OP/ED: Clean energy and the irony of the red state of Texas

The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last month heard oral arguments on the legality of the Clean Power Plan, a pillar of the Obama Administration's climate protection strategy. The plan requires states to develop strategies to curtail carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Opponents of the Clean Power Plan, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, argue that the plan violates the Clean Air Act, overreaches federal authority, is too expensive, and will cause reliability problems in the delivery of electricity.

Proponents of the Clean Power Plan argue that reducing emissions from the power sector is one essential step the United States must take to address climate change and demonstrate our commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement that the U.S. agreed to last month.

Although counterintuitive to many, the state of Texas is a leader in the nation's transition to clean energy. And, whether for or against the Clean Power Plan, I'm confident Texas' "red state" approach can inform other conservative, market-oriented states that seek to establish clean energy programs but are reluctant to rely on singular regulatory strategies - demonstrating that companion strategies are critical for a robust transition to a clean energy future.

Some states are moving forward with compliance plans despite the legal delay. Other states, including Texas, don't realize that the path to a clean energy economy does not necessarily rely on the Clean Power Plan. A court decision to strike down the rule will not reverse the policy and market forces that have driven a clean energy transition already underway in Texas.

On the surface this may seem like a simple Texas story and not relevant to the national discussion about carbon dioxide emission reduction. However, the road to a clean energy economy in Texas matters. If Texas were a nation, it would be the world's sixth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, although we fare much better on an emissions per person basis.

If Texas can meet the Clean Power Plan requirements without the regulation in force, it may help inform other disinclined states to follow suit. Quite simply, Texas's approach to cleaning up the electric sector can be an example for the entire world. Ironically, the state that is the most aggressive opponent of the Clean Power Plan has also utilized prudent, well-designed policies and then unleashed the power of the market to cut emissions, ensure reliability and manage consumer costs.

And, despite the best efforts of our state leadership to the contrary, this strategy has worked so well that a recent study by The Brattle Group conducted on behalf of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition shows that the state will surpass the requirements of the plan whether or not the regulations are implemented.

The study found that if natural gas prices remain stable and solar energy prices continue to drop, the state is headed toward a cleaner power sector. The low price and flexibility afforded by natural gas generation are greater threats to coal than carbon reduction regulations. 

The analysis shows that ERCOT, Texas's main grid operator, will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 28 percent below 2005 emission levels between 2016 and 2035, or 61 million tons per year.

These reductions will result in no new costs to consumers over 2014 electricity prices, effectively shutting down the perennial argument that clean energy costs too much. A forthcoming study, also by The Brattle Group, is expected to show that, in general, reliability concerns are also unfounded.

Texas is uniquely endowed with an ample supply of natural gas, wind and solar potential, and has the opportunity to reliably and affordably power the state with Texas-only energy resources. The good fortune of abundant natural resources, however, is not enough to accomplish a clean energy economy.

The route that Texas took to achieve the projected clean energy outcome is a story of well-timed enabling policies, "build it and they will come" infrastructure investment, and a deep belief in allowing energy markets to function with limited interference.

It might come as a surprise, even to Texas policymakers, that the red state is in a position to surpass the requirements of the Clean Power Plan at no appreciable new cost. Republican majority decisions beginning more than a decade ago are paying big clean energy dividends today.

The Texas case is an important example of how states and the world can move to clean energy using a robust set of options that are consistent with conservative values and without overreliance on complex federal regulations.

Marilu Hastings is vice president of the Austin-based Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, where she leads the foundation's strategic grantmaking programs focused on clean energy, shale sustainability, land conservation, sustainability education and water. She was appointed by U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest J. Moniz as a member of the National Petroleum Council for 2016-2017.

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