Wind Vain

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ENVIRONMENT AND ENERGY NOVEMBER 1, 2007

Wind Vain

Texas, environmental haven.

You can't get much further to the right than Warren Chisum--even in Texas. Many years ago, the diminutive legislator from Pampa put forward a measure in the statehouse to ban heterosexual sodomy. What followed was a legendary floor debate in which one bemused Democrat got up to ask what would happen if her husband should "slip" while in bed. The chamber erupted in laughter, but Chisum just shuffled his papers and stood his ground, retorting, "I would suggest you go see a doctor about his aim."

So it comes as a bit of a shock to hear Chisum gush, these days, about wind power and biofuels. After all, in recent years, conservative interest in alternative energy has focused largely on drilling for Alaskan oil and not much else. But now, Chisum tells me, "Selling wind up here is our next oil boom. We're tickled we're doing it." He's so tickled, in fact, by the potential for renewable energy in Texas that he's going to form a "carbon caucus" in the next legislative session to see how the state can deal with global warming. "No need to debate whether climate change is a fact or isn't," he says. "We just have to keep pressing the envelope." Environmentalists in Texas are wary, but pleased he's even talking about it. What's more, many of his fellow Panhandle Republicans are joining him--this from a part of the state where, as Chisum noted during the sodomy debate, "They probably would hang you for doing that in my county, if they caught you."

Texas has long been the dirtiest state in the union: frequently tops in carbon emissions, in ozone pollution, in chemical spills. It's the oil and gas fiefdom that gave us Tom DeLay and the Bush dynasty. But, in the last five years, and without much fanfare, Texas has become a clean-energy mecca of sorts. The state has overtaken even California in wind power and is on pace to build more turbines than much-hyped eco-nations like Denmark. Much of the boom is being led not by enviros, but by oil men who carry guns to work and by tycoons like T. Boone Pickens. And it's slowly converting right-wing legislators who despise Al Gore into evangelists for green energy.

Between the high, gusty plains of the Panhandle and the long shoreline of the Gulf Coast, Texas is a natural wind-power paradise, with more wind potential than any other state save North Dakota--enough, in theory, to supply the state's sizeable electricity needs several times over. (And they are sizeable: Only twelve countries use more power than Texas.) Yet, as recently as 1994, there wasn't a single commercial wind project in the state and Texas used less renewable power per capita than anywhere else in the country. "Hardly anyone in the legislature even knew what renewable energy was," recalls Mike Sloan, a wind-energy consultant.

Oddly enough, the turning point came in 1999, when a business-cozy governor by the name of George W. Bush signed into law a bill restructuring and partially deregulating the Texas electricity market. At first, advocacy groups like Public Citizen fought the measure (even now, there's heated debate over whether the move hurt consumers). But a variety of moderate green groups, led by the Environmental Defense Fund, tried a different tack, negotiating a small provision requiring utilities and retailers to collectively generate 2,000 megawatts of new renewable power by 2009. It was one of the first mandates of its kind and contained a trading mechanism that let utilities buy and sell renewable credits--a sort of cap-and-trade system in reverse.

"The utilities all said it wouldn't work, that it would cost a zillion dollars," says Jim Marston, regional director of Environmental Defense's Texas office. "But it ended up working better than anyone expected." Combined with the fact that deregulation allowed small start-up firms like GreenMountain.com to sell renewable power to anyone who wanted it, the industry took off in a hurry, as utilities rushed to buy up wind projects and customers, who appreciated the price stability, boosted demand.

As natural gas prices began rising, it didn't take long before Texas's oil and gas barons scurried to catch the wind boom. One early convert was Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a staunch Republican and former Marine pilot who keeps a pistol in his left boot at all times. Patterson's agency has traditionally made money for the state's education fund by leasing its 20 million acres of land to oil and natural gas companies. A few years ago, however, Patterson came to realize that fossil fuels wouldn't last forever--Texas's oil production peaked around 1972--and began aggressively seeking out alternatives.

That meant finding entrepreneurs like Herman Schellstede, a good ol' boy from Cajun country in Louisiana who made his name building oil platforms. In 2003, as he was at work dismantling old rigs on the Gulf Coast, Schellstede was approached by Harold Schoeffler, a Cadillac salesman and head of the local Sierra Club Chapter, who had never worried too much about the dissonance between selling gas-guzzling clunkers and filing lawsuits to stop petroleum giants from spoiling local wetlands. Schoeffler showed Schellstede a study about offshore wind potential in the Gulf Coast, and the two hatched a scheme to build wind turbines atop old oil platforms. "Ask yourself ... are [we] in the energy business or the oil business? If we're in the oil business, we're all going to be out of business eventually," Schellstede told reporters. "But, if we're in the energy business, these wind turbines will operate forever." And, after Louisiana declined to sanction the project--fearing it would compete with oil and gas--the pair found Patterson, who liked their way of thinking. (It also helps that Texas has fewer NIMBY-minded folks who oppose unsightly wind turbines than, say, Cape Cod.)

