On the ballot in Texas: Will subsidizing gas plants solve the grid crisis?

Voters in Texas Tuesday will decide whether to provide billions of taxpayer dollars for the construction of natural-gas-fired power plants.

The constitutional amendment, which is almost certain to pass, seeks to solve the crisis facing the electric grid in Texas, where a 2021 winter freeze killed 246 people and caused millions to lose power. But not everyone agrees it's the right solution.

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Backers of the proposal, including Republican lawmakers and the fossil fuel industry, say more gas plants are needed to prevent widespread blackouts in the event of another severe storm. Opponents, including environmentalists and energy experts, say subsidizing gas plants would do little to solve the state's electricity reliability woes while worsening another crisis: climate change.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed Proposition 7 this summer and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed it. Now, voters will have the final say over whether to implement the proposal, and they've rarely rejected a constitutional amendment.

Here's what to know.

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The details: Proposition 7 would create the Texas Energy Fund, which would provide $10 billion for the development of power projects across the state.

Most of that money - about $7.2 billion - would go toward low-interest loans and grants for power projects in the region served by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state's main grid operator.

Another $1 billion worth of loans and grants would go to power projects outside ERCOT.

The remaining $1.8 billion would help pay for microgrids, or small-scale power systems that can operate independently of the grid, at critical facilities such as hospitals.

While the proposal doesn't explicitly mention natural gas plants, it would primarily benefit them. That's because the loans and grants would be reserved for projects that are "dispatchable," meaning they can quickly adjust the amount of power they feed the grid.

Gas plants are dispatchable, while weather-dependent wind and solar farms are not. The measure also specifies that giant batteries are not eligible for the loans and grants, even though they are dispatchable - and they played a crucial role in preventing power outages when a punishing heat dome settled over the state this summer.

Solar farms provide plentiful power when the sun is shining, while wind farms tend to generate the most energy at night. That has led ERCOT to warn of an electricity demand squeeze in the mornings during winter months, when homes and businesses are powering up. A recent ERCOT report said the grid could have a 1-in-7 chance of controlled blackouts if Texas sees another severe storm this December.

Texans decide on constitutional amendments in odd-numbered election years, when voter turnout tends to be lower. If history is a guide, the proposal will probably pass: Between 1995 and 2021, Texans approved 160 of 175 ballot measures in odd-numbered years, according to Ballotpedia.

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The debate: State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R), who wrote the legislation behind Proposition 7, said at a committee hearing that it will "balance out the ever-increasing penetration of interruptibles and renewables on the Texas grid."

A slew of fossil fuel and business interests have registered in support of the constitutional amendment, including ConocoPhillips, Valero Energy, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas Association of Manufacturers. Many of these interests also lobbied for the bill.

The proposal will "modernize electric generation facilities to be more resilient, no matter the weather," Tony Bennett, president and chief executive of the Texas Association of Manufacturers, said in an emailed statement.

But environmental groups, including Environment Texas and the Sierra Club, say building gas plants won't help the state's beleaguered grid. They note that the failure of gas plants was the biggest cause of blackouts during the 2021 winter storm, even though many Republican lawmakers incorrectly blamed frozen wind turbines.

Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said the constitutional amendment could also slow the state's clean-energy transition at a crucial point in the fight against climate change. He noted that the primary component of natural gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere more than carbon dioxide in the short term.

"This is moving the state in the wrong direction by increasing the amount of energy we're getting from methane gas at a time when we desperately need to get off of fossil fuels altogether," Metzger said.

Doug Lewin, president of the Austin-based clean-energy consulting firm Stoic Energy, said he thinks the $1.8 billion for microgrids could help avoid outages, especially at critical facilities. But he said the money for gas plants would be better spent on efficiency measures that reduce electricity demand in the first place.

Overall, Lewin called the measure a missed opportunity for Texas Republicans to fix the state's grid crisis.

"There's very little chance that this won't pass," he said. "And when it passes, I think the microgrid piece will be the most impactful thing that the legislature has actually done for the grid. But it's not a super high bar because they haven't done all that much."

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