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Nation & World

Texas Lawmakers Debate Measures To Protect Against Future Power Failures

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After deadly blackouts gripped Texas in February, state lawmakers vowed to protect people from future power failures. But now lawmakers are pushing measures that critics say could do the opposite. As Mose Buchele of member station KUT reports, they may also threaten the growth of renewable energy in Texas.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: When weather forecasters warned of the winter storm heading to Marfa, Texas, in February, Lesley Villarreal started getting text messages from friends. They were asking if they could come over if the power failed. That's because not only does her house have a gas stove; it's got old-fashioned gas heaters, too.

LESLEY VILLARREAL: We don't really use that often because it's not maybe the safest thing because you're talking about some, like, old gas heaters that actually have flame. Like, there's fire.

BUCHELE: But they keep the house warm without electricity. She says over three days without power, her place became a hub of activity, with friends and neighbors stopping by.

VILLARREAL: Marfa's tiny, so the word gets out fast when there's somebody that has heat.

BUCHELE: Stories like these have become a powerful argument in a battle at the state legislature.

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JOE DESHOTEL: House Bill 17 relates to energy choice for Texas.

BUCHELE: At a hearing this spring, Democratic state rep Joe Deshotel introduced a bill that would stop Texas cities from banning natural gas hookups in new buildings. Such bans are part of a growing trend to electrify new housing to fight climate change. But Deshotel made that sound risky because of the mass power outages in February.

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DESHOTEL: I know in my own home, I was able to keep things going because we had a generator that kicked on that ran on natural gas.

BUCHELE: But the thing is his bill was filed before the blackout. It's similar to preemption laws adopted with industry support in neighboring oil and gas states like Oklahoma and Louisiana. In Texas, the plan is opposed by environmental groups, but it's also under scrutiny for another reason. Some say it would actually increase the likelihood of another large-scale blackout.

DOUG LEWIN: This bill absolutely, unequivocally would make the problem worse.

BUCHELE: This is Doug Lewin. He's an energy efficiency advocate and president of the consulting firm Stoic Energy. To understand his argument, you've got to remember one reason the power went out in Texas was limited gas supply. While most homes got gas during the freeze, many power plants couldn't get enough of it to run. Lewin says Deshotel's bill will create even more residential gas demand. That could mean even less gas going to power plants during the next big freeze.

LEWIN: Look. There's an important debate to be had over whether or not they should have this power to allow gas in homes. But it should not, in any universe, be part of a package meant to prevent the next storm.

BUCHELE: This proposal is not the only gas-friendly bill that's been pitched as a blackout fix. Another would raise the cost of renewable energy. That's controversial in Texas, a state that leads the country in wind power production. Meanwhile, bills to regulate the natural gas industry to improve supply during cold spells have been abandoned or significantly watered down. Of all the proposals, the bill to assure natural gas hookups in Texas cities and towns appears closest to becoming law. And back in Marfa, Lesley Villarreal says she would have trouble going without gas, but that doesn't mean she supports the bill.

VILLARREAL: I feel like I would need to get more information to give an opinion on that, you know, because obviously, climate change - that's something that's important to me.

BUCHELE: It's also of growing importance to corporate America. A group of companies, including Amazon, GE and Goldman Sachs, recently wrote Texas state leaders opposing the plan to raise the cost of wind and solar energy, saying it could slam the brakes on Texas' booming renewable energy sector.

For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.