Greg Roach doesn’t much care for the blinking red lights atop the ninety wind turbines just outside of town. They distract from the nightly blanket of stars that’s among the benefits of life in Olney, an agricultural crossroads about a two-hour drive northwest of Fort Worth. But, says the 67-year-old superintendent of the local school district, that’s a minor quibble.

Tax payments from the Trinity Hills wind farm have allowed Olney ISD to remodel the junior high and the high school and to build a vocational building for classes in welding and agriculture, all without raising the tax rate. It’s been “an absolute home run fiscally,” Roach says.

And those benefits have recently gotten a whole lot bigger. Trinity Hills enjoyed an enormous tax break when it began operating, in 2012, but that decade-long arrangement has come to an end. The wind farm now numbers among the district’s largest taxpayers. “You are looking at around one million dollars in revenue,” Roach says, for a district with a total annual budget of about $12 million. “There is absolutely no doubt they are a big boost.” He expects the extra money will help the district purchase a new school bus and upgrade classroom technology.

Olney ISD and countless other public entities have benefited mightily since Texas rolled out the welcome mat for renewables, in 1999, by deregulating the electricity market and setting a ten-year goal of adding two gigawatts of green energy to the grid. With ample wind and sunshine, a business-friendly regulatory regime, and state-backed construction of new high-voltage transmission wires, Texas quickly became the nation’s renewable-energy leader. It reached the two-gigawatt goal by 2005 and has since met even more ambitious benchmarks.

The state produces more wind and solar power today than the next three states (California, Iowa, and Oklahoma) combined, and that lead is growing. Last year Texas added more new renewable power generation than the next five states together. The American Clean Power Association, a trade group representing wind-, solar-, battery-, and hydrogen-energy developers, recently testified that renewables projects have invested $93 billion in Texas during the past couple of decades and generated $684 million combined in lease payments to landowners and taxes to counties and school districts.

One recent estimate found that renewables lowered the cost of electricity to Texans by $11 billion last year, or $423 for every customer served by the state’s predominant power grid. Over the past five years, Texas has added 2,800 jobs to support wind and solar power generation at the same time that the state has lost 44,000 oil and gas extraction jobs, in part because automation has allowed producers to drill more wells while employing fewer roughnecks.

The abundance of low-cost clean energy—a growing priority for global corporations—has also driven companies to put new facilities in Texas. It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing. In December, for example, Pennsylvania-based Air Products and Virginia-based AES announced that they would jointly build a $4 billion plant near Wichita Falls to manufacture hydrogen from electricity generated by wind and solar.

So why, any reasonable observer might ask, have Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and the Republican majority in the state legislature been tripping over themselves to upend this remarkable success? Why were about a dozen bills proposed during this year’s legislative session that seemed designed to kill the Texas renewable-energy boom?

A recent University of Houston poll found that a majority of Texans support greater access to green energy. Even among Republicans, 50 percent favored increasing the use of solar power. That’s not surprising, considering that only 2.6 percent of Texans work directly or indirectly in extraction, transportation, and refining of oil and gas, while everyone in the state pays a price when frozen gas facilities trigger a statewide blackout and when the burning of fossil fuels contributes to pollution and climate change.

Perhaps this is why Patrick talks very differently than he walks. In recent months he has taken to boasting that Texas ranks fifth among all polities worldwide in terms of renewable-energy capacity, trailing only the United States as a whole, China, India, and Germany. (He may be overstating our prowess. By some measures, we rank a mere twelfth.) “There is nothing wrong with renewable energy, okay?” Patrick said in March, at a conference hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an advocacy group heavily funded by fossil fuel interests. “It helps clean the air and helps keep our prices lower. That’s why a lot of companies move here—because our cost per kilowatt is so much cheaper than other states.”

Such rhetoric, however, is undercut by the agenda relentlessly pursued by Patrick and his party during this year’s legislative session. One bill proposed a new process making it extremely difficult to set up offshore wind farms in state waters in the Gulf of Mexico. There was also a bill aimed at raising the costs involved for renewable-energy generators to sell their electricity in the state’s marketplace. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” isn’t just the title of an Oscar-winning movie; it’s an apt description of the flotilla of legislation intended to weaken renewable energy in Texas.

