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solar energy

Solar on the special agenda?

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this.

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said Tuesday that he’s put in a request for several measures, including a bill to improve accountability at member-owned utilities, to be part of an upcoming special legislative session.

Fraser said he understands the governor’s office is hoping for a quick “get-in, get-out” special session of about three days to push through sunset bills to keep several key state agencies operating.

But the special session could go beyond that plan.


[M]embers are submitting requests in the case the call is expanded, especially in light of the chubbing at the end of the session that killed several measures.

Among those, the co-op bill and a solar energy initiative bill could be on the list, he said.

“Yes, I have made the request,” Fraser said Tuesday.

On the one hand, I’d love to see these measures, which had passed without major opposition – SB545, the solar bill, passed the Senate on a 25-5 vote, and was passed out of the House committee on a 7-1 vote – get another chance. As Citizen Sarah notes, this may be our last chance to keep Texas from losing out on big opportunities in the solar market to other states. On the other hand, the farther away we get from the original, announced concept of a “get in, get out” session, the more likely that crap like voter ID will be resurrected. I don’t know how to evaluate that possibility right now, but I’m wary of it.

Going green in Seguin


The residential wind turbine is one of several renewable initiatives featured at the $6 million Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative’s Seguin office complex, which just opened May 19.

The two-story, 24,000-square-foot facility includes solar panels that offset water-heating needs and a rainwater collection system with two 4,800-gallon tanks that also catch condensation from the air-conditioning system to irrigate the landscaping.

Darren Schauer, general manager and CEO, said growth and concern for the environment prompted the design of the unique complex.

“It’s a way for us to learn what these technologies can do so we can share that information with our members,” Schauer said. “We don’t want to be a utility beholden to old, traditional ways. We want to be one out there working with members, trying to be innovative and find new and better ways to meet their needs as far as energy needs.”

After the failures of the Lege to move the ball forward on renewable energy, I figure every little bit helps.

Legislative wrapups

With sine die in the rearview mirror, tis the season for legislative wrapups. Here are a couple I’ve come across.

– First, from Bike Texas, which had the fairly easy task of just following one bill:

The final version of the Safe Passing Bill, SB 488, was passed yesterday [Saturday] by the Texas House. Today, the Senate voted on it, and overwhelmingly voted to pass it.

That was the final step for the bill to complete in the Legislature. Now, it will be sent to Governor Perry, and we are cautiously optimistic that he will sign it into law. We will know the outcome by June 21, the last day the Governor can sign or veto bills.

The 21st is a date that’s circled on a lot of people’s calendars. Next up is ACT Texas, which unfortunately had a lot less to be happy about.

How did the 81st Session go? After all the planning, meetings, hearings, email, office visits, phone calls, amendments, amendments to the amendment, how did things go for the ACT agenda this session?

The bottom line: we didn’t make the kind of progress on clean energy and clean air issues we had hoped to make. ACT bills faced two hurdles that could not be overcome this session. The first was strong industry opposition that both slowed the process (especially getting bills voted out of committee) and undermined the bipartisan support these measures had going into the session. The second was a legislative session that was behind from the beginning and ultimately derailed by a partisan stalemate in the House.

It’s important to note that bills did indeed pass that will continue to move Texas toward a cleaner, healthier future. Over the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at each of the 2009 issue areas in-depth and publish an assessment of how we fared on each. By the end of the month, ACT plans to publish a 2009 Legislative wrap-up.

Follow the link to see the specifics. The death of SB545, the solar bill, is in my mind the biggest disappointment.

Scott Henson had even less reason to be happy.

After all the fawning over Timothy Cole’s family and public declarations throughout the 81st Texas Legislature that the state would act to prevent false convictions, all the major innocence-related policy reforms proposed this year died in the session’s waning hours with the exception of one bill requiring corroboration for jailhouse informants.

Two other pieces of legislation for a brief moment had passed both chambers on Friday as amendments to HB 498, but after a 110-28 record vote approved the measure, Rep. Carl Isett moved to reconsider the bill and it was sent to a conference committee, where the amendments were stripped off for germaneness.

Sen. Rodney Ellis earlier in the day had requested the House appoint a conference committee and approve a resolution to “go outside the bounds” to consider eyewitness ID, but that resolution never came and instead the bill was denuded of all policy substance to become a bill to study whether to study the causes of false convictions.

