Lessons from a red state in how to go green under Republicans

Source: By Daniel Cohan, The Hill • Posted: Monday, November 28, 2016

The presidential election results have been deemed “a disaster” for renewable energy.

The presidential candidate touting empty promises for coal trumped the one advocating ambitious plans for solar. Meanwhile, Republicans retained control of the House and Senate.

How can progress toward renewables be maintained under a Republican government?

Supporters of renewable energy need look no further than Texas to see how green energy can thrive in a deeply red state.

Here in my home state, Republicans have controlled all branches of government for over two decades. Yet green power has thrived.

Texas leads the nation in wind power, with nearly triple the capacity of the nearest state. Meanwhile, solar power is expected to replace most of the state’s retiring coal capacity over the next 15 years.

How did this Republican-led state become a leader in renewables? The answer can be summed up in two lessons: infrastructure investment and independent initiative.

For infrastructure, Texas faced a chicken-and-egg problem that stifled wind and solar. Our sunniest and windiest areas lie in the west and Panhandle, but most of our population resides in a “Texas Triangle” linking Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.

Wind farm developers couldn’t tap the windiest parts of the state, for lack of high-voltage transmission capacity to move wind power to consumers. Meanwhile, utilities balked at building transmission lines to remote areas where wind farms had yet to be built.

Texas grid managers overcame this quandary by creating Competitive Renewable Energy Zones. These zones targeted transmission investments to areas best suited for wind power development. Utilities built 3,600 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, opening access to 18,500 megawatts of wind power statewide.

Such a massive infrastructure investment didn’t come cheaply, with a price tag of nearly $7 billion. True to conservative principles, the cost was borne not by the state government but as surcharges on electric bills.

Despite the surcharges, ratepayers will likely save money overall. That’s because transmission costs are more than offset by an estimated $2 billion per year in savings from unleashing cheaper wind power. In fact, power prices have fallen so dramatically that many of the state’s coal plants struggle to compete.

The shift from coal to wind has brought cleaner air and water, along with economic stimulus to impoverished windy regions of the state. Furthermore, as solar costs continue to plummet, the added transmission capacity is expected to help solar replace retirements of coal plants.

The Texas investments in power grid infrastructure could readily be emulated nationally. Infrastructure investment was one of the few priorities emphasized by both major presidential candidates and across party lines in Congress. Its potential to add blue-collar jobs while benefiting the environment adds to its bipartisan political appeal.

Though Trump has only vaguely defined his plans for infrastructure, investing in the electric grid should be a top priority. The American Society of Civil Engineers ratesour nation’s energy infrastructure a dismal D+. The aging U.S. power grid lags far behind those in Europe and Japan.

Investments are needed not only to link windy and sunny zones with cities, but also to modernize the grid to accommodate fluctuating supply as wind and solar power proliferate. The National Renewable Energy Lab has shown how enhanced operation of the grid could enable wind and solar to reliably supply over 35 percent of electric power.

Investments could address another chicken-and-egg problem as well: purchases of electric cars and construction of charging stations. Building out charging infrastructure could catalyze faster adoption of electric vehicles. Such vehicles offer our greatest hope to curb oil demand and eventually slash emissions, as electricity is increasingly produced by renewables or nuclear power.

Investing in the energy grid allows green power to piggy-back upon what will likely be a bipartisan federal movement to revitalize our nation’s infrastructure. That lets green energy ride the wave of federal priorities, rather than swim upstream against political opposition.

Some Democrats have questioned whether they should cooperate at all with President-elect Trump, while writers such as Brad Plumer of Vox have explained why Trump’s initial outline of an infrastructure plan would fail to address the nation’s needs. However, this highlights the need to develop a better plan, not to walk away.

Meanwhile, the other key to green energy success in Texas — independent initiative — requires no federal action at all. Instead, it empowers anyone at the state, local, and community level to accelerate the adoption of renewables.

Houston and Dallas lead the nation in local government purchases of green power, with Austin close behind. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of 100-percent green power partners highlights numerous Texas businesses, schools and agencies, ranging from The Hoppy Monk brewery to Southwestern University to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Even the conservative town of Georgetown has committed to 100 percent renewables, recognizing the opportunity to lock in affordable power prices for decades to come.

As I have written before, not all green power purchases achieve equal benefit. Green-minded customers must ensure that their purchases actually add new wind and solar power to the grid. Nevertheless, the leadership of Texans in purchasing green power illustrates the synergy of aligning environmental benefits with financial prudence.

None of this minimizes the unexpected headwinds facing renewable energy after the recent elections.

However, momentum toward renewables will continue, thanks to plunging prices and improving technologies that are beyond political control. Infrastructure investments and independent initiatives can accelerate that momentum while benefiting the environment and economy overall.

Learning the lessons from Texas success stories, we can continue to green the grid even in the coming years of red governance. Savvy navigation of the new political landscape offers far more hope than simply waiting for that landscape to change.

Daniel Cohan is associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.