Perhaps the most impactful proposal comes from Senator Lois Kolkhorst, of Brenham, who is championing a bill that would require a new layer of state approval for all wind and solar farms, something that coal and natural gas plants don’t need. It would make setting up new renewable-energy projects more bureaucratic and more costly. The bill is “designed to stop renewable-energy development . . . everywhere in Texas,” says Jeff Clark, president and CEO of the Advanced Power Alliance.

Meanwhile other proposals were designed to favor the fossil fuels industry. One bill offered zero-interest loans (subsidized by Texas taxpayers) to natural gas power plants to help pay for their maintenance. It would also authorize the building of ten giant natural gas plants, at a cost of about $18 billion. (Paid for by a combination of part of the state budget surplus and, through additional fees, by anyone who gets an electricity bill in Texas.)

While the fate of these bills and other proposed legislation hadn’t been determined when this story went to press, “wind and solar are going to take hits this session,” said a lobbyist who represents renewable-energy companies. “The question is going to be how bad.”

The argument many proponents of these changes recite is a variation on Abbott’s baseless claim that the 2021 statewide blackout was caused by evil wind turbines and failed solar power. According to this line of reasoning, the rise of renewables poses a threat to the reliability of the Texas power grid: there might come a time when it’s cloudy and the wind isn’t blowing, and there’s not enough electricity available to meet growing demand. Such a future, opponents of renewable energy claim, is quickly coming, thanks to the extension of subsidies and passage of new tax credits in the federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.

In recent speeches Patrick has raised the specter of the 2021 blackout as the reason we need more gas-fired power plants. Yet he never mentions that it was a massive failure of the gas infrastructure that plunged Texas into darkness. Other states hit by the same winter storm kept the lights on because they, unlike Texas, had required that gas facilities be winterized. Some wind turbines froze, yes, but when you read the blizzard of texts and emails exchanged among state officials leading up to the blackout (which I did), they weren’t worried about wind farms. They were freaking out because the so-called reliable natural gas system was failing. (It is not clear whether this has been fixed. The Legislature has addressed some, but not all, of the problem, and an investigation by the Texas attorney general into the activities of the natural gas industry during the blackout was announced and then disappeared.)

A few months after the blackout, Abbott gave the Public Utility Commission marching orders. The top priority was to generate more coal, gas, and nuclear power. The second item: make wind and solar companies pay whenever weather conditions prevent them from delivering electricity. The Texas Public Policy Foundation soon joined this incipient war on renewables. Wind and solar energy were volatile, putting a strain on the grid, the Austin-based group argued. In other words, TPPF’s Brent Bennett said in October 2021, winterizing the gas-delivery and power-generation system wasn’t sufficient to prevent the next blackout. Texas needed more “reliable” coal, natural gas, and nuclear backups.

The irony was thick. Natural gas was a major culprit in the blackout, but to prevent the next blackout, Texas supposedly needed more natural gas. I recently asked Bennett if the renewables building boom in Texas was destabilizing the grid. He said it was, and it would get worse. “We foresee things getting pretty dicey in the next, maybe not three years, definitely five,” he said.

It’s hardly surprising that TPPF took this position. Nine of the twenty members of the board are executives or board members of oil and gas companies, including vice chairman Tim Dunn, who runs CrownQuest Operating, one of the largest oil and gas companies in Texas. Dunn is also one of the state’s largest political donors, handing out $14.4 million over the past five years, according to data from the Texas Ethics Commission. Another board member, Alan Hassenflu, CEO of a Houston commercial real estate firm, made $3.2 million in political donations. Abbott received nearly $900,000 from TPPF board members, and Patrick $1.2 million, during that same span.

Of course, TPPF was hardly alone in pushing for renewables to pay more. Three of the largest owners of fossil fuel power plants in the state—Calpine, NRG, and Vistra—also favored the measures put forward by Abbott.

