Monday, October 03, 2016

The One and Only Texas Wind Boom

Wind power has transformed the heart of fossil-fuel country.  Can the rest of the United States follow suit?

Oil was discovered on this ranch in the 1950s. The well still operates but today is surrounded by turbines. (Photograph Credit: Sandy Carson) Click to Enlarge.
A big state can get a substantial amount of its power from renewable sources without significant disruptions, given the right policies and the right infrastructure investments.  The U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 report Wind Vision set a goal of getting 35 percent of all electricity in the country from wind in 2050, up from 4.5 percent today.  In Texas, at times, that number has already been exceeded:  on several windy days last winter, wind power briefly supplied more than 40 percent of the state’s electricity.  For wind power advocates, Texas is a model for the rest of the country.

But it also reveals what wind power can’t achieve. Overall, wind still represents less than 20 percent of the state’s generation capacity—a number that dips into the low single digits on calm, hot summer days. And even with the wind power boom, the state’s total estimated carbon emissions were the highest in the nation in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available—up 5 percent from the previous year.

What’s more, the conditions that have spurred Texas’s boom may not be easily duplicated. Not only is Texas scoured by usually steady winds, but it has something most other places lack: a gigantic transmission system that was built to bring electricity from the desolate western and northern parts of the state to the big cities of the south and east, including Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. Under a program known as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, or CREZ, the power lines were approved in 2007 and cost nearly $7 billion to build. They have added a few dollars a month to residential electricity bills, but they now look like a far-sighted infrastructure investment that other states are unwilling or unable to make.
Named for a small ghost town that today is marked only by an antique cotton gin, Wake incorporates state-of-the-art technology: 260-foot towers with rotors 330 feet in diameter, and advanced software that allows technicians to troubleshoot the turbines using laptops. Rapid improvements in technology have made turbines so much cheaper to build and easier to maintain that wind power almost competes with electricity from natural gas on price alone. (Wind power operators are subsidized by federal tax credits and by the long-distance transmission lines that were built at ratepayer expense.)

Wake is distinctive in another way as well: most of the electricity produced here will go directly to two companies, fiberglass giant Owens Corning and Equinix, which operates big data centers in Dallas. In fact, a growing number of wind farms in Texas are funded by corporations that want to lock in a price for power over 20 years. Facebook, for example, said last year that it will partner on construction of a 200-megawatt wind farm near its new $1 billion data center in Fort Worth, allowing it to claim that the facility (which will get its power from the regular Texas grid) “will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy.” And Google, which has already invested $75 million in a wind farm near Amarillo, plans to partner with Invenergy on a new 225-megawatt facility north of Lubbock.

Read more at The One and Only Texas Wind Boom

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