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Local Energy Bans Undermine Our Energy Security and Prosperity

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Elon Musk recently implored utility executives to build power plants faster because he expects demand for electricity to double or triple during the next 20 years. Others from across the political spectrum are singing the same tune. Environmental groups are calling for similar growth rates of clean power to mitigate climate change. And, last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he expects electricity demand in Texas to grow 15% annually.

Across the board, analysts in industry, think tanks, national labs and researchers at universities are calling for more clean electricity as a way to implement energy efficiency and decarbonize the economy.

Unfortunately, we’re not moving at the pace we need. We have great potential, but politics is messing it up.

In fact, according to recent story by USA Today: “local governments are banning green power faster than they’re building it.” Wind and solar are facing more obstacles than ever before with a mixture of moratoria, land-use criteria, height restrictions and setback ordinances. Most of which are happening by local governments in some of the most prime areas for wind and solar.

This is a disaster. These bans undermine our energy security, throttle our potential prosperity from a massive wave of energy addition, and make the task of reducing emissions that much harder.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Interestingly, the penchant for banning energy is not unique to any one political party or ideological orientation. Liberals and Democrats in New York and California want to ban natural gas for heating homes while conservatives and Republicans in many midwestern states are working hard to prohibit new clean energy development.

In Texas, for instance, some lawmakers tried to essentially outlaw new renewables development, but a coalition of rural Republicans and urban Democrats killed those bills. However, punitive fees on electric vehicle registrations and tax credits for new fossil energy development that explicitly excluded renewables were passed, so even in energy-friendly Texas, political leaders were able to land a few punches on the clean energy industry even if they could not get a knockout blow.

This red tape is worrisome because we need a lot of clean energy, and we need it quickly. In response to the oil crises of the 1970s, we built a huge fleet of coal-fired power plants that today are old, dirty and ready for retirement. We need to build a lot of new clean power to replace those behemoths. Plus, we need to build more power to serve new loads from data centers, electric vehicles, carbon capture facilities and heat pumps for cold winters. One of the most important causes of new demand for electricity is the oil and gas industry, which is using electric pumps and controls to improve efficiency, lower costs, reduce safety risks, and avoid emissions.

We need to move away from central regulators or politicians who mandate one form of energy over another. Instead, we need to use performance-based standards that would help move things along more quickly. Industry has been calling for performance-based standards for decades, and environmental groups and social justice groups could accept them, too, as long as those standards include labor protections and cleanliness standards.

We can do this. In the early 1990s Democrats and Republicans worked together during the George H.W. Bush administration to pass the Clean Air Act Amendments, which used performance-based standards and market forces together to quickly and cheaply tackle acid rain. Those rules didn’t outlaw coal. They just said coal had to get cleaner — and it did, by adding scrubbers or switching to low-sulfur coal. Similar performance criteria can be used today. Rather than outlawing gas, wind or solar, set reasonable standards for life cycle emissions and reliability, then see who wins in the markets.

It’s not too late for us to get it right. Meanwhile, with each new ban on clean energy, we hamper our ability to modernize our energy system.

Michael Webber is the John J. McKetta Centennial Energy Chair in Engineering and the academic director of the KBH Energy Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman, Waco Tribune Herald and the San Antonio Express News.

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