The question at the heart of this legislative barrage: does Texas need to completely rethink its electricity market, or will the market find its own solution? Curiously, for members of a party that professes to oppose government overreach, Republicans at the state capitol argue that major market intervention is required. They want to put a thumb on the scales in favor of coal, gas, and oil—at a potential cost of billions of dollars.

Republicans argue that the free market in energy has been undermined by federal tax incentives that encourage the development of wind and solar power and by Wall Street’s embrace of “ESG” investing. The initialism stands for environment, social, and corporate governance, and it more generally means considering factors such as sustainability in addition to financial performance when making investments. (Stomping out ESG is a Patrick passion. Two years ago, he pushed through a law preventing state retirement funds from doing business with certain Wall Street firms that embraced ESG.) GOP legislators say they’re only looking to “level the playing field” by reducing renewable energy’s advantages.

Of course, that’s the same renewable energy in which Texas is a global leader. In essence, legislators have proposed building fortifications, trenches, and minefields to slow an invading army of . . . Texans. John Davis, a former Republican member of the state House from Harris County, reached a stark conclusion in looking at one of the bills: “It doesn’t make sense, unless, of course, it is to punish renewables.”

Not long before the Valentine’s Day blackout of 2021, Burlingame, California–based energy developer Eolian decided to build a very large battery system in Mission, barely a half mile from the Rio Grande. It named the project Madero, after a nearby pond, which itself may have been named for the thirty-seventh president of Mexico, Francisco Ignacio Madero González. When Eolian decided to build a second battery system on the site, the company dubbed it Ignacio.

Eolian CEO Aaron Zubaty told me that Madero and Ignacio will soak up excess electricity during parts of the day when nearby solar and wind farms are producing so much juice that electricity prices fall. Then, later in the day (or maybe the next day), when demand and prices rise, the battery facilities will send that stored power back out to the grid. It’s a buy-low, sell-high venture—like a farmer storing grain in a silo until prices rise, except the bumper crop is electrons.

Eolian spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Ignacio and Madero, which came online in March, and Zubaty says his investments could help the state’s grid function more reliably for years to come. He’s upset that Texas lawmakers are contemplating measures—such as building those giant backup natural gas plants—that could undermine the future profitability of his batteries and destroy the financial incentives for other new players to bring innovative, sustainable technologies to the state’s grid.

Since deregulation, nearly a quarter century ago, Texas has been on the cutting edge of electricity. The state has thrived on companies coming here to invest in and build new energy assets. There was a natural gas power plant boom in the 2000s, followed by a wind boom, then a solar boom in the past few years. Next up, a battery boom could well smooth out the unpredictable ups and downs of renewable energy. Back in 2020, there were 275 megawatts of batteries in ERCOT (enough to power Denton for a few hours.) By the end of the year, there are expected to be 7,505 megawatts of batteries (enough for Denton, plus Arlington, Dallas, Fort Worth, Frisco, Garland, Irving, and Plano). And that figure could double in two years.

The state’s Republican leaders, and those who fund their campaigns, clearly don’t like the direction this is headed, but that doesn’t mean the market is broken. Companies such as Eolian are investing hundreds of millions of dollars based on their read of what the market needs and how they can profit by fulfilling that need. “Investments began years ago in anticipation of the problems that the market is now seeing, and new systems are coming online,” Zubaty said. 

It’s not just battery builders who feel as though the state government is looking to pull the rug out from under their business plans. WattBridge is building new natural gas plants that fire up in minutes, exactly the sort of quick-start resources that experts say could help protect the grid against dips in renewable-energy output when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. This investment, $2 billion in the last three years—including two new facilities that opened in Brazoria County in February and May—represents the sort of market-driven solution that Republican legislators typically praise.

Yet Mike Alvarado, president of the Houston company, testified in March that he’s likely done building in Texas after WattBridge’s pending seven hundred megawatts’ worth of projects are completed. “Unfortunately the market we invested in over the last thirty-six months is not the market that exists today,” he said. WattBridge will look elsewhere for opportunities.

The message of the Legislature’s war on renewables seems to be that Texas is no longer open for business, at least not for companies taking risks in building new electricity-generating facilities.

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the June 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Lege Attacks Renewable Energy.” Subscribe today.