Austin sometimes has its own “inside the beltway” mentality. Teams of analysts, lobbyists, lawyers, and public officials buzz around the halls of the Capitol and neighboring offices, going about work that will determine the future of Texas. Those of us who live and work here don’t always get the chance to go out and hear from the rest of Texas, but there are more than 28 million voices across the state that are important and deserve to be heard.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation recognized this and sent me, Bill Peacock, and several others out to listen to the concerns of residents across Texas about renewable energy subsidies. With more than a few rental cars, hundreds (thousands?) of miles, and hands full of Whataburger on every trip, we’ve learned a lot about what Texans think about a variety of topics—energy, taxes, community, state government, and more.
Along the way, we published research and commentaries for public consumption. Our findings ranged from institutional issues to grid reliabilityand costs. The research exposed serious problems. We found that the current process for granting tax abatements in Texas hides negotiations from public view, that attempts at California-style policieswere costly and ineffective, and that the Texas wind power storywasn’t one of markets and innovations, but of government favoritism, special deals benefitting big corporations, and hidden costs.
These findings weren’t new to us, though. They reflected what Texans intuitively knew, things they shared with us in intensely personal terms while we traveled. (This made it all the more aggravating when some of our friends were met with laughter as their stories were told on a Netflix show.)
Our first stop was Comanche, Texas, a small town with locals who felt closely connected to one another and whose trust in government had an inverse relationship with the scale of that government. They had their way of life upended when negotiations behind closed doors at the county courthouse led to a tax abatement for a wind farm.
Residents didn’t know about the deal until trucks carrying cement and giant blades started travelling down their quiet country roads. Their experiences showed the human cost of subsidizing wind energy, from lost sleep and anxiety to lack of faith in their governing institutions—often unconsidered by pro-subsidy activists. We worked with locals to host a community meetingto discuss the project and how wind developers could move in so secretly and so aggressively. The meeting made local newsand started a movement.
Bill and I found that there were locals all across Texas who were fighting subsidies for renewable energy for a variety of reasons. We visited 12 counties and spoke with over 1,000 people. The residents were always eager to be heard and respected. They felt ostracized by local officials—their own neighbors—and corporate representatives who seemed to have a greater voice in their communities than they did.
Their reasons for fighting subsidies were often intensely tied to their geography. In Matagorda County, where we testified against abatements before the county commissioners, Bay City officials and local environmentalists warned of the detriments to birding, an economic and cultural asset. We also testified in Concho County, where many residents expressed their discontent with the severe lack of transparency in the process.
In Val Verde County, home of the wild and scenic Devils River, the discussion focused on environmental damageand the fallout that could result in their ecotourism-based economy. Some concern was also paid to nearby military operations, but that issue wouldn’t take center stage until our event in Henrietta.
In Georgetown, we discussed the City’s recent move to 100% renewable power (which isn’t actually doable). Residents engaged with experts from national energy organizations, reputable academies, and our own staff. Those who attended agreed that no matter the merits of the policy in question, openness and honesty about the process were sorely needed.
Most of the discussions, however, were remarkably involved in state energy policy, transcending (though not neglecting) local concerns. Residents talked about the reliability of the electric grid, the performance of energy sources during peak hours of demand, and how projects became so lucrative at the expense of the taxpayer. We, at the Foundation, firmly believe that governments shouldn’t pick winners and losers and certainly shouldn’t do so at the expense of reliable power. The Texans we spoke with expressed the same sentiment.
This is only a glimpse of the stories we were told and the lessons we learned. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience throughout Texas, reflected so well in the people who are active and trying to be heard. As the Legislature convenes in January, I hope our elected officials will listen. Texans are speaking and they’re ready to fight when the time comes.