We didn’t need more study by the Legislature on this issue, we needed action. Eyewitness ID errors make up 80% of DNA exoneration cases and the Court of Criminal Appeals’ Criminal Justice Integrity Unit said it should be the Legislature’s highest priority for preventing false convictions. But unless the issue is added to a call in a special session, at least two more years will pass before the Lege can begin to rectify the problem.

That’s inexcusable. It’s not okay for the Legislature to know that innocent people are being convicted under the statutes they’ve written and simply decline to prevent it.

The irony, as he notes later, is that by adopting HB1736, which increases the restitution made to exonerees, the state has ensured by its inaction that there will be more of them. So much for fiscal responsibility.

– On another single-issue matter, the saga of Gulf Energy, which got screwed over by the Texas Railroad Commission, won the right to sue the RRC to force it to clean up its mistake as SCR72 made it through on the last day. Good luck in court, y’all.

– And finally, a mixed bag from the Legislative Study Group, which I’m copying from email and reproducing beneath the fold.

All in all, the good news of this session is that there wasn’t much bad news – very few truly atrocious bills, the kind we were used to fighting off (usually unsuccessfully) in the Craddick days, made it to the floor, much less through the process. That’s part of what a lot of us hoped for with Joe Straus as Speaker, and up till the voter ID fiasco we got it. The bad news is that there wasn’t nearly enough good news, especially when you consider the number of good bills that were needlessly snuffed at the end thanks to voter ID. I’m not sure which is worse after sine die, feeling like you’ve spent 140 days fighting off zombies, or feeling like a whole lot of potential slipped through your fingers. What I do know is that we need to do better next time, and the fight for that starts now.


Extending the deadline

The deadline for finishing up conference committee work was supposed to be last night at midnight. There was too much work to do for that, so the deadline got pushed back for 24 hours.

That means the Senate on Monday likely will be approving dozens of conference committee reports — the final versions of bills — where they were supposed to just do minor corrections to a few bills.

Senate Administration Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, told senators a few minutes ago that 131 House bills loaded up with Senate amendments are still in conference — meaning they are still in negotiation with House members.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Williams said.

The vote to waive the rule and extend tonight’s deadline was 31-0. A four-fifths vote of at least 25 senators was required.

Among other things, that means that there’s more time for a deal on windstorm insurance, which is now the must-pass bill of the session, as a failure to do so will mean a special session. It also means that there may be some hope for the previously-declared dead solar bill.

At the stroke of midnight last night, Sen. Troy Fraser’s SB 545, the “chosen” solar incentives bill for the legislative session, seemed to have drawn its last breath when Rep. Sylvester Turner killed its vehicle.

Fraser’s solar bill would have provided incentives for solar installation, with a view to increasing solar energy generation in Texas. Since the bill didn’t make it through the House chubfest last week, it was tacked on to HB 1243, which would require utilities to purchase extra electricity from on-site renewable generation.

Well: Would have required. Turner killed the bill last night, seemingly out of hurt feelings over other bills that didn’t make it through the parliamentary process over the past day.

“All day long we have been sending bill after bill back on germaneness,” Turner said, objecting to the fact that HB 1243 had absorbed three loosely related measures.

He also objected to the electricity rate increases that would have been passed onto consumers to fund the solar incentives. Still, at 20 cents per month for residential customers, the increases were quite small.


According to Environment Texas advocate Luke Metzger, establishing a solar incentives program is critical in Texas right now, since the solar manufacturing base isn’t permanently settled anywhere. If Texans buy more solar systems, it could persuade manufacturer’s to set up shop here. Without the incentives, Metzger says, “we’ll miss the solar boat for decades to come, potentially.”

But all hope is not lost. Last week’s chubfest in the House has put legislators through an exercise in it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And it ain’t over for solar incentives, which may find a viable vehicle in Fraser’s own SB 546, the session’s “chosen” energy efficiency bill, which is in conference committee today.

If SB 546 can accommodate solar incentives legislation, Metzger does not think there will be a problem with germaneness.

However, he points out, “the other danger still is timing. This all has to happen very quickly in order to avoid Turner or anyone else trying to chub it to death.”

