Easier Being Green

Despite tough times, energy conservation bills gain traction in Legislature

I"Going green" used to be considered a luxury, especially in a faltering economy. But as the Legislature convened last week amid a budget squeeze, a determined coalition of lawmakers and lobbyists acted on the premise that conserving energy is nothing less than an absolute necessity, especially in rough financial times.

Representatives and senators filed measures geared toward cleaning up Texas' notoriously dirty air, bolstering the state's renewable energy infrastructure while creating new jobs and saving money through increased efficiency.

"Texas has discovered that energy efficiency is the cheapest way to meet its energy needs in the future," says Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the lobbying group Public Citizen of Texas. "We can reduce electricity consumption and avoid the need to build more coal plants or nuclear plants."

President Barack Obama has encouraged Americans to view the economic, environmental and energy crises as related problems and to develop solutions that address all of them, and that approach may have a new champion here in Texas. Representative Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican who has made conservation a focus since his election in 2005 and has a reputation for building coalitions across party lines, is replacing Tom Craddick as speaker of the House.

"Straus carried the most important energy efficiency bill in 10 years in the Texas Legislature," Smith says. "He passed it unanimously through the House and Senate. It's a measure of his skill that it was the first time in 25 years that I've worked on a bill in the Texas Legislature that's passed unanimously."

Smith and other efficiency-advocates hope Straus will help to usher in a new era for the state's energy infrastructure. Margaret Keliher, executive director of Texas Business for Clean Air, has led a far-reaching, collaborative effort to address the energy shortage while at the same time reducing the output of lung-scarring ozone. She hopes the resulting proposals, which include efficiency standards for appliances and buildings and expanded reliance on solar and geothermal technology, gain traction this session.

"By combining these efficiency measures with renewables you could go 15 years without having to build another plant," she says. "But it will require this Legislature to take some actions."

A bill sponsored in the House by Representative Rafael Anchia and in the Senate by Florence Shapiro would increase the amount of electricity generated by solar panels and wind turbines installed by consumers on residential and commercial buildings (as opposed to existing wind farms used by utilities). The proposal mandates that by 2020, an additional 2,000 megawatts of generating capacity come from distributed renewables such as solar panels, geothermal technology or wind. That would be a 50 percent increase from the just over 4,000 megawatts being drawn from renewables as of 2007, according to Damien Brockmann, Anchia's legislative director.

"This is a big session for solar," Brockmann says. Anchia's bill "is one of a handful of initiatives we want to push to make Texas a leader in solar." The Public Utility Commission would determine the cost of funding the incentives for renewable installation, but Anchia's office has provided several plans. "We're looking at something that would cost consumers $1 per month [on their utility bill] and would raise $160 million per year," Brockmann says.

Another Anchia bill, HB 280—proposed but not passed two years ago—would increase the amount of new energy demand that must be met by efficiency measures such as additional insulation or updated boilers. That percentage is now 20 percent, and the bill would raise it to 50 percent by 2015.

"When we say cut back, we're not asking people to live in colder houses," Brockmann says. "It's about delivering the same comfort for less energy."

Keliher and TBCA have also helped develop proposals, one of them sponsored by Senator Kip Averitt, a Waco Republican, that would pass statewide efficiency standards for appliances, including audio systems, DVD players, commercial cooking devices and pool pumps. Another measure, also carried by Averitt in an omnibus air bill expected to be filed next week, would expand efficiency standards for buildings that have already been passed by the cities of Dallas, Houston and Austin. That bill would require that by 2020, codes result in net-zero energy buildings, or structures that use no more energy than they produce from on-site renewable systems like wind or solar.

"The city of Dallas has taken a leadership role under Mayor Leppert—he passed a building code that's roughly 15 percent above the current standard," says Smith, of Public Citizen. "We're hoping that same lesson is applied around the rest of the state."

Eventually, advocates like Keliher and Smith hope the state will have the capacity to store the energy generated by wind and solar sources, which would vastly expand their potential. Keliher also mentioned efforts to require the installation of electric meters that people could monitor and control remotely, which several companies are on the verge of rolling out.

"You could look at your meter every 15 minutes and see how much energy you're using," Keliher says. "So if the kids leave the lights on when they go to school you could see how much that's costing you. You could see how much it's costing you to run your dishwasher during peak times versus off-peak times. I think when you give the consumer control over the utility then you'll begin to see an impact."

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