John Pitts JR., Texas Star Alliance
Episode 32 | January 29, 2019
John Pitts, Jr., lobbyist at Texas Star Alliance, represents Texas Solar Power Association (TSPA) at the state legislature. He joins hosts Kyle Frazier and Tim Duffy to share the story of his career in public policy, give us the inside story on the Texas legislative process, and consider the future of energy policy in the Lone Star State.
Meet John Pitts
John Pitts, Jr. has been involved in public affairs and around the legislative lobbying world for 20 years. He started out working at the state capital in college, then began working on Republican campaigns, and went to Washington, D.C. where he began focusing on policy specific issues. After returning to Austin, he joined up with the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association.
Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association (TREIA) was one of the first organizations to focus on sustainability issues and renewable energy from a policy standpoint. He was a lobbyist for them for several years and developed an interest in energy policy especially at the state and local level.
He wanted to focus on the business side, so he went to SunPower to work on project development and business development origination in Texas and elsewhere. However, he always saw himself going back to policy issues and ultimately decided to jump back to legislative affairs. At Texas Star Alliance, his portfolio includes expanding access to healthcare, building STEM curricula from K-12 to higher education, and promoting solar energy by representing Texas Solar Power Association.
Solar in Session
Texas Solar Power Association (TSPA) started about five years ago with the idea that solar as an industry has distinct needs compared to other renewable energy sources and requires a dedicated voice. “The association was founded with the basic idea that solar has the ability to compete and grow in the competitive market that exists here in Texas,” says Pitts.
He continues, “The industry is mature enough and competitive enough to grow on its own as long as policy continues to not be negative. If there are places where policies are negative, we address that fact.”
TSPA is currently involved its third legislative session. The organization has helped to pass several proactive bills, primarily related to distributed generation (DG) in the retail market. These bills deal with barriers to entry such as excessive permitting, excessive costs, and homeowners’ associations saying you can’t put solar on houses. They promote state-level policies that address friction in the market and reduce barriers to consumers’ ability to go solar.
Pitts says TSPA is optimistic in this current session because the low cost of solar allows market diversification, between wholesale and retail as well as geographically. Solar is spreading all over Texas, not just in areas with local rebates, which enables TSPA to speak with legislators about the relevance of solar energy in each of their districts rather than in the abstract.
He points out that legislators across the political spectrum are supportive of solar energy but for different reasons. Republicans and conservatives like the fact that solar provides consumers with more energy independence. Large industrial and commercial entities such as Exxon and Shell are seeing the benefits of solar in keeping the cost of electricity down, even in their own refining operations. Put simply, people want to control their own energy destiny.
“We need to break out of those structures because there are so many things that we all see as problems and challenges for the state that people on both sides of the aisle are trying to figure out.”
What’s Next for Texas Energy?
Pitts says there is significant activity and growth in alternative that will benefit everybody statewide over the long term.
The cost of electricity is so low in Texas today because of natural gas, and Pitts says he doesn’t see the price of natural gas spiking anytime soon. Low, stable natural gas prices mean that fuel costs are becoming a smaller component of the cost of energy.
The retirement of coal plants will continue, and it isn’t related to environmental policy. Coal plants are expensive to operate, and the state’s increasingly diverse energy mix gives us lower-cost alternatives.
Solar and wind both continue to grow, and solar is especially useful during peak times like the summer when there is a critical need for more electricity. The rapid growth of solar to meet peak demand may insulate regulators from unpopular policies such as a capacity market, which pays generators even when they aren’t producing power.
Pitts says that solar is “really the only or almost the only technology that’s going to grow in a significant way at peak over the next few years.” The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is projecting that under the current policies, solar capacity will grow from about 1 percent to about 5 percent of the wholesale market in the next three years alone. With coal plants closing, solar can make up supply gaps in the reserve margin during peak hours.
A more diverse energy mix lowers costs and increases choice, and clean solar energy is a key part of that changing mix. John Pitts is an advocate for the benefits of solar to private citizens as well as businesses, and he is leading the way for a growing number of Texans.