Keep hope alive. Maybe the extended deadlines will be sufficient to allow this to pass. Stranger things, almost always for the worse, have happened.

Other items to keep an eye on are SCR72, the joint resolution to clean up after the Railroad Commission, and HB498, the innocence commission study bill. A lot of good criminal jurisprudence reform bills were chubbing victims so salvaging that one would be nice.

Budget heads to the Governor

In the end, thanks in large part to the stimulus package and its infusion of funds that prevented the need to dip into the Rainy Day Fund, the budget process was relatively uncontroversial. Yesterday, it was passed by the House, and is now on its way to Governor Perry’s desk.

With just three days left in the 81st Texas Legislature, the only thing certain was the state’s $182.3 billion budget, which, among other things, increases spending for the mentally disabled, correctional officer salaries, college financial aid and pre-kindergarten programs. Most of the money, which includes $12.1 billion in federal economic stimulus dollars, is dedicated to education and health care.

The vote in the House was 142-2, after unanimous passage in the Senate. Perry is certain to do some line-item vetoing, if only to remind us that he can. Odds are he’ll pick something that no one will see coming. We’ll know soon enough.

Of greater interest at this time is the handful of bills that are still struggling to stay alive.

The House kept the debate on windstorm insurance reform alive by agreeing to seek a compromise on the bill in a joint conference committee. Perry has told lawmakers he will call a special session if the windstorm insurance reform does not pass.

At issue is how to keep solvent the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which provides insurance for homeowners who cannot find private coverage — without pushing insurance rates up. Hurricanes Ike and Dolly busted the association with an unexpected $2 billion in payouts.

Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood said they hope to reach a settlement so as “not to have a special session.”

Here’s the conference committee information. They have till midnight tonight to work it out, get a bill printed, and distribute it to members. Tall order, but doable.

Also Friday, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, said he was still trying to revive the Children’s Health Insurance Program. An effort earlier this week to piggyback CHIP on a bill for newborn disease screening did not comply with House rules that subjects be “germane.”

Although a coalition representing 70 groups called on legislative leaders to “take all necessary means” to pass the bill, the prospect is dim.

Apparently, the measure to which the CHIP bill had been attached as an amendment, which had originally been sent back by the House because author Paula Pierson didn’t think it would concur, has now been approved for a conference committee, but that’s to remove the CHIP amendment so the original bill, having to do with newborn screening, can pass. There’s still the original House CHIP bill by Rep. Garnet Coleman, which hasn’t been approved by the Senate but still could if they agree to suspend the rules to bring it up. I’m not holding my breath on that one. The Chron editorializes today in favor of taking action, while Rick Casey took Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Steve Ogden to task for not getting this right the first time.

Disputes also were holding up a bill to renew the life of the Texas Department of Transportation for another two years. Portions of the bill call for a local option gas tax, supported by business leaders and elected officials from North Texas and San Antonio.

In Harris County, officials are keeping an eye on a provision that could limit or ban new cameras being placed at intersections to catch red-light runners.

That one could get ugly. Rep. Joe Pickett has called out lobbyists who are agitating over the local-option tax, which has both strong support and strong opposition. More from McBlogger and EoW, both of whom are in the latter camp. On a tangential note, the Chron rails against the attempt by the state to meddle in local affairs regarding red light cameras.

Finally, one bit of bad news.

At the stroke of midnight on Friday, House Bill 1243 turned into a pumpkin and a fairy godmother was nowhere to be found to save it or the electric cooperative measure attached to it.

Provisions to improve accountability in the electric cooperatives, including Pedernales Electric Cooperative, had been tacked on to the bill in the Senate. And Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, challenged whether that amendment and others belonged on the bill.

A lengthy confab at the dais followed by a postponement delayed a vote on whether to send the bill to a conference committee, called for by Turner, until shortly before midnight. That vote failed 48 to 90.

But by the time Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, stepped to the microphone to save the bill, it was too late.

Another half-hour of parliamentary hand-wringing ensued. But, in the end, the glass slipper didn’t fit.

That unfortunately means that SB545, the solar bill, is dead as well. Major bummer about that.

The state of solar power

The Chron has a feature story on efforts to ramp up solar power in Texas.

[S]olar advocates say the right legislation could do the wind industry’s success one better.

