Over the past few weeks, a once unthinkable parable about the green transition has played out in Texas, the very picture of a recalcitrant red state soaked with fossil fuel. Legislators friendly to the oil and gas business staged a desperate fight with the market — and lost.
This is one fight in one state legislature, but it marks a much larger phase shift. Clean energy provided about 25 to 30 percent of Texas power last year, up from less than 1 percent in 2002. So Republicans in the State Legislature, following the lead of the climate skeptic Gov. Greg Abbott, launched a counteroffensive, putting forward a series of bills to undermine renewables, prop up fossil fuel production and effectively kill clean energy in the state.
At first blush, it looked as if it would be the same old story — conservatives fighting green energy — with an inevitable-seeming conclusion. But then?
“A remarkable coalition of environmentalists, industry organizations and business groups — including more than 50 chambers of commerce, manufacturers, generators, oil and gas advocates and others — stopped very real efforts to shut down the renewable energy industry in Texas,” the energy consultant Doug Lewin wrote when the legislation was defeated, singling out the “pro-business, anti-nonsense Republican” state representative Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi for his relentless emphasis on the question of what handicapping renewables would cost Texas consumers.
Hunter knew that undermining green energy would lead to higher energy bills and slower economic growth. And he had recent history on his side. Last year, according to analysis by Idea Smiths, existing wind and solar power reduced the state’s wholesale energy spending by about $11 billion — almost three times the savings of the previous year. According to research by Energy Innovation, the green-energy tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act are poised to create more than 100,000 jobs in Texas by 2030 — which would add more than $15 billion to the state economy over that time.
The gains are estimated to be similar in Florida, where Energy Innovation projects more than 85,000 new jobs and $10 billion in state G.D.P. gains by 2030. But it’s not just a couple of red states: The logic of the energy transition has been transformed across the country.
A decade ago, after the collapse of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, it seemed intuitive to most Americans that without expensive political interventions and market manipulations, market forces and consumer preference would keep fossil fuels dominant in America, leaving green energy for the moralists and the saints. It was a caricature, even then, but a common one: that fossil fuels had every competitive advantage, and that green energy couldn’t thrive in the status-quo environment, requiring instead political interventions and market manipulations to clear a path toward viability.
Just a couple of years ago, when the progressive Squad in Congress first began touting a Green New Deal, the talking points on the right were the same: a green energy revolution would immiserate Americans, and bringing it about would require considerable and heavy-handed distortions to the energy market.
In his 2021 book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” Bill Gates said one of the central challenges was overcoming the cost burden of clean alternatives — what he called the “green premium.” He devoted much of the book to the question of how to pay for or overcome it
We live in a different world now, just a few years later. It is no longer clean energy that requires political interventions for survival. And increasingly it is fossil fuels flailing about for political lifelines to impede market forces. Partly because of the climate-forward interventions of the infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, and partly because of market and cultural momentum much larger than American energy legislation, the status quo has been effectively inverted.
A few months ago, after the passage of the I.R.A., I wrote that the wave of new investment could accelerate American depolarization over green energy, since so much of the money was flowing to red states and districts.
The path was never going to be smooth, and there were some brief digressions in that narrative; the Texas standoff is just one of the recent bumps in the road. There’s also been the transitory Republican threat in debt-ceiling negotiations to scuttle the I.R.A. tax incentives, and scattershot fights by state legislatures and attorneys general against socially conscious investments. But in the big picture it looks like these are just bumps along the same road.
The trend predates the impacts of the I.R.A. Solar power is already as much as 33 percent cheaper than gas power in the United States, according to an analysis from last year; onshore wind may be nearly 45 percent cheaper. And when American investors are drawn to opportunities, they find themselves overwhelmingly in red states like Texas. When Bloomberg analyzed green energy investment in the summer of 2022, before the passage of the bill, it found that of the 14 congressional districts with the most wind, solar and battery tech capacity, 13 were represented by Republicans and only one by a Democrat. This was, in its way, as logical as it might have seemed counterintuitive — more than two-thirds of American renewable potential today resides in mostly rural areas, which lean heavily Republican.
The I.R.A. turbocharged these dynamics. A bill originally estimated at $370 billion may ultimately yield a trillion dollars or more in federal subsidies, and the result is already an unprecedented manufacturing boom — with some measures of new construction almost doubling year over year and projections suggesting the trend will only grow. Nearly a hundred new clean energy manufacturing facilities or factory expansions have been announced since the bill, marking more than $70 billion in new investment, according to Canary Media. This is the rundown offered by the former director of President Biden’s National Economic Council, Brian Deese, last month:
This is a satisfying turn of events for those of us pushing for evermore decarbonization and horrified by the environmental costs of inaction. But it is not a triumph.
The price of renewables has crept up over the last year, thanks first to supply chain issues and then increased demand (though the price is still down dramatically from even a few years ago). And while renewables are much cheaper than fossil fuels, they aren’t quite profit machines, which complicates some private sector investment decisions. There is more potential clean energy sitting offline, in a backlog awaiting connection to the grid, than the total clean-and-dirty capacity of the grid as a whole supports today, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. This is perhaps one reason that, for all the new spending on renewables, the amount of clean power actually installed may be falling for the second consecutive year. The same permitting and regulatory obstacles which could derail 80 percent of the gains of the I.R.A. are still in place, unfortunately. And even in best-case build-out scenarios, the I.R.A. isn’t expected to bring the country all the way to its climate emissions goals.
But the Texas showdown does still memorably mark the direction of change. If, for a generation, clean energy advocates might’ve felt like they were rolling a boulder ever so slowly up an excruciatingly steep hill, now they can watch the ball finally rolling forward, worrying instead about what obstacles it might run into on the way down.