June 6, 2009
It wasn’t solar’s time to shine, after all.
The 81st Texas Legislature began with strong interest in cleaner energy — lawmakers filed at least 69 bills related to solar and other forms of renewable power — but ended Monday without the boost for the emerging industry that advocates wanted.
A bill to provide $500 million in rebates for solar panels died late in the session on a procedural maneuver. Without the incentives, the state will likely fall behind others in both harnessing the sun for power and reducing reliance on carbon-emitting fuels, solar-industry backers and environmentalists said.
“Our argument was that this could be our one shot to take the lead, like with wind,” said Luke Metzger, director of the group Environment Texas. “Hopefully, I’m overstating that argument, and there’s still an opportunity two years from now” when the Legislature meets again.
Solar advocates had hoped that lawmakers would repeat their efforts a decade ago to create a wind-power industry that now leads the nation.
But it didn’t happen, even with bipartisan support.
Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat, raised a point about how much low-income consumers would pay to fund the rebate program and used a procedural tactic to delay a vote on the bill until it was too late.
“We can push solar, and that’s great,” Turner said. “But somebody’s got to pay for it. You can’t have those who can barely afford their energy bills subsidizing it.”
The House also didn’t vote on a bill that would mandate the development of 1,500 megawatts of electricity from solar and other renewable sources by 2020.
The Texas Association of Manufacturers opposed the bill because of concerns over rising energy costs for businesses.
But with the passage of the right mix of solar-related bills, Texas could anticipate the addition of 123,000 jobs, according to a University of Texas at Austin analysis.
“We’re missing out on a lot of clean-tech jobs,” said Jim Marston, Texas director for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. “They’re jobs that we need but didn’t have the political will to create.”
The state of Tennessee, for one, noticed.
Lawmakers there are considering a bill that would use $600 million to fund a solar farm and other related projects.
“To any company that had an eye on Texas, we say come on up to Tennessee,” state Sen. Jim Kyle, a Memphis Democrat sponsoring the bill, told the Memphis Business Journal this week.
The loss was tough for environmentalists who had been encouraged by the election of Republican Rep. Joe Straus, an energy efficiency advocate from San Antonio, to House speaker.
“What started with the promise of a good session,” Marston said, “ended with a whimper.”
Still, the Texas legislative session didn’t turn out to be a complete loss for environmental causes.
The Legislature passed a “no regrets” bill, which calls on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to identify cost-effective ways to reduce emissions of gases that contribute to climate change. Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, introduced the same bill in 2007 without success.
Environmentalists said the bill’s passage represented a critical step for a Republican-controlled Legislature that has spurned several efforts to deal directly with global warming in previous sessions. That’s in part because the state is America’s power plant and gas pump and thus leads the nation, by far, in emissions of climate-altering gases.
A sweeping clean air bill, authored by Sen. Kip Averitt, a Waco Republican, didn’t pass, but parts of it survived in another bill.
What’s left of Averitt’s bill, pending the signature of Gov. Rick Perry, includes the creation of a grant program for new emissions-reducing technologies and a call for state officials to be part of any federal effort to tackle climate change.
But other issues from the bill, including more stringent building codes to promote energy efficiency and a call for state regulators to develop a registry to track emissions of climate-altering gases, passed the Senate, but didn’t make it out of the House.
Still, Averitt sounded pleased with the session. The heart of his bill, SB 16, was the grant program, he said.