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February 21, 2011

Why So Much Wind Power in Texas

In 2010, Texas got more than 8% of its electric power from wind, up from 3% in 2007. That is far and away a greater percentage than any other state, and 25% of the total wind capacity in the US. A post by Christopher Head on theenergycollective.com expresses amazement:

"By 2010 Texas had become the undisputed leader of wind energy in the United States, a fact that flies in the face of conventional logic. How is a state steeped in oil and gas, and run by climate-change denying politicians, spearheading some of the largest renewable energy developments in the US? The answer could provide some insights into how renewable energy can flourish in states where environmental and climate concerns aren't necessarily the main drivers of energy policy."

There are national incentives for renewable power generation just as there are for oil drilling (shouldn't be either IMHO) but these apply to every state, of course. Texas, like many states, does require that its electric utilities get a certain percentage of their power from renewables by a certain date (this is called a renewable portfolio standard or RPS). However, their 2025 goal has already been all but meant, so it doesn't look like the RPS drove the speed of deployment. Texas has some incentives for building and selling renewable energy, but these are less generous than those of most other states, so it wasn't the incentives which differentiated Texas.

There are actually valuable lessons for all energy projects in all states in Texas' deployment of wind turbines, even though the economics of those installed turbines are a lot shakier in light of lower natural gas prices than they were when first planned.

The reasons why Texas succeeded in deploying wind power are actually very similar to the reasons why Texas has succeeded in oil and natural gas drilling and refining.

  1. They have an ample supply of the resource. Parts of Texas are very windy. You have to drill for oil where it is, and you have to put your turbines where the wind blows.
  2. They are willing to invest in infrastructure. Texas is crisscrossed by pipelines for oil and gas. The wind in Texas blows in the Panhandle and West Texas; most of the people live elsewhere. The state mandated planning by their electricity and transmission cooperative for transmission lines to take the power from where it's generated to where it's used. The Public Utilities Commission let contracts for $4.93 billion of transmission infrastructure to be built by private industry and eventually paid for by the ratepayers of Texas as part of their electric bills. Note that, if the wind energy remains uncompetitive in the long run, however, this will be a burden rather than a boon to ratepayers. But the economics (not the political correctness) did look right when the decision was made and may well be good in the future.
  3. Permitting happens on a predictable schedule in Texas. There are obviously visual and environmental tradeoffs for that; but things do get built quickly in Texas.
  4. Similarly, there are few constraints on how landowners use their land. Someone can sign a lease for a wind turbine or oil rig and his or her neighbors have very little to say about it. They can't stop the tower or rig because it's "in their view shed".

By historic accident, Texas and not the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission controls most of the electric infrastructure in the Lone Star State. If we're going to take energy – renewable or not – from where it's efficiently generated to where it's consumed in the United States, we're going to have to do the same kind of planning nationally that Texas did locally and we're going to have a will to build without undue regulatory delay.

We need to take advantage of being a large country geographically by building transmission infrastructure just as we did railroads and highways. Today our national grid is a patchwork of barely-connected entities; we can't use water behind our massive dams to balance intermittent wind or even as effective backup for nuclear plants half a continent away. We are better able to share Texas natural gas and oil than we are to shares its electricity. President Obama is right to call for building a true national grid; but it's not at all clear that he understands that this building depends on the ability of government to regulate consistently and the will of government to use eminent domain when required for public interest.

Related posts:

We Can End Energy Subsidies

The Tyranny of "No" – A Small Example

Natural Gas Disrupts the Energy Industry

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