One of the fundamental propositions of Rick Perry's presidential run is that energy policy in Texas has been successful in de-carbonizing our grid. The claim is a pretty big stretch, considering that we still generate more carbon dioxide than any other state and, as far as it relates to our successful renewable energy mandates, he may have something to brag about. Perry has been eager to take credit for their success in boosting wind energy, although he's not always the first to point to the mandates that lead to such unprecedented wind growth. It's been easy for Perry to support wind power, after all, success has a thousand fathers, and the most meaningful legislation was assembled without much involvement from him or his office.
Perry's support for solar, however, has always been a trickier issue even though it's incredibly popular with voters across the political spectrum. Even though voters want to see Texas go solar, it's anathema to some of his biggest fundraisers and allies such as homebuilder Bob Perry, who worked to weaken homeowner's rights to install solar on their own roofs, and the Koch brothers, who have opposed clean energy in other states. So far, Perry has managed to walk a tightrope with his typical political savvy – pointing to legislation he signed or supported while working behind the scenes to undercut the movement towards a real solar industry in Texas.
Walking the Political Tightrope
Perry signed legislation in 2005 establishing a 500 MW non-wind renewable energy mandate and in 2007 strengthening that same mandate. His appointees at the public utilities commission (PUC) and Perry himself have been slow on doing anything meaningful with the legislation, leading to uncertainty for businesses wishing to grow in Texas. Most people in the industry saw this legislation as a way to push solar development in largely the same way the original mandate pushed in wind development. Now, in an article in the Texas Tribune, it sounds like Perry’s spokesman, Mark Miner, wants to pretend his boss never signed those laws. In fact, it sounds like he doesn't think Texas has any real potential as a state for solar development [emphasis mine]:
"If you mandate a specific technology, you run the risk of getting stuck with high costs, and such mandates have failed to pass the Legislature in the past. The state making a decision based on its own conditions is different than forcing a one-size-fits-all approach on the whole nation. For example, South Dakota, Texas, and other states in the Plains have great potential for wind because of the climate and geography; other states have good potential for solar, but that is not the same for every state.”
As Miner notes, the original mandate for wind that Perry signed into law was less than ten percent of peak demand, making it so small as to have no significant impact to consumers and, therefore, a reasonable goal for the state of Texas. By comparison, the 500 MW goal Perry did sign into law – though his appointees at the PUC failed to act on it – would be less than one percent of total peak demand, having an even smaller impact than the original wind mandate. It is now quite apparent with his recent appointment of Commissioner and outspoken renewable energy opponent, Donna Nelson, as Chair of the PUC that Perry wants to ensure that Texas never reaches the goal he signed into law though.. This results in the likely killing of any renewable energy progress at the PUC, including future legislation, should it pass.
Maybe the Sun Doesn't Shine on Texas
It's as if Perry and spokesman Miner think Texas doesn't have any real solar potential, which makes me wonder if they've read their own reports on renewable energy, showing solar power could supply Texas' energy needs many times over. His claim that Texas chooses not to provide incentives based on technology is laughable in the face of Texas' $1.2 billion/year "high cost" natural gas tax exemption.
Maybe Perry needs to make a trip to San Antonio where they recently increased their solar goal to 400 MW after seeing how cheap solar proposals are today. This is in addition to about 44 MW they've already installed or contracted, in other words almost the entirety of the 500 MW non-wind mandate that Perry signed into law but refuses support. Some of Perry's funders and allies argue that solar is too expensive, but the largest municipal utility in the state (and country) with some of the lowest electric rates in the state, just decided to invest in solar in a big way for two reasons that fit right in with Perry's ideal energy policy: San Antonio wants to keep electric rates low and solar will help them do that; it also wants to grow jobs, a key outcome to their clean energy strategy. Perry has been touting himself as the "jobs governor" since he started running as a nominee for President, so you'd think the smart jobs policies of cities like San Antonio, Houston, and Austin centered around clean energy would be the perfect message.
Unfortunately Perry seems uninterested, either because the corporations and people who have funded him are opposed or because he just doesn't think Texas has the potential to be a real solar state. Either way it's disappointing, and I'm sure that the solar industry would agree. For the first time this fall, the solar industry is bringing its largest business conference to Texas. Thanks in part to Perry's solar equivocation, industry (valued at over $38.5 billion globally) may not be sure if Texas is ready for the big time, despite the fact that voters want to see solar in Texas. For a jobs governor being on the wrong side of businesses that want to bring jobs to Texas and voters who want to see solar power here, it sure seems like a bad place to be, especially when unemployment in Texas is the worst it's been in 24 years.