Texas, of all places, shows how to lower carbon emissions

A state full of oil and gas is a wind-power leader.
Karl D. Stephan | May 11 2016 | comment  



No, I haven't gone off my nut with blind patriotism toward my native state. Yes, I know that ex-governor Rick Perry said in 2014, "Calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice [to] the country, and I believe a disservice to the world."

But the fact of the matter is that Texas has the most installed wind-generation capacity of any state, more even than California, and shows no signs of turning back. How we got here is a lesson in the effects of government regulation, and shows that sometimes less is more.

In an Associated Press article, reporter Michael Biesecker points out the irony that three of the leading wind-generation states—Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas—are also home to state and federal lawmakers who have been the most critical of climate-change ideas and most supportive of fossil fuel businesses such as oil and coal. He shows that in both 2014 and 2015, US utilities spent more money installing renewable-energy sources such as wind and solar than they did building fossil-fueled power plants. And the fossil-fuel plants they did build mostly burn natural gas, which contributes less to the carbon-dioxide burden of the atmosphere than coal does.

The fact that natural gas is so popular is largely because it's cheaper these days, and that's because the largely Texas-based oil-and-gas-extraction industry figured out how to do fracking, which has made more natural gas available now than we've had for a long time.

A few years ago we were hearing calls for carbon taxes, heavy regulation of fossil-fuel industries, and draconian mandates for Federal and state-funded renewable energy projects imposed from Washington and other centers of governmental power. Largely because Washington has been gridlocked for the last five or six years, no significant Federal laws were passed, although the Obama administration has done what it could through executive actions in those directions.

Meanwhile, in Texas we enjoy some peculiar advantages when it comes to doing new things with electric power. Because years ago, Texas refused to interconnect in a major way with the electric grids in the rest of the country, most of the state gets power from an entity called ERCOT—the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Both physically and legally, ERCOT is independent from both the rest of the US power grid and from the tangle of regulatory requirements that the rest of the country has to deal with whenever a power utility wants to do something different.

As Kyle Downey points out in an article at lawstreetmedia.com, this freedom from outside utility regulations has allowed Texas to pass innovative laws such as the Renewable Portfolio Standard in 1999, which created mandates and funded incentives for utilities to develop renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Modified over the years and threatened with repeal but never revoked, the Standard has succeeded beyond most people's expectations. From barely 1,000 MW of installed wind-generation capacity in 2002, wind power has grown to the extent that about ten percent of all power produced in the state is generated by wind farms—some 17,000 MW as of 2015. 

Many Texas utility customers can choose to "buy" only wind power through a trading system that gives choices of sources and pricing plans, and this has also allowed private individuals to vote for wind power with their wallets, rather than much more indirectly at the ballot box.

The other factor Downey mentions that has made Texas a wind-power leader is that we have a lot of land in the Panhandle where the wind blows steadily almost all the time, and even conveniently gets stronger at night when other renewables such as solar conk out. That everlasting wind on the prairie that early settlers often found so annoying is finally turning out to be a money-making asset.

The state has also provided a fund to connect the remote wind-generation farms to the demand centers in populated areas of the eastern and central part of the state with transmission lines, an essential ingredient of the process that legislatures often overlook when planning renewable-energy futures for their constituents. Overall, the wind-power picture has never looked brighter in Texas, and there are more wind farms yet to be built. One study has shown that even without government incentives, building a wind farm is now the cheapest way to install new generating capacity—even cheaper than fossil-fuel plants.

What are the implications of this story for the current debate over carbon emissions and global climate change?

For one thing, it tells me that predicting what people are going to do is hard, unless you restrict them with so many regulations that they don't have much choice. Few forecasters a decade ago would have foreseen the US getting to a point where it is nearly independent of oil imports, as we are now. And even I thought that when certain wind-power subsidies came to an end, that the bottom would fall out of wind-generation growth in Texas. I was wrong, obviously, and not for the first time.

On a personal level, much of what an individual worries about does not in fact come to pass. Something like this may be the case with carbon emissions. In researching this article, I came across a chart showing that in 2013, China built more wind-generating power plant capacity than nuclear-powered plants.

China is still one of the world's largest offenders when it comes to carbon emission because of its huge number of coal-fired power plants, but it is an encouraging sign that even a highly autocratic government such as China's recognizes the good sense in encouraging renewable energy sources.

All that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn't going to go away overnight, and we will be dealing with the consequences of burning fossil fuels, whatever they turn out to be, for many decades. But those who would like to empower a world government with the means of forcing people to quit burning fossil fuels should take a look at Texas, where climate-change deniers are happily building wind farms, making money, and thumbing their noses at regulators who are everywhere else but in Texas. It's paradoxical, but it seems to work.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog,Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store. 



Copyright © Karl D. Stephan . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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