illustration by Alex Eben Meyer NO GREEN SWEEP How high hopes for environmental progress were dashed. BY SUSAN PETERSON AND FORREST WILDER INhen green jobs guru Van Jones spoke at the Texas Capitol during the jampacked Texas Energy Future: Green Jobs and Clean Power conference in mid-February, the state’s environmental advocates might have been forgiven for pinching themselves. Jones’ keynote address about achieving social justice by “greening” the economy came at a time of palpable optimism for the gathered crowd of students, lawmakers, renewable energy boosters and environmental activistsa crowd not necessarily accustomed to a speaking role, or even a friendly ear. A new president was already rolling back certain Bush administration policies and promising to restore the role of science in federal decision-making. Change was in the air in Texas, too. Not a revolution, exactly, but a thawinga green glasnostseemed to be underway at the Texas Legislature, a body not known for environmental enlightenment. The House had ousted Tom Craddick, the conservative Midland oilman who had shown little but contempt for environmental issues, and replaced him with Joe Straus, a relatively unknown moderate Republican from San Antonio. One of Straus’ accomplishments had been the 2007 passage of a bill that doubled the state’s energy-efficiency efforts. Craddick’s lieutenants had kept good bills bottled up in committee; Straus stripped those lawmakers of their chairmanships. A few true-blue progressives even made it onto the House Environmental Regulation Committee, previously overseen by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, who earned the nickname Dennis the Menace for his badgering of witnesses. Lawmakers responded to the new climate by filing a flurry of pro-environment bills. Perhaps more significant, the usual rash of bills punching holes in Texas’ already-patchy regulatory net never materialized. Long used to fending offbad ideas, environmental and conservation groups suddenly found themselves playing offense. Jones, who has since been named special adviser on green jobs with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told his conference audience that Texans could lead the nation in building a green economy from the ashes of the old “gray” one. “You’ve been the energy leader for ioo years,” Jones said. “You can be the energy leader in a new way.” He singled out three key areas primed for progress: wind power, solar energy and energy efficiency. “Here’s the truth;’ he said. “Everything that’s good for the environment is a job. Solar panels don’t put themselves up, wind turbines don’t manufacture themselves, homes don’t retrofit or weatherize themselves.” That message dovetailed with the priorities of lawmakers of both parties. Even before the session began, legislators had signaled their focus on renewable energy, conservation and energy efficiency, and green jobs. At the top of the green team’s agenda: jump-starting the state’s fledgling solar energy sector. In the end, though, the session wasn’t as sunny as many hoped. Solar proponents looked to Texas’ successful wind energy industry for inspiration. In 1999, the Legislature mandated that power generators install 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy capability enough to power half a million homes. Seven years later, Texas had surpassed that goal and rocketed past California to become the top wind energy-producing state in the nation. Advocates argued that what worked for wind would work for solar. A bill by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would have required utility companies to develop 1,500 megawatts of nonwind renewable energyfrom solar, biomass or geothermal sourcesby 2020. Mindful that many of the wind turbines cropping up in West Texas are manufactured out of state, the legislation included a requirement that the Public Utility Commission devise a “made in Texas” incentive program. While Watson’s measure focused on utility-scale solar power stations, a related bill by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, was aimed at putting more solar panels and other renewableenergy devices on the roofs of homes, businesses and churches statewide. A small monthly fee attached to consumers’ and businesses’ electric bills would have raised up to $500 million for a rebate program. 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 26, 2009
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