How Red Texas Became a Model for Green Energy

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In March of this year something remarkable happened. For the first time, the fossil fuel-rich state of Texas generated more electricity from solar energy than from coal.

Perhaps even more striking, Texas briefly reached 19.1 gigawatts of energy generation from solar farms in the early afternoon of May 14. This set a new record across the US according to figures from Grid Status, which tracks US electricity generation data.

Chart showing Texas generated more electricity from solar than coal for the first time in March

What makes this achievement even more important is the state that pushed Texas into second place: California. It’s a progressive stronghold that has been pushing clean energy goals for more than two decades and has built a dominant lead in utility-scale solar. It was surpassed by a Republican-led fossil fuel power plant driven by serious obstruction of clean energy legislation.

Just five years ago this would have been unthinkable. In 2019, Texas had just over 2 GW of large-scale solar power plants, compared to 13 GW in California. Since then, however, the Lone Star State has entered a solar boom. As of this month, it has deployed 23.6 GW of utility-scale solar versus California’s 21.2 GW.

Chart showing Texas has surged past California in large-scale solar generation

When the latest wave of solar power plants comes online, Texas will have added more solar energy capacity per capita in one year than any U.S. state or country in the world, according to data from energy think tank Ember. Almost overnight, a state synonymous with dirty fuels has become America’s clean energy giant, and the trend is still accelerating.

Texas is still heavily dependent on gas, but the transition to clean energy is emblematic of a dynamic that plays out again and again in the climate debate: economics has a habit of trumping politics and ideology. The fact that most Texans want to increase fossil fuel production and are more hostile than the average American to clean energy goals leaves them powerless in the face of financial incentives.

Chart showing Texas likely to extend its lead as it continues to build and connect new grid-scale solar energy much faster than California

It’s not that politics don’t matter. But economics, which shape politics, can turn even the biggest climate change skeptic into a clean energy evangelist. This is exactly what happened in Texas, where an unlikely coalition for clean energy has formed. Urban progressives in blue cities like Austin have been joined by conservatives in rural West Texas who recognize that renewable energy is becoming a crucial source of economic development for their communities.

Despite making up only a small portion of the state’s population, rural counties will receive more than 60 percent of the tens of billions of dollars expected to flow into Texas from renewables and storage in the coming years, according to a report by Joshua Rhodes. an energy policy expert and research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

In particular, the report is full of testimonials from small business owners, farmers and Republican politicians who support sustainable energy. It was funded by a conservative organization and a pro-business think tank. Gone are the days when pamphlets extolling the virtues of clean energy were the preserve of progressive nonprofits that appealed to the reader’s better nature.

Perhaps the clearest sign yet that economics has changed the politics of climate change in Texas came last year, when several bills intended to make it harder to build new solar and wind facilities failed to pass a vote to come.

Chart showing that after years of lagging behind, Texas has become America's clean energy giant

The ease of building and connecting new renewable projects in Texas compared to elsewhere has been one of the main reasons for the state’s clean energy boom. The electricity grid operator uses a ‘connect and manage’ model. This assesses new projects based on the essential local requirements needed to connect to the electricity grid, rather than conducting lengthy studies into the wider potential impacts.

The result is that it takes about half as long for new energy generation to come online in Texas as elsewhere. The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission now wants to take a similar approach to accelerate the transition across the country. Red Texas has become the model for going green.

The polarized nature of American political discourse can make it seem like renewables are still a divisive issue. But shift your gaze from cable news to the plains of Texas and a different story unfolds. For those with a healthy dose of knowledge and an eye for a good investment, clean energy has become a no-brainer.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com, @jburnmurdoch

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