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Politics

Does More Renewable Energy Lead to More Political Support? Not in Texas.

How the state’s renewables boom is testing a key political theory about the climate economy

Solar panel installers.
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One of the central conceits of the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s landmark climate legislation, is that green investment will eventually lead to bipartisan support for the law. No Republican may have crossed the aisle to support the IRA in 2022, but when money flows into red districts, conservatives will come around. Or so the thinking goes.

The reality is proving more complicated. Some academic research has indeed suggested that investments in the climate economy can lead to positive political feedback. There have also been notable examples of conservative politicians supporting factories that produce batteries and solar panels. But our home state of Texas provides a more cautionary tale, particularly when it comes to the generation of renewable energy itself.

At the University of Texas at Austin, we recently conducted a study that investigated how unprecedented investment in the state’s clean energy industry has affected legislation. To put it bluntly, the results were the opposite of what renewable advocates would hope to see.

After winter storm Uri battered Texas in 2021, leading to major power outages, Republicans in the Texas state legislature introduced numerous bills to address what they claimed was the major culprit: renewable energy. (Democrats blamed fossil fuels.) Wind and solar had grown exponentially in recent years, turning Texas into the first and second largest state for their provision respectively. Nevertheless, along with bills to increase gas power production and reliability, Republicans targeted renewable energy for increased regulation, higher fees, and outright construction bans. Labeled the “War on Renewables”, some of these policies were called “industry killers” by renewable energy advocates. The majority of these bills were introduced in the Texas Senate.

Senate Bill 7 and Senate Bill 1287 both proposed new fees for wind and solar projects. Senate Bill 2012 would lead to charges on renewable projects to help fund the building of gas plants, and Senate Bill 2015 would require half of all generation in Texas to come from non-renewable sources. Perhaps the most damaging of bills would have led to a new permitting process that only applied to renewable energy generation (SB 624). Most of these bills passed the Texas Senate but didn’t receive a vote in the Texas House.

We analyzed the relationship between voting on these Senate bills and renewable energy investments in legislators’ districts. Of the 31 Texas Senate districts, seven have considerable wind investments and 12 have solar projects built or proposed.

Interestingly, many of the urban Democratic districts have little or no renewable energy projects. That’s probably because utility-scale wind and solar requires not only wind and sun, but available land. This land is often found in rural areas that are the strongholds of the Republican Party.

First, we present the major renewable energy bills and the partisan voting on this legislation. The pattern is clear. SB 258, one of the few pro-renewable bills, received full support from Democratic senators. Anti-renewable bills were introduced by Republican senators and they received overwhelming support from their party. Conversely, few Democrats supported these bills in what amounts to extremely partisan voting.

This partisan pattern is unsurprising on the surface, but economic interests can also drive voting on renewable energy policy. How did renewable energy investment shape voting on these bills?

The Advanced Power Association, arguably the most powerful renewable energy association in Texas, provides a map on their website of renewable energy investments by Senate and House district in Texas. This underlying data, complied by IdeaSmiths and shared with us by Josh Rhodes, is the same data that can be accessed by legislators on the impact of renewable energy in their districts. This data includes solar, wind, and renewable energy story investments, proposed investments, and estimated local tax revenues from these projects. For simplicity we present total megawatts of proposed, under construction, and built wind and solar projects, but we note the patterns we identify are consistent with different codings of this data.

The lack of correlation between renewable energy investment and voting on renewable legislation is striking. Politicians voting against renewable energy here actually had more wind and solar investment and greater estimated tax revenues from renewables in their districts. In fact, many of the authors of the anti-renewable bills have some of the largest renewable investments in the state. Meanwhile, SB 258, one of the few pro-renewable bills, received greater support from districts with fewer renewable energy projects. Our interpretation is simply that renewable energy investment has no impact on renewable energy voting.

How can that be? We offer three possible explanations.

The first, and most unlikely, is that fossil fuel interests are driving this war on renewables. While plausible, this explanation is forced to confront the fact that the majority of renewable energy projects in these areas are actually owned by fossil fuel owners. In a roundtable recapping this previous legislative session, renewable energy advocates, including the Advanced Power Alliance, directly stated that they didn’t think this legislation was driven by fossil fuel interests.

The second, which feels more likely, is that renewable energy generation isn’t leading to the kinds of jobs or government revenue that can insulate it from danger. Most of these projects have received considerable tax abatements from cities, counties, and local school districts, limiting their positive fiscal impact. They also employ relatively few workers once construction is complete. For example, the most recent Texas application for school tax abatements is Skull Creek Solar’s $147-million solar energy project. In their application for school tax abatements, they propose the creation of one job. If these projects are generating little tax revenue and few jobs, of course skeptical politicians might be indifferent to their fates. In contrast, other green investments, such as electric vehicle assembly and supply chains, can create thousands of jobs.

The third, and most likely of all, is that renewable energy has simply become another front in America’s ever-widening culture war. And the partisan passage of the IRA may have exacerbated the divide.

Now, our data analysis examines one state and alternative dynamics might be at play in other places. But given the depth of renewable energy investment in Texas and the waves of anti-renewable legislation in renewable energy districts, our analysis suggests limits to the relationship between renewable energy investment and politics.

Hopes that green energy investments in Republican districts will lead to changes in voting on renewable energy are inconsistent with our findings in Texas.

Blue

Nathan M. Jensen

Nathan M. Jensen is a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a co-author of “Incentives to Pander: How Politicians Use Corporate Welfare for Political Gain.” Read More

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Isabella Steinhauer

Bella Steinhauer holds a Master of Public Affairs from the LBJ School at the University of Texas Austin. Her writing and research covers climate and economic justice issues, with a focus on food systems policy. Read More

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