Proposed Texas permitting regime could shrink wind and solar development
Legislative committee will decide by tomorrow whether measure becomes law
The Texas Senate, on a vote of 19-11, approved a measure on Wednesday to subject solar and wind energy projects to permitting standards that could massively reduce renewable energy development in the state of Texas. A conference committee between the House and Senate will now determine whether the measure stays in the final bill.
The amendment by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst to HB 1500, a bill reauthorizing the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC), would require wind farms within ten miles, and solar farms within five miles, of a river, park, historic site or wildlife management area to get a special permit from the PUC. While Sen. Kolkhorst represented the amendment as a “slim” version of her bill SB 624, the area covered by the measure amounts to about 75% of the state.
“In the exercise of the police power of this state,” the amendment states that the PUC may approve permits for new wind and solar “only if” it “would not interfere with the purpose of this subchapter” which is to “mitigate unreasonable impacts renewable energy generation facilities on wildlife, water and land.”
That sounds good, right? We do want to mitigate the environmental impacts of energy development.
Unfortunately, the amendment doesn’t define “unreasonable” and gives the PUC so much discretion, project developers won’t have reasonable confidence they can secure a permit. That uncertainty could mean projects don’t get financed and built at all.
As a result, the Kolkhorst amendment could grind new renewable energy development in Texas to a halt. That would be a disaster for the environment, as the state would continue to rely too heavily on fossil fuel power plants that are linked to thousands of premature deaths every year, contamination of our waterways, and the global climate crisis. Fossil fuel infrastructure also takes up an enormous amount of land. By the time solar farms currently under development are built, oil and gas will still take up more than three times the land area as solar.
Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, even with their enormous harm to our air, water, land and climate, would not have to get such a permit. They do have to get permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, but those permits must be granted except in very narrow and rare circumstances.
With the wide latitude given to the PUC to deny permits, there’s a serious risk that decisions could be politically influenced. Commissioners are appointed by the Governor, who falsely blamed wind turbines for the winter 2021 blackouts and has worked to discourage the state’s use of wind and solar.
More does need to be done to preserve Texas’ natural areas from energy development – both renewable as well as fossil fuels. Environment Texas has worked to get solar farms to incorporate pollinator-friendly landscaping and supports efforts by The Nature Conservancy and the Respect Big Bend Coalition to set aside ecologically sensitive areas from energy development of all types.
Unfortunately, the Kolkhorst amendment singles out renewable energy for an arbitrary permitting regime. It’s part of a range of anti-renewable energy amendments added to HB 1500, including new transmission fees, “firming requirements” which would make wind and solar subsidize the construction of new fossil fuel plants, and more. According to an analysis conducted for the Texas Consumer Fund, the impact of these measures could mean 75% less renewable development in Texas.
All Senate Republicans, along with Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston)*, voted for the Kolkhorst amendment. A ten member conference committee, made up of five Representatives and five Senators, will now decide whether it and the other anti-renewable energy amendments stay in the bill. They must reach an agreement by midnight on Saturday in order for the bill to move forward. If they don’t, a separate bill reauthorizing the PUC and other agencies under “Sunset Review” has passed and would make sure the agencies don’t cease to exist.
A Texas that is powered by renewable energy will have cleaner air and be less disrupted by climate change, and have less impact on water resources. Texas has immense clean energy resources, and that with good planning we can balance the need for renewable energy development with environmental conservation. Imposing discriminatory rules on solar and wind only perpetuates the known environmental and public health damage from fossil fuels and prevents us from moving closer to a future of rapid and responsible clean energy development.
* Sen. Miles secured an exemption in the amendment for solar farms within cities (like Houston’s proposed Sunnyside solar farm), a minor concession given the harm the amendment will cause. The City of Houston opposed the Kolkhorst amendment, even with that exemption.
Executive Director, Environment Texas
As the executive director of Environment Texas, Luke is a leading voice in the state for clean air, clean water, clean energy and open space. Luke has led successful campaigns to win permanent protection for the Christmas Mountains of Big Bend; to compel Exxon, Shell and Chevron Phillips to cut air pollution at three Texas refineries and chemical plants; and to boost funding for water conservation, renewable energy and state parks. The San Antonio Current has called Luke "long one of the most energetic and dedicated defenders of environmental issues in the state." He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside, received the President's Award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society for his work to protect Texas parks, and was chosen for the inaugural class of "Next Generation Fellows" by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at UT Austin. Luke, his wife, son and daughters are working to visit every state park in Texas.