Op/Ed: Rick Perry's Clean Energy Story

Clean energy advocates should avoid a knee-jerk battle against President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of energy. While former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a self-proclaimed climate change denier, under his watch Texas became a leader in the U.S.'s transition to a clean energy economy.

Perry's anti-environment rhetoric, and his hostility toward regulation, justifiably provoke skepticism. Yet, as governor, Perry's actions – a combination of smart energy policies, infrastructure investments and limited interference in energy markets – appear to tell a different story.

Perry oversaw Texas' energy market deregulation and reliance on market signals to determine the energy mix – a strategy that worked. Transparent market signals have helped drive down the retail cost of electricity in Texas while growing a reliable clean energy sector.

Texas was the first state to adopt utility energy efficiency requirements, which led to the adoption of energy efficiency building codes – reducing electricity bills (which will save Texans $1 billion by 2030).

Texas was also among the first to adopt renewable energy policies. The state is now the country's top wind producer. Incentives, which Perry later expanded, called on utilities to include a specific level of renewables in their portfolio. Since 2010, wind power has surged 80 percent and now accounts for 40-50 percent of the state's electricity generating capacity.

Texas was also the first state to recognize the important role transmission infrastructure plays when integrating wind into the power grid. The Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, signed into law in 2005 by Perry, led to a staggering $7 billion investment in transmission lines, bringing West Texas wind to the state's population centers in the east.

Texas' natural gas sector boomed during Perry's tenure as well. Texan George P. Mitchell pioneered technologies that allowed the economic extraction of natural gas from shale formations, leading to a homegrown energy revolution. Perhaps the most sweeping effect of this boon: the dramatic shift away from coal-fired electricity toward a portfolio of cleaner, reliable and less expensive electricity.

Ironically, due to measures established by Perry and other policymakers, Texas is in a position to surpass the requirements of the EPA's Clean Power Plan with no appreciable increase in wholesale cost, in real terms, or decline in grid reliability, according to a pair of 2016 studies by The Brattle Group on behalf of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition.

The clean energy gains during Perry's leadership were also a winning formula for both jobs and consumers. The Texas governor's office reported in 2014 that more than 100,000 people worked in the high paying renewable energy sector. In contrast, the state's coal industry employed some 23,000 people according to the Texas Comptroller's office in 2013.

Texas retail electric rates continue to drop faster than national averages. Most recently, 2016 estimates show that Texas electricity rates are down about 11 percent from highs in 2008.

All told, the Texas story – in which Rick Perry played a prominent role – presents an opportunity to inform policies that can drive our clean energy economy using a robust set of options that are consistent with conservative values and without overreliance on complex federal regulations.

In order for this to work, however, Perry must understand the critical role that DOE research has played in innovations that helped move Texas forward. For instance, without the department's research capabilities, Mitchell's work would have taken much longer and may or may not have led to unlocking the code to shale development.

The DOE's research and development programs in energy efficiency and renewable energy, carbon capture and sequestration, and oil and gas technology will continue to benefit our nation, just as they have Texas, if they remain focused on solving real problems such as energy storage, and fostering and deploying innovation.

Perry can work with the new administration to encourage the restructuring and deregulation of electricity markets in states. He oversaw the bulk of the massive Texas market redesign and has access to a vast network of experts who could guide the nation to better-functioning markets where electricity prices decline, emissions fall and reliability improves.

As part of the administration's overall infrastructure package, he could use his experience to charge DOE with designing a modernized transmission complex that moves renewable resources across country to population centers on the East Coast. And, as the state's former agriculture commissioner, Perry will appreciate the importance of establishing siting standards for these transmission lines so rural America doesn't see its land resources carelessly degraded.

Finally, Perry could direct DOE experts to work with Congress and the administration to develop a sensible, well-designed carbon tax. He is uniquely qualified to gain support from the business community for such a bold measure.

Given his anti-climate rhetoric, clearly it's difficult to imagine Perry (or any Trump appointee, for that matter) pursuing such a strategy. As CEO of ExxonMobil, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, however, supported a carbon tax. Many corporations already take a carbon price into account in their business planning. And, while they won't admit it publicly, dozens of thoughtful conservatives in Washington consider a carbon tax the most efficient and effective way to deploy clean energy solutions while raising revenue and avoiding promulgating new environmental regulations.

Undoubtedly, there's a great deal of skepticism about an individual who's about to lead an agency he has called for abolishing. It's realistic, however, to expect Perry to surprise us with his pragmatism. Whether or not he was directly responsible for influencing Texas's ramp up, the U.S. could do far worse than to look to Perry and the Texas story for a smart roadmap to achieving a sustainable clean energy economy. Let's hope environmentalists, the business community and those most effected – working people from California to New York – will be pleasantly surprised.

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Marilu Hastings is vice president of the Austin-based Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, where she leads the foundation's land, water and clean energy programs. She was appointed to the National Petroleum Council for 2016-2017. Follow her on Twitter: @MariluHastings

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