WhiteBill WhitePhoto: David OrtezEarlier this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) made news with a characteristically rash declaration that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was “an act of God” and that he had “full confidence” in BP’s diligence. His opponent, Bill White (D), responded with a 10-page memo asserting that Perry’s “sweeping generalizations are not helpful.” It followed with a detailed analysis of the law and engineering of offshore drilling disasters, drawing on White’s experience working in the energy industry and at the Department of Energy.

The underdog White — any Democrat running for statewide office in Texas is an underdog — is betting that his sober, pragmatic approach will appeal to voters ready for a change from the secession-talking, EPA-blasting Perry, the longest-serving governor in the state’s history. Polls put White within 7 points of Perry, and if the challenger is able to cast the race as a decision between the past and the future, he may have a chance.

During White’s time as mayor of Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, he ran a highly successful home-weatherization program and engineered a major purchase of 50 megawatts of clean energy, giving momentum to the state’s booming wind industry.

White spoke to Grist this week about energy, high-speed rail, and the daunting prospect of urban planning in Texas. [And here’s our look at Gov. Perry’s record.]

—–

Q. The Texas wind industry is far and away the largest in the nation. Can the wind industry count on your support, and what would you do to help it keep growing?

A. Oh, sure. When I was mayor, I made Houston the largest public consumer of renewable energy of any city, state, or federal agency. We went from zero renewables to 50 megawatts, and it was from West Texas wind. When I was deputy secretary of the U.S. Energy Department [from 1993 to 1995], I helped get financing for the first [utility-scale] wind energy project in Texas. I predicted at the time that this would be a vital new industry for our state, and now it has been.

Now, there are some constraints with the issue of getting transmission lines built out in a way that doesn’t violate the rights of landowners and doesn’t interfere with other natural resources. We need to balance this against other environmental considerations involving land use. We ought to try to use existing right-of-ways as much as possible to build up transmission capacity.

So I think Texas should continue to be a leader in renewables, and that includes wind, and cost-effective biomass, and, next, rooftop solar systems.

Q. Solar-energy advocates say they need a “carve out,” or a separate non-wind target in the state’s renewable-energy standard, to give solar a start in Texas. How would you approach that?

A. The renewable mandate [signed into law in 2005] did help jumpstart a thriving wind energy business. Large-scale solar projects still have some cost disadvantage compared to either conventional sources or natural gas or wind.

We’ve shown that rooftop solar systems can be more effective in housing than many believe. As the price of solar voltaics comes down, the expertise to install the panels goes up, and as the control technologies within houses and commercial buildings improve, then you can imagine using your own power off-grid at a time when the grid pricing is at its highest.

Q. So would you support a solar-only standard within the renewable standard?

A. I would, but I would make sure that it is a target that does not cause excessive costs.

Q. Gov. Perry has sued the EPA to block it from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Given that Congress is not likely to pass a climate bill anytime soon, do you agree with his position?

A. I think, as do many environmental advocates, it is best to have broad stakeholder involvement through legislation rather than to have mandates from a regulatory agency.

Q. Sure. But it’s one thing to prefer legislation to regulation and another thing to sue the EPA to block the only federal action that is happening.

A. Either the EPA action is lawful or unlawful, and it takes only one suit to test that. The fact that you have so many states joining the suit — I never want to use taxpayer dollars for political theater.

Q. As the mayor of Houston and an Energy Department official, you did a lot to promote efficiency, which is of course the cheapest energy source. What should the state be doing to cut energy waste?

A. We need a governor who will encourage local governments to adopt forward-thinking energy codes that make occupancy more affordable and make our state more competitive. If we can avoid having to build large, new generating plants, we can avoid the expense of those plants.

In Texas, Houston set the standard with an aggressive code. Dallas and Austin have done the same for commercial construction, with broad-based support from the business community. But much of the state is unincorporated, where local leaders don’t even have the authority to create an energy code, if the people want one. I want to give local elected officials that authority.

Q. As mayor, you fought the governor’s plan to fast-track new coal plants. Would you continue to oppose new coal plants as governor?

A. I would need to look at the specific circumstances, but I think it’s better for the state, in the long run, to have more renewables and natural gas. I don’t believe that we should be fuel-specific or technology-specific, but emissions standards over the long run would tilt in favor of natural gas and renewables.