The big boys are getting into the game, too. Take T. Boone Pickens, the feared corporate raider who made billions in the 1980s--and landed on the cover of Time--by buying up oil companies. No one would accuse him of sentimentality: Pickens owns 200,000 acres worth of water rights in the Panhandle, and locals fear he's planning to divert water from the region in the coming decades to sell to thirsty Texas cities for a tidy profit. But Pickens recently announced plans to invest as much as $6 billion to build the world's largest wind farm in Texas.

Stories like that have become commonplace. Far from costing a zillion dollars, Texas utilities easily met the original renewable goals in half the allotted time, and, in 2005, the legislature passed an even bigger mandate with nary a fuss. "Texas has always prided itself on being an energy state," says David Swinford, another conservative-legislator-turned-wind-booster from the Panhandle. "Quite frankly, we want to be number one, no matter what we're doing." All told, investors have expressed interest in projects worth more than 24,000 megawatts in wind power--more than is installed in Germany right now and, if built, enough to provide one-third of Texas's electricity needs. "Right now, the problem is the backlog of orders," says Roger Duncan, deputy general manager of Austin Energy, the city's municipal-owned utility, which escaped deregulation and has one of the most aggressive renewable goals in the country. "The manufacturing sector can barely keep up to meet demand."

Far from sitting back and letting the free market simply work its magic, the Texas legislature has realized that it needs to step in and provide the infrastructure--transmission lines, mainly--to nurture the wind industry. "The government has for years provided subsidies and incentives for fossil-fuel resources," notes Susan Williams Sloan of the American Wind Energy Association. "If you want to bring something new in, you have to revise the rules." The legislature has also passed an efficiency mandate requiring utilities to meet 10 percent of new energy demand through conservation measures. (Duncan suggests that legislators may have noticed that Austin Energy scrapped plans for a coal plant in 1982 and made up the difference through efficiency measures, with little in the way of rate increases.)

Congress, too, is taking note, and has been debating a renewable-energy mandate that Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico modeled after Texas's. Alas, most Republicans oppose the measure, as does Bush.

No, the Lone Star State hasn't turned into Sweden, and its carbon emissions are still growing at a furious rate. But, at the very least, the wind-power boom has made many business leaders and conservatives more sanguine about the changes necessary to wean the state off fossil fuels. "Many utilities kicked and screamed the first time we passed a mandate," says Marston. "But, in 2005, they didn't even bother to oppose the stricter requirements, because they saw they could actually make money off of it."

Still, just because renewable energy can be profitable--especially as oil prices rise--doesn't mean environmentalism is on the upswing. Texas energy prospectors are likely to go wherever the money is--be it wind or coal. And conservatives like Chisum and Swinford are more keen on diversifying Texas's energy base than tackling global warming per se. Making sure the two goals coincide will require a more proactive approach, along the lines of what's happening in Austin, which, under Mayor Will Wynn, has passed an ambitious plan to curb emissions and make the city's facilities carbon-neutral by 2020--a plan that includes everything from renewable and efficiency mandates, to nuclear power, to land-use and zoning changes. That in itself isn't terribly surprising--Austin has long been a lonely lefty redoubt in a bright-red state. The shocking thing, however, is that it's been getting positive attention around Texas. Wynn has been wooing local business leaders with his own remixed version of An Inconvenient Truth, adding slides about ways in which cities can make money by going green. Austin has become a hub for clean-energy tech, fueling a robust economic expansion, and other cities in Texas are rushing to copy many of Austin's more successful initiatives, such as green building, which Wynn, a former architect, calls the "lowest-hanging fruit" for reducing emissions.

Will that sway conservatives in the legislature? "There's a sport there called Austin-bashing," Wynn chuckles, "where the conservative legislature tries to take authority away from us when we do something they don't like. The good news is that, on climate protection, they haven't been particularly hostile." Indeed, Marston notes that the statewide protests over energy giant TXU's plans to build eleven new coal plants in Texas--the company scuttled plans for eight of them, in a deal Marston helped broker--"got people understanding that what we do here in Texas really matters." He says he wouldn't be surprised if the legislature takes even more drastic steps when it meets again in 2009: "It won't be exactly what California has done, but it could be close." Is that crazy? A few weeks ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry was scoffing at talk of global warming, quipping that Gore's "mouth is the leading source of all that supposedly deadly carbon dioxide." But, only last fall, Perry announced that Texas would spend millions on transmission lines in the next decade to encourage $10 billion in private wind-power investment. That's the sort of climate change denial even Gore can support.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.

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posted in: environment and energy, energy, al gore, george w. bush, herman schellstede, jerry patterson, jim marston, t. boone pickens, tom delay, warren chisum, california, north dakota, texas, gulf coast

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