Commentary: Texas bucks national coal trend with faith in renewables

  • John Hall
  • Special to the American-Statesman
12:00 a.m. Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 Opinion
Dorian Cunningham installs wiring for solar panels on the rooftop of the Allen-Frazier residence hall at Hutson-Tillotson University in 2015.

As a sign of the times, Austin Energy just announced a major solar power deal. The city’s municipal electric utility will purchase 150 megawatts of solar energy from West Texas – putting Austin on track to receive over half of its power from renewable energy by 2020. If that isn’t impressive, this deal is coming at record low prices.

This clean energy news come on the heels of a remarkable announcement from the state’s largest power generator. Dallas-based Luminant recently declared it will close three coal plant complexes early next year, with a combined seven units representing over half of the power generator’s total coal capacity.

CITY HALL: New solar contract tips the scales on Austin Energy’s renewable efforts.

Since Texas’ power sector emits more greenhouse gas pollution than those of California, New York, and Florida combined, the significance of these decisions for our air quality cannot be overstated. Closing coal power plants will slash carbon and other pollutants that can lead to heart attacks, asthma attacks, missed days of work, and premature deaths.

Luminant’s decision is primarily financial, as cleaner energy sources have been squeezing coal in Texas and across the country. Put simply, coal can’t compete with cheap, abundant natural gas and the falling costs of renewable energy technology.

That’s why Austin Energy and Luminant are not the only ones shifting away from coal in Texas. San Antonio’s local utility, CPS Energy, is also closing its two oldest coal plants, regardless of the Clean Power Plan. Industry analysts are predicting additional coal plant closures in Texas over the next three years.

Meanwhile, as coal diminishes, clean energy’s star keeps shining brighter. In fact, wind power capacity just surpassed that of coal in Texas – a huge feat. And, as Austin Energy’s deal exemplifies, solar is growing exponentially: Texas’ main grid operator predicts solar will grow by more than 50 times in the next decade or so.

RELATED: Austin Energy went big on solar power. Here’s how it’s going.

Less coal and more renewables on the grid result in vast water savings. Coal uses a substantial amount of water to generate electricity, while wind and solar PV use virtually none. In a water-stressed state with a fast-growing population, protecting valuable water supplies should be top priority.

The transition to cleaner, more efficient energy is not only cleaning the air and saving water, but also creating thousands upon thousands of jobs in the state. Almost 150,000 Texans work in energy efficiency-related jobs — and solar jobs grew by an impressive 34 percent in the state last year. Then there’s our booming wind sector, which employs 25,000 Texans, or almost a quarter of the nation’s wind power jobs. Comparatively, only a few thousand jobs exist related to coal power generation in the state.

The recent announcements from Austin Energy and Luminant demonstrate the unstoppable market trends surrounding coal. If the state’s largest generator – in Texas of all places – admits it’s not financially wise to keep coal plants open, it’s hard to envision a future for the dirty resource in our energy mix. If we protect Texas’ robust, competitive electricity market, and fend off attacks as much as possible, we can all breathe cleaner air and keep electricity costs low.

Hall is the Texas director of the Environmental Defense Fund.