Here’s an even better plan: In Houston, we retrofitted older housing stock at a very large volume. It created jobs, and we did it without any federal stimulus or weatherizing funds. When I was deputy secretary of energy, I noticed that the way we had traditionally done weatherization was inefficient. You didn’t get economies of scale. So in Houston, we gave everybody in a neighborhood a one-page form that said “Yes” or “No.” For everybody who wanted it, a crew would come in and pressurize the house, seal the leaks, put or replace insulation in the attic if it was insufficient, replace light bulbs with energy-efficient light bulbs, those types of things. We could do one house in about 2 hours and 10 minutes. In the neighborhoods where we did this, we brought down the average utility bill for all who participated by 10 to 20 percent. We scaled up, trained crews, created jobs, and had certifications and quality control, for a little more than $1,000 per house, versus $8,000 for the tra
ditional weatherization program. That’s the type of program we need throughout the country, especially in middle-class neighborhoods built from 1940 to 1970.

Q. Let’s talk about land use. After decades of sprawl-focused housing development, walkable urbanism is resurgent all around the country. What about Texas? Is there an appetite for it there?

A. Sure. You see a huge explosion of interest in people living closer to where they work.

In Houston, it’s harder to understand, because it has lower density than many cities and multiple employment centers. But we were constantly looking for ways to give people more opportunities to live close to where they work. There are obstacles to this in other cities that we do not have in Houston. In many cities, zoning laws in effect make for segregation of single-family residential neighborhoods. It’s also effectively segregation by income. In Houston, I thought that if people wanted to build denser developments closer to a major employment center, we should remove impediments to that.

Q. So with less zoning, Houston was more able to let the market build what it wanted?

A. Yes. There are going to be some people who don’t want denser, high-rise, or multi-family development to occur near their neighborhoods. Denser development is not, in and of itself, a goal. The goal is giving people options and choices. We live in a free country where people ought to be able to have a variety of housing options. What we want to do is remove barriers to those people who want to live closer to where they work and want other options how to get there. I think it’s particularly important that we continue as a nation to build out urban mass-transit systems.

Q. What would you like to do as governor to promote transit and pedestrian-friendly developments?

A. The first thing I’d do is give more flexibility and deference to local communities in urban centers for how they wanted to spend state transportation funds. I wouldn’t mandate it, but I’d give them more options.

Q. Would you like to keep the focus of state transportation planning on new roads, or shift it toward high-speed rail and regional transit?

A. On high-speed rail, that would really depend on some federal funding. I would have competed for federal funding for high-speed rail [Gov. Perry did not], rather than losing those dollars by default to Florida and California. We have, in the middle of the state, a congested Interstate 35, which links several high-populated areas. That would be a prime candidate for some high-speed rail.

Second, to be real clear, I don’t believe in top-down planning. I believe in more bottom-up. There are communities throughout the state that would choose to use more transportation dollars that would be allocated for the state for mass transit, but that would be their choice. We should allow local leadership to make those choices.

Q. What are you going to do to close the state’s [$21 billion] budget gap?

A. We need to run state government like a well-run customer service business, rather than, as it’s currently run, a political machine. We have a classic case of waste in money spent promoting the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive toll road facilitating truck commerce. [Gov. Perry’s plan] would have taken over half a million acres of private land.

[The budget] is not going to be easy, but we’re going to fund our priorities first, and those will be: public safety, higher education, public education. It’ll mean watching every item of operating cost, including energy costs.

Q. A broader question: Building a sustainable economy is going to require more than just tweaks to our existing system. Are Texans willing to do what science requires on global warming and other ecological limits? And are you willing to talk to them about just how urgent this is?

A. I think there’s a matter of personal responsibility involved in our consumption decisions. One of the greatest motivators Texans have for more energy efficiency is viewing cost as an enemy. That’s the way we brought about, in Houston, a strong bipartisan consensus for some of the most aggressive commercial energy codes. We started with the Chamber of Commerce and with the design community, making sure there was adequate capacity, and then we started building all city buildings to be LEED certified. Awareness set in among the commercial building owners that tenants want to be in an energy-efficient building. When you have stable occupancy costs, less subject to upward pressures on utility prices, you can plan for the future.

I believe that energy efficiency done right has a strong economic rationale and that it also has environmental benefits. When you put the discussion in those terms, I find that you have an easier time finding common ground. It’s easier to convince people that they should avoid traffic congestion and save more of their time by living closer to where they work, than simply by making the environmental case. But when they do live closer to where they work, there are environmental benefits.