One approach, incentives to install solar panels on homes and businesses, could be the catalyst for a homegrown industry of system installers and panel manufacturers, they say. Those manufacturers also could benefit from close proximity to an existing link in the solar supply chain — the single largest manufacturer of high quality polysilicon used in semiconductor chips and solar panels, which is located in Pasadena on the Houston Ship Channel.

“Really you want to develop a sustainable industry that does not require incentives,” said Steve Chadima, vice president of internal affairs for SunTech Power, a Chinese solar panel manufacturer that is eyeing Texas as a possible plant site. “You don’t want to live on the dole forever. But you need to jump-start the industry for it to develop along all the sectors.”

As legislative deadlines approached late Tuesday, advocates were closely watching a bill that would give out $500 million in rebates over the next five years to businesses and homeowners who install solar panels. Money for the rebates would be raised through monthly fees on electric bills—about 20 cents for residential customers, $2 for small businesses and $20 for industries.

The law would also require retail electric companies to buy a customer’s surplus electricity at a fair market price or credit the customer’s bill and provide incentives for commercial-scale solar installations.

The bill’s fate was uncertain, and its supporters in the legislature and the solar industry fear that if it doesn’t pass the Legislature this year, other states that offer incentives will get a leg up on Texas in developing new solar business.

The bill in question is SB545, which was sadly one of the victims of the weekend chub-a-rama. However, as Citizen Sarah notes, there’s still hope.

This afternoon, the Senate has HB 1243 on their intent calendar. HB 1243 is a “net metering” bill which would ensure that owners of solar installations, small wind turbines, or biogas generators get paid a fair price for the excess power they produce. As HB 1243 is a solar-related bill, it can be deemed germane, or related, to solar SB 545, which “died” last night […].

Which means that SB 545 can (maybe, possibly) be amended to HB 1243. Tentative huzzah!

It gets better. HB 1243 is co-authored by Senator Troy Fraser — the same fellow who sponsored SB 545. As both of these bills are Fraser’s babies, the chances of SB 545 living on as an amendment are looking pretty good.

We should know soon enough. Both HB1243 (99-36 in the House) and SB545 (25-5 in the Senate) passed easily enough, so one hopes this would not be controversial. I’ve got my fingers crossed. I’ve got my fingers crossed. NewsWatch: Energy has more.

UPDATE: Success!

The text of Senate Bill 921 was attached to House Bill 1243, a measure relating to net metering for electric service customers that was earlier passed the House.

Also attached was the text of Senate Bill 545, a bill earlier passed by the Senate that is designed to provide incentives for solar projects.

I don’t know how the vote went, but it doesn’t really matter. It passed, and as long as the House concurs, it’s off to the Governor for an autograph. Nicely done, Senate.

Monday Lege roundup

Lots of legislative action today beyond the voter ID vaudeville act. Here’s a quick roundup of some other bills of interest.

HB1736, also known as the Tim Cole Act for the man who was posthumously exonerated this February, has passed both chambers and is on its way to Governor Perry’s desk. The bill increases the compensation given to those who are exonerated after being sent to jail. Grits has the story, and more info is here and here.

– The statewide smoking ban is stuck no more.

A statewide smoking ban was endorsed by a Senate panel today, after authors agreed to exempt cigar bars, patios of restaurants and bars, and nursing homes.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston said the compromises were necessary to resuscitate the measure, which he called a matter of life and death.

“It goes a long way toward reducing the incidence of cancer in Texas,” he said of his bill. It cleared the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on a 5-3 vote.

Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, joined the panel’s four Democrats in voting for the bill, which Ellis praised as “much stronger” than a companion measure in the House that was watered down Friday to exempt 224 of the state’s 254 counties, limit enforcement and carve out many loopholes for bars.

So Sen. Nelson was true to her word. Kudos to her for that. SB544 still has to pass the full Senate and then get reconciled with the House bill, once it passes that chamber. There’s still work to be done, in other words.

Solar energy gets a boost.

[SB541] by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would provide so-called renewable energy credit incentives for electric generation from equipment manufactured in Texas and sets a goal for electricity generated from sources other than wind at 1,500 megawatts by 2020.

“This is designed to help bring large, industrial-size solar facilities to Texas,” Watson said. “This is about looking forward to the future — in alternative energy, jobs and manufacturing — much the same we did for wind a few years ago.”

