited the case of a landowner near the town of Waco whose property will eventually be surrounded by a solar farm. “That is not a NIMBY issue. That [solar project] has changed the way she wanted to steward her land,” Karlsruher said. “We wanted to see if we could do something about putting up guardrails.”
Yet major environmental groups in Texas have opposed the bill, saying it unfairly targets renewable energy in a state where oversight of the oil, gas and petrochemical industries is lax. A state government review last year found the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s leaders have become “reluctant regulators,” and, rather than emphasizing enforcement, its policies encourage “industry members to self-govern and self-police.”
“This feels like weaponizing regulations,” said Adrian Shelley, director of the advocacy group Public Citizen’s Texas office. “If the bill’s author were serious about this, she’d be applying it to all sources of energy.”
The renewable energy industry’s lagging political support might seem surprising in a state where wind and solar projects have proliferated. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that Texas will get almost 40 percent of its power this year from carbon-free sources.
But Nathan Jensen, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the industry, as a whole, has not excelled at coalition-building either within the business community or among environmental groups. He also noted that some wind and solar developers have been bad neighbors, barely communicating with nearby property owners and aggressively pursuing tax breaks.
“A lot of people thought that as you build out wind and solar and it becomes mainstream, their political power is going to increase dramatically,” Jensen said. “And this is a point in contrast.”
Other bills that have made it through the Texas Senate and are pending in the House would increase Texas’s use of natural gas. One measure calls for spending taxpayer dollars to build a fleet of new gas-fired power plants — it has the backing of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy.
Another would replace the state’s multibillion-dollar corporate tax break program with a new version that excludes wind and solar energy projects, preventing them from taking advantage of the incentives. Lawmakers in the House approved the measure last week. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) had championed the change, claiming that most of the benefits were going to the wind industry.
Renewable energy advocates said this package of bills could bring the industry’s growth to a sudden halt.
In 2023, for the second year in a row, the EIA expects Texas to lead the nation in solar power growth by installing roughly 7.7 gigawatts of new capacity — beating California’s expected 4.2 gigawatts. Its wind industry, which has been steadily expanding for more than a decade, is expected to lead the United States as well in new development.
While this rapid expansion has angered some rural landowners, it has benefited others eager to lease their property. It has also boosted local governments’ tax revenue.
For years before the wind industry came to town, the Robert Lee Independent School District in West Texas was operating out of a 1954 building with asbestos tiles and no air conditioning, said Aaron Hood, the district’s superintendent. But as wind turbines began to dot the landscape, and the local tax base increased, the district of about 280 students was able to issue a bond to pay for a new school building.
“Wind and solar have been really the only economic development that exists in our area. Samsung and Tesla are not going to come to West Texas,” said Hood. As president of the Texas Association of Rural Schools, he worries that other small school districts poised to benefit from the state’s solar boom may not be able to cash in if lawmakers pass the slate of bills.
“Without these projects coming to Texas, they would have no hope of any true increase in revenue,” he said.