Texas Leaders Shut Renewables Out in Planning the Power Grid’s Future

Source: By Russell Gold, Texas Monthly • Posted: Sunday, August 21, 2022

On a state advisory committee, only one member has experience developing wind or solar power. And he’s voiced some eyebrow-raising ideas.

Texas Energy Advisory Committee Leaves Out Renewables
Texas Monthly; Getty

At last count, there were 214 wind farms and 111 solar farms in Texas. Dozens more are under construction, and hundreds more under consideration. Those in operation generate about a quarter of the state’s electricity, and both wind and solar broke electrical output records this year. Solar, in particular, has emerged this summer as a breakout star in preventing blackouts.

So after Texas leaders created an advisory committee last year and charged it with devising a “comprehensive state energy plan” to fix what ails the power grid, you would think someone on that committee would have a substantial history of developing renewable energy in Texas. You would be wrong.

Not only that, but the only member of the committee with any experience at all in renewable energy (mostly in China) has raised unorthodox ideas that veer into the realm of conspiracy theory.

E. Patrick Jenevein III, a 64-year-old Dallas businessman, introduced himself to a Texas Senate committee in 2021 as a U.S. defense contractor and former wind-farm developer with “over a quarter of a century working with the Communist Party’s biggest defense contractor in China.” Lieutenant governor Dan Patrick looked at Jenevein’s CV and decided he was the right person to help plot the future of Texas energy.

According to attendees at the committee’s first meeting, in June, Jenevein asked a panel comprising two top executives of the Texas power grid and a meteorologist whether it was true that wind farms can change the earth’s magnetic field. (“No way,” says Patricia Reiff, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University, when I asked if this was possible.) His question was met with uncomfortable silence. At the second meeting, earlier this month, Jenevein asked a variation of the question, according to someone in attendance: Could the use of renewable energy alter the earth’s magnetic field and affect the climate? (Again, not a chance, says Reiff.)

It’s unclear whether Jenevein has any experience building wind or solar farms in Texas’s complicated, competitive marketplace. His company, Tang Energy Group, built a couple of wind farms and some gas power plants in China in the late nineties and early aughts, in partnership with a large Chinese defense contractor, according to court records.

In 2008, Jenevein created a Dallas-based company, Soaring Wind Energy, to develop wind farms in the U.S. in partnership with the state-owned Chinese defense contractor. “Soaring Wind Energy’s sole objective was to build wind farms around the world that used Chinese equipment,” he said on a 2016 Council on Foreign Relations podcast. “Starting in one of the best markets in the world, Texas, was a natural for us.”

E. Patrick Jenevein III. Texas Energy Advisory Committee
E. Patrick Jenevein III.LM Otero/AP

The effort appears to have generated more lawyer’s fees than megawatts. Jenevein got into a dispute with his Chinese partner, Aviation Industry Corporation of China, over whether it was honoring a noncompete clause in the deal. The sides sued each other and ended up in arbitration. Jenevein and his fellow investors were awarded $62.9 million by an arbitration panel. It appears that Soaring Wind developed one project in Texas, a small ten-megawatt wind farm at a cottonseed mill in Lubbock. The Chinese-made turbines supply power to the mill, not directly to the broader Texas grid.

Since the legal imbroglio, Jenevein has been a critic of Chinese investment in the United States. In 2021, he testified in favor of the Lone Star Infrastructure Protection Act, a bill enacted by the Legislature that aims to protect the state’s power grid from incursions by potentially hostile foreign nations, including China. Will Hurd, a former Republican congressman and intelligence officer, also testified in favor of the legislation: “The problem is not building a wind farm. The problem is allowing a company that has deep roots with the Chinese government to put power into our grid.”

Jenevein now also believes that allowing China access to the Texas power grid is a bad idea. He worries about it using wind farms as a Trojan horse for cyberattacks. In his Texas Senate testimony, he said China’s “intent is seriously nefarious.” It’s not clear what led to his change of heart, but it’s a significant about-face from when he championed a Chinese beachhead in the Texas power grid.

If his earlier judgment about China was wrong—according to his own words—why should Texas trust his insights into the future of the state’s grid? Texas Monthly wanted to pose that question and others to both Jenevein and Patrick, but neither returned our emails.

It would seem reasonable to have at least one member on the state’s future-of-the-grid committee with experience building the kind of large, 200-plus-megawatt wind farms that sit near the West Texas town of McCamey, instead of in China’s Xinjiang province.

“More than a quarter of the state’s power comes from renewable energy, and it is such a key to keeping costs down. We ought to be in the room,” says Jeff Clark, president of the Advanced Power Alliance, which lobbies in Texas and other states for power grids underpinned by a mix of natural gas and renewables.

Yet Patrick, Governor Greg Abbott, and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan each appointed four members, and none were renewable developers. There were no requirements regarding representation in the law that created the committee during the last legislative session, but the exclusion was noteworthy, especially considering who was appointed.

The largest bloc of the twelve-member committee is four members who are executives at utilities or cooperatives, including the chairman, Phil Wilson, general manager at the Lower Colorado River Authority. ConocoPhillips, Pioneer Natural Resources, and Apache—all large producers of oil and gas—each have an executive on the committee. There is also a representative from NRG, which owns a nuclear power plant in Texas and lots of gas-fired power plants. Other members include an investment banker, a former gas turbine executive, and a former director of the state’s power grid.

At its public meeting in June, the committee heard from twenty witnesses, including the state’s top fossil-fuel cheerleader, Todd Staples, the head of the Texas Oil and Gas Association. None of the witnesses were connected to renewable energy, according to the Dallas Morning News.

It is only an advisory committee. We don’t know what’s included in its draft report, which won’t be made public until it is submitted to the Legislature, and its recommendations might be ignored when lawmakers convene again under the pink dome next year. But based on the committee’s membership, it’s hard to see how renewable energy will get a fair hearing.