A political surprise in coal country could provide a lesson for oil country

Guest Author
Illustration of a globe with Texas and Poland emphasized with two hands in front, one holding a solar array and one holding a dump truck filled with coal.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

Conservative states like Texas with deep historical and economic connections to the fossil fuel industry could learn from a surprise election result in Europe last year. A long-time coal advocate changed his stance to support clean energy in the heart of Polish coal country — and came out in front.

Hard economics pushed him to embrace wind and solar, and the people understood.

Donald Tusk, who became prime minister of Poland in December, fought to prolong the coal industry over decades. But recently he said leaders of his generation need to change direction, and he is now planning an ambitious shift to wind and solar to reduce the share of coal in his country’s energy mix.

Polish businesses have been struggling with some of the highest costs of electricity in Europe, while their neighbors have benefited from plummeting costs as wind and solar investments flourish.

This trend is only heading in one direction. The share of electricity generated by fossil fuels plummeted by 17% in Europe in the first half of 2023, the largest reduction ever seen, according to Ember, an energy think tank. Wind power is now the cheapest source of electricity in Europe, and the International Energy Agency predicts it will become the single largest source by 2027.

Poland’s fossil-heavy energy mix could hurt the country’s economy in other ways as well. There’s a risk manufacturing investors could be deterred from deploying new projects in regions with carbon-intensive electricity, fearing pushback from increasingly climate-conscious consumers. What’s more, the European Union, of which Poland is a member, agreed in late 2023 to move toward requiring new products made in the bloc be designed in a way that lowers their carbon footprints. From this standpoint, Poland benefits by moving away from coal and toward renewables.

When it comes to engaging with the rest of the EU, Tusk’s new government is among the group supporting an ambitious new plan for a 90% reduction in the bloc’s carbon emissions by 2040.

Across the Atlantic in the United States, Texas is far better positioned than Poland to prosper as the world shifts to renewable energy. It already produces far more wind power than any other U.S. state and leads the country in utility scale solar installations — which is expected to double in the next five years.

And yet, some local policymakers want to cook this golden goose for the state’s economy. Many conservative politicians have traditionally dismissed renewable energy without explaining why clean air, energy sovereignty and local job creation are misaligned with their conservative values.

Last year, the Texas legislature passed a law to publicly fund more gas-fired power plants that explicitly excluded cleaner sources from receiving similar funding. Those policies are based on politics, not economics. As a result, Texas could lose out on the significant investments associated with new clean energy deployment. If it does, other U.S. states or countries in Europe will be happy to step up and attract that capital.

As in Poland, the energy mix in Texas could impact how competitive other aspects of the state’s economy are in the future. Manufactured and industrial products made in Texas, and elsewhere in the U.S., may start losing out to products made in places with cleaner grids.

The EU’s tariff on carbon-intensive products like steel, cement and fertilizers, for example, could push prices up for Texas and American-made products. The tariff doesn’t go into effect until 2026, but slow walking the inevitable transition beyond fossil fuels could cause U.S. companies to miss the moment and fall behind. The scale of global markets, and the timing of entry, matter.

I imagine it was not easy for Polish leader Donald Tusk to change course on fossil fuels. But by having the wisdom to engage with the new facts on the ground, and the courage to re-evaluate his position, he maintains a credible vision for his country’s future. European politicians disagree on a range of issues, but, increasingly, the importance of renewable energy is not one of them.

Political leaders in the U.S., especially those in conservative states, may want to consider a similar approach to economic progress.