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Texas is a leader in renewable energy. Local politicians want to change that

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Texas is known for its big oil and gas industry. But despite that reputation, the state leads the country in wind power. Soon, it will generate more solar power than any other state. But that trend towards cleaner, renewable energy is something Texas lawmakers want to reverse. Mose Buchele has been covering this from member station KUT in Austin and joins us now. Thank you for being with us.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Thank you.

RASCOE: So how did Texas become a leader in renewable energy?

BUCHELE: So Texas has its own power grid. It's kind of unique that way. And for the last 20 years or so, there's been this turf war, basically, over using fossil fuel for the grid or renewables. Each kind of energy source wants more of that grid. And wind and solar honestly have just kind of been kicking butt. So for decades, a lot of your coal and your natural gas plants have been losing market share to renewables.

RASCOE: But local politicians - they don't like that?

BUCHELE: No, no, no, no. Yeah, a lot of Texas state politicians really like fossil fuels. You know, they see oil and gas as good for the economy. They don't really concern themselves much with human-caused climate change. And it's definitely worth noting that a lot of them get a lot of contributions from the oil and gas industry, too. So for years, some have been trying to put the brakes on renewables.

RASCOE: So right now, state lawmakers are meeting in Austin. And what are they trying to do?

BUCHELE: So this time around, they're framing this as a way to fix the power grid. Do you remember that big blackout in Texas a couple of years ago?

RASCOE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I remember that.

BUCHELE: So everyone here does too, still. Ever since then, policymakers have been talking about improving the grid. So what's happening now is that this debate over how to fix the grid has kind of gotten tangled up with this anti-renewable effort. Here's Republican State Senator Phil King just the other week. He's one of the people spearheading this push.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHIL KING: The simple solution is you've got to reduce renewables and increase dispatchables.

BUCHELE: By dispatchables here he means natural gas power plants. They have an on and off switch, right? They're not dependent on the weather, the wind or the sun. So Phil King and others have bills that would finance natural gas plants with billions of public dollars - $10 billion, in fact. They have bills to limit renewable growth. One proposal would actually put a hard cap on renewable development, make no more than 50% of new energy projects renewable. There are plans to make renewable power more expensive. They're just a whole lot of bills floating around.

RASCOE: But not everyone agrees with these bills. Like, what are lawmakers who oppose this saying?

BUCHELE: A lot of Democrats are against it. Some Republicans are also worried about the costs. Environmental and consumer groups are calling it a big giveaway to energy companies. You know, when you talk to energy experts, most will say we do need energy sources with that on and off switch as the state grows. What's not really clear is how much needs to be gas power plants. Joshua Rhodes is an energy researcher at the University of Texas. He says battery storage is already starting to fill this gap.

JOSHUA RHODES: It has that on and off switch, and it can take some of the super cheap electricity that comes from things like renewables and then dispatch it whenever things are tighter.

BUCHELE: The bottom line is that almost no one outside of politics says the state needs less renewable power.

RASCOE: So if the Texas legislature does cut renewables and fund more natural gas, what could this mean for the rest of the country?

BUCHELE: You know, the Biden administration is primed to spend billions to increase renewables, to lower carbon emissions, to fight climate change. Texas Republican lawmakers say these policies counteract that at the state level. So it wouldn't surprise me to see some of these same policies and same arguments repeated in other red states.

RASCOE: Mose Buchele, energy and environment reporter at KUT in Austin, thank you so much for joining us.

BUCHELE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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.