TEXAS VIEW: As storms devastate, Texas must work toward clean energy future

THE POINT: We need more power, but we can’t keep getting it the same old way.

The heartbreaking loss of life in Valley View recently, as well as in Oklahoma and Arkansas, was a reminder of the terrible power of nature.

Preparing for a tornado is difficult, and especially so for those who live in structures like mobile homes. As so often happens after such a tragedy, communities quickly came together to distribute aid and to provide such help as they could even as more threatening weather began to form in our region. The goodness of neighbors and communities is heartening in such times.

As we sit writing this now in a dark room in Dallas with the power out yet again, it is important to reflect on the reality that what happened to our neighbors in areas north of Dallas is not an isolated event but part of a broader pattern.

It is hard to connect any single weather event to our changing climate. But we know that weather events are becoming more severe. From heat waves to hurricanes to tornadoes, we are living through changes in our planet that are related to human use of fossil fuels. This remains a point of political difference but not a scientific question.

The increase in severe weather is creating more tragedy and more consequences. That includes not only loss of life but such serious risk to property that finding affordable insurance, or sometimes any insurance at all, has become all but impossible in some parts of our country.

It is not alarmist to state what should be clear: Human societies must work toward developing and implementing power sources that rely less on burning fossil fuels. The state of Texas has done important work in this area for years. We are now a world leader in wind power and a national leader in solar power.

These forms of energy are excellent and deserve to be subsidized to foster their development. Their drawback is obvious, though. They don’t work when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Battery technology is a promising bridge to a future when we can get our power from carbon-free sources, but it is not advanced enough at this stage to supply power over multiple days without wind or sun. Nuclear power conceivably could make up the difference but it comes with its own risks and at a prohibitive cost.

Texans need dispatchable power that has traditionally come from burning fossil fuels. In extreme heat and extreme cold, having power is a matter of life and death.

But we also need a political focus on reducing our reliance on fossil fuels as quickly as technology permits. In a state where oil and gas interests continue to exercise outsized control over politics, we are moving in the wrong direction.

State lawmakers, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, seem determined to put a hand on the scale for natural gas generation. They excuse this by citing the federal government’s incentive preference for solar and wind energy.

It’s true that for Texas to provide the energy we need in the short run, we must rely on natural gas generation. But state government should not incentivize natural gas production as a reliable, instantly dispatchable power source over emerging technologies or even nuclear power.

Former Public Utility Commission chairman Peter Lake wisely advised Texas to adopt a reliability standard to ensure that power not only remained available in extreme weather events but that we have the power we need over time.

But the plan the commission advocated was neutral on the source of that power, or as Lake put it, “as long as it has an on and off switch.”

Skewing the market toward natural gas might provide short-term relief, but the long-term consequences will be devastating. This should not be a political question. It should be a question of science and technology.

We have made great strides as a state toward cleaner sources of energy. There is more we can do, and we should do it together.

The Dallas Morning News