Amid deadly heat dome, Texas manages to keep the AC running

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Amid deadly heat dome, Texas manages to keep the AC running

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Renewable energy booms in the Lone Star state — despite efforts by fossil fuel-funded politicians.

A letter carrier in Dallas, a utility lineman in East Texas, a teen-aged hiker in Big Bend, and five unidentified people near a border crossing — these are among the 13 confirmed dead from heat in Texas as the mercury soared past 100 degrees in the past two weeks. As the American summer gets into full swing, climate change is relentlessly exacting its price across the nation. Much of the American South from New Mexico to Florida, are temperatures similar to the Sahara desert and Persian Gulf. It is particularly difficult in Texas: At least five people, including two in their 30s, have died of cardiac arrest in the state’s sweltering prisons. (A majority of state prisons have no AC in living areas.) Hundreds more people have flooded into emergency rooms for treatment of heat-related symptoms. 

At the same time, much of the rest of the country was blanketed in dense smoke from wildfires blazing in Canada. Air quality alerts related to the smoke were in effect for parts of some 17 states, covering nearly a third of the U.S. population.

It is an increasingly toxic brew. “Heat waves occur naturally, as do fires, but climate change makes the heat waves more intense and the fires more intense,” says Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

Texas solar power steps up 

If there is reason for optimism, it is that Texas has managed to keep the power flowing through record-setting demand — meaning access to AC for those who have it — and averted the chaos seen in 2021, when winter storms caused widespread power outages resulting in 246 deaths. The reason chaos was averted, experts say: Texas sunshine. Solar power in the state has more than doubled in the last two years, absorbing stress from the grid. Last year Texas added more new renewable power generation than the next five states together. Heading into this heat wave, solar energy provided some 20% of the total power in the state, on top of 10% from wind power.

As solar companies pile into the state, providing utility-scale and rooftop solar solutions, the Lone Star state has emerged as the largest producer of renewable energy in America. The growth was supported by policies that, for instance, made it easier for landowners to lease to solar companies, and new infrastructure to transmit solar-generated power from sunny West Texas.

Texas Republicans seek to block renewable energy expansion

And yet, the renewables industry fights an uphill battle in Texas. Its biggest foe is a false narrative perpetuated by Gov. Greg Abbott, who blames the power outages of 2021 on “green energy” and has pushed legislation to escalate natural gas development and make it harder for renewables to connect to the grid.

The reason chaos was averted, experts say: Texas sunshine. Solar power in the state has more than doubled in the last two years, absorbing stress from the grid.

Abbot not only refuses to celebrate the contribution of green energy but opposes the expansion of renewables. He has vowed to exclude renewable energy from any economic incentive programs in Texas. In 2021, the Texas Senate also declined to consider a bill extending the program, which discounted local property taxes to lure big companies to the state. 

He is not alone. Texas state Senator Lois Kolkhorst is championing a bill that would require a new layer of state approval for all wind and solar farms, something that coal and natural gas plants don’t need. All these efforts, says  Jeff Clark, president and CEO of the Advanced Power Alliance are “designed to stop renewable-energy development in Texas.” 

At the same time, Texas legislators want to offer no-interest loans to 10 giant natural gas plants, at a cost of about $18 billion. 

The irony is Texas was an early leader in championing renewable energy. In 1999, when it deregulated its electricity market, it set a goal of adding two gigawatts of green energy to the grid.

Now, it is a battleground state where the massive gravity of the legacy fossil fuel industry is pitted against the remarkable momentum of renewables. One well-funded group inserting itself into Texas energy legislation says it is making “the moral case for fossil fuels.” Proponents of renewables are not resting on their laurels.

Unnecessary cruelty

And some of the GOP’s recent efforts seem downright cruel, in addition to being the opposite of building resiliency to climate change. Gov. Abbot has signed a bill that overturns local safety rules that mandated additional breaks for outdoor workers to rest and drink water. Texas Republicans also rejected a proposal to spend $500 million to install air conditioning in prisons.

Despite the anti-green efforts by Texan Republicans, it seems unlikely they will halt the shift towards renewables. In Texas the only thing more powerful than politics is money — and there seems to be an unlimited demand for more solar and renewable power. 

Featured photo: StateImpact

Written by

Kari Huus

Kari Huus is a writer and editor based in Seattle. She was a staff reporter for from 1996-2014, with stints covering international business, foreign policy, and national affairs. Earlier, she reported on China for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong, and Newsweek in Beijing. From 2015 to 2020, she was managing editor for the website Money Talks News.