Good. ACT Texas and Environment Texas cheer, and I join them in that.

– Finally, both strip club bills, Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s HB982, and Rep. Ellen Cohen’s HB2070 were scheduled for votes today, the former in the Senate and the latter in the House. You have to figure there can only be one, so we’ll see which one survives.

Go Solar Texas

You won’t see this ad in Houston, but it is running in other parts of the state in support of solar energy and legislation to promote solar energy in Texas.

In honor of Earth Day tomorrow, ACT Texas gives us an update on three renewable-energy bills:

SB 545 – Senator Fraser: relating to the creation of a distributed solar generation incentive program.

This bill creates a five-year incentive program, administered by electric utilities, for commercial and residential customers to increase the amount of distributed solar generation installed. The incentive program would be funded by a nominal monthly fee on residential, commercial and industrial customers. The program would generate an estimated $50 million per year and lead to approximately 70 MWs of on-site renewables by 2015.

HB278 – Representative Anchia: relating to energy demand and incentives for distributed renewable generation.

This bill creates incentive programs, administered by electric utilities, for commercial customers, residential customers, and homebuilders to build on-site solar and geothermal generation. It also sets the goal of an additional 2,000 MWs of generating capacity from distributed renewable energy sources to be installed by the state by 2020, and at least 1,000 MWs by 2015.

SB 541 – Senator Watson: relating to incentives for Texas renewable energy jobs and manufacturing.

Seeks to create renewable energy manufacturing jobs in Texas by giving extra credit for electricity produced by equipment that is made in Texas. The bill increases the goal for renewable energy and seeks to expand on Texas’ success with wind power, by setting a 3,000 megawatt goal for non-wind renewable generation in Texas

SB545 passed out of the Senate yesterday, so that’s good news. The biggest enemy of all these bills at this time is the clock, or more appropriately the calendar. Maybe with the budget passed we’ll see some more action. As always, it’s never a bad idea or a bad time to contact your Rep or Senator’s office in support of a bill you favor.

Solar power

As you know, I’ve been a big advocate for wind energy on this site. Texas has done a lot to make itself a leader in that industry, and I believe it will pay many long-term dividends. But just as we have a lot of wind in this state (insert your own joke here), we also have a lot of sunshine, and as we do with wind, we ought to take advantage of that. Fortunately, there’s a lot of action on that front in the Lege, with much of it taking place this past week in the Senate.

Altogether, according to David Power, the deputy director of Public Citizen Texas, a consumer and environmental advocacy group, there are 69 renewable energy bills before the legislature, and over 50 of them promote solar power — far more than ever before.

“There are senators and representatives that are talking about solar that have never mentioned the word probably in their lives,” he said. “We’ve actually heard the term ‘global warming,’ and two years ago that was called ‘the G word’ — you didn’t talk about it.”

Mark Strama, a state representative who is a leading promoter of renewable energy, has introduced at least five green bills this year (including a measure that would allow local governments to create a property tax financing program for solar, along the lines of several California cities).

“It just seems like everybody recognizes our leadership in wind, and that government policy got us where we are today in wind,” he told me last month.

In solar, he added, “We need to catch up.”

BOR has more on this.

With over 60 bills in the House and over 30 in the Senate all pertaining to green energy initiatives, the Solar Alliance has targeted 6 major criterion needed in in any solar package in order to trigger the kind of job growth a widespread solar industry can create.

1. 3,000 total megawatts of installed solar over a 5- to 10-year program;
2. At least 1,000 of these megawatts dedicated to distributed generation;
3. Statewide application, with every region, every electric provider, and every customer class included, because if everyone benefits, everyone should participate;
4. Rate impact for residential consumers of less than $1.00 per month;
5. Provide an average of $250 million annually in incentives for the life of the program;
6. Program expires when the goal is reached.

This is an interesting tactic. Instead of advocating for a package of bills, the Solar Alliance has focused on specific policy positions.

If nothing else, that may help the rest of us evaluate the progress made in terms of what did and did not get passed. The Solar Alliance and the Alliance for a Clean Texas are good resources to visit if you want more involvement.

Finally, along similar lines, there’s a push for a coal moratorium. Maybe these things can happen this session, and maybe not. But the chances for any of them are better than they’ve been in recent memory, perhaps in forever.