Energy Transition

This American state is the ‘wild west’ of wind power

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Texas is responsible for over one-quarter of all wind power generated in the US. Image: Unsplash/Matthew T Rader

Kate Whiting
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United States

  • Texas is the world’s fifth largest generator of wind power
  • The state’s wind industry employs more than 25,000 people
  • Georgetown decided to go 100% renewable in 2015

It is best known as the land of oil, but in 2018, the equivalent of more than 7 million homes in Texas were powered by wind.

The US state’s wind power generation that year saved a volume of emissions equal to 11.5 million cars’ worth from being pumped into the atmosphere.

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Remarkably, at more than 27 gigawatts (GW) of generation, Texas has become the world’s fifth biggest generator of wind power, beaten by only four countries.

Rancher Louis Brooks is just one of the people who is benefitting from Texan wind power. Image: WWF/Netflix

“We all know that one day fossil fuels will run out, not perhaps in my lifetime but maybe in my grandchildren’s lifetime,” says Rod Wetsel, Attorney and Adjunct Professor of Wind Law at Texas Tech University School of Law.

“Wind and solar on the other hand will go on for as long as the planet exists.”

Wetsel is just one of the many people whose careers are now running on renewables, and he calls Texas the “wild west of wind”.

“You can come out here as an entrepreneur or big company, stake out a place on the ground, get the landowners to give you a wind lease and develop a wind farm.”

2019 Wind power generation by state and political learning Image: RYSTAD ENERGY

How the wind was won

Renewable energy was basically unknown in west Texas until the late 1990s, says Wetsel.

“My first client came into my office one day and said, ‘Would you look at this, someone has given me a wind lease, they want to actually build a wind farm on my ranch!’"

“That really launched my career in wind representing landowners; it also sparked the beginning of the wind boom that we had here in Sweetwater.”

Texas now employs 25,000 in the wind industry and generates more than one-quarter of all wind power in the US – all thanks to its high wind speeds, efficient infrastructure and supportive policies.

Wind powered the equivalent of more than 7 million homes in Texas in 2018. Image: WWF/Netflix

Renewable pioneers

In Georgetown, just north of Austin, Mayor Dale Ross has become a hero among environmentalists since the city’s pioneering decision to go 100% renewable in 2015.

“I absolutely love the environment, I love renewable energy,” he says.

But he explains the decision was initially more to do with money than saving the planet.

“First and foremost I’m a businessman and it was a business decision. How can we have cost certainty over the long term and mitigate price volatility? In 20,000 years, we know we’ll have wind and solar, so that’s really an extreme example of long-term strategic planning.”

He also points out there’s no regulatory or governmental risk with wind and solar, because there’s nothing to regulate: “Everything is clean energy, no pollutants go back in the air – and you can’t say that for fossil fuels, especially coal.”

They’re sentiments echoed by Wetsel: “In oil and gas you pay later. You tear up the environment, you contaminate [the air] and then money has to be spent by the government later to clean it up. With wind or solar you pay by giving an economic incentive early, but there’s no clean-up cost.”

Wind powered the equivalent of more than 7 million homes in Texas in 2018. Image: WWF/Netflix

Greener days ahead?

A solar power boom is beginning to ignite in Texas too. Currently, it supplies less than 1% of the state’s electricity today, but solar capacity is set to double in 2020 and again in 2021.

With the sun beating down during the day, and the wind at its strongest at night, solar and wind energy complement each other perfectly in the state.

In 2020, wind is set to generate more electricity in Texas than coal. In September 2019, the US wind industry reached a milestone as new projects brought operating capacity to more than 100 GW. Reflecting this, wind power has more than tripled in the past decade.

But Texas remains the centre of the US oil and gas industry; production of oil in the Permian basin – which stretches from west Texas to New Mexico – rose from a million barrels a day in 2011 to 4.5 million in 2019. The production of natural gas has tripled since 2013.

So the state still has some way to go in its green journey.

Wetsel says: “My hope for the next generation is that they can go out and enjoy the great outdoors without the fear of getting sick because of breathing in pollutants created by the manufacture of, say, coal or any other pollutants that go in the air.”

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