Moving The Electric Market Forward In Texas, Bit By Bit

Will the "slow and steady" approach win the race for the new energy economy?

The Texas legislature is more than halfway through its biennial 140 day sprint, and I doubt anyone's surprised at the level of heated political rhetoric.  Still, somehow in the midst of this political morass, a few bills that would help modernize both our electric grid and energy markets have begun to move.  These bills may not make or break the clean energy industry but they can help break down outdated market barriers and get rid of unnecessary red tape.  That would go a long way toward bringing more solar power, energy efficiency and customer choice to the state.

While they may not make the market in Texas, they will make the market work.  New business models are helping customers make the investments they want in renewable energy and efficiency, and the continuing decline in technology cost makes these changes all the more critical.  For instance, Senate bill 981 offered by Chairman Carona, would free third party ownership models like those offered by SunEdison from the regulatory webs in Texas that have prevented an aggressive investment in new technology in most of the state.  It also would get rid of the outdated requirement for anyone with a solar panel on their roof to register as a wholesale power generator.

It's remarkable that during a session filled with so much politics and rhetoric, a sensible bill to cut red tape in Texas that keeps new businesses from growing is making its way through the process.  The bill was passed by the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce late last month and will hopefully pass through the Senate quickly, heading to the House.  Another bill, SB 1501 from Sen. Watson would allow smart grid companies like Tendril, Incenergy (an Austin startup) and oPower to use one of the nation's smartest grids to provide customers with detailed usage information that will reduce their electricity consumption.  The bill, which passed out of committee last week will bring innovative businesses and industries to Texas, and benefit electric consumers at the same time.  Its companion legislation, HB 2709 from Rep. Turner will be heard in the House Committee on State Affairs this Wednesday.

Speaking of the House, there have already been positive hearings on a few important bills, notably HB 340 from Rep. Pete Gallego and HB 774 from Rep. Anchia.  The first bill is similar to SB 981 but also includes an important provision that would ensure customers would get a fair rate from their utility on any excess renewable electricity they generate at their home, church or school.  Historically this has been an issue of heated debate between customers and their utilities, but Rep. Gallego and his staff deserve credit for working over the last few sessions to bring together a broad consensus.  Thanks to a series of meetings led by Rep. Gallego and TXU Energy that consensus seems to be very near and hopefully we'll see the bill move forward in the process this week.

Rep. Anchia's HB 774, which sets a goal for the state of building 1,500 MW of non-wind renewable energy received a very positive hearing in the House Committee on Energy Resources.  The bill's companion in the Senate, Sen. Watson's SB 330 has yet to be heard in the Committee on Natural Resources, nor has Chairman Fraser's SB 492 solar omnibus bill.  As Chairman Keffer summed it up near the end of the Energy Resources hearing, the bill helps the state avoid "putting all our eggs in one basket" but the Chairman pointed out some political concerns relating to the bill.  Since the bill seeks to replicate our success with wind, one of both our current and former Governor's favorite bragging points, its unclear why this issue would be politicized.

Another key bill is from Rep. Darby: HB 2961 would create a statewide solar program that would develop residential, commercial and utility scale solar in Texas.  The solar industry is one of the fastest growing and most dynamic industries in the world, with manufacturing plants being built in Tennessee, Michigan, Pennsylvania and a handful of other states.  So far Texas has failed to attract this dynamic industry, and HB 2961, which is up for a hearing this Wednesday, seeks to reverse that trend and bring new businesses to the state.

For the now the future of any of the bills that would jumpstart the development of solar power or other renewables is less clear.  That's bad new for the businesses looking to come to Texas to grow, but at least there is some good news during a pretty difficult session.

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