Green Star State

Everything you—and our legislators up at the Capitol—need to know about how to make Texas an energy leader for the twenty-first century.
Green Star State
PRIDE OF PLACE: Texas has more oil and gas than any other state. Guess what? We also have the most renewable resources.
Illustration by Sarah King

The world opinion of Texas as a laggard on modern energy priorities is true, partly. Our energy consumption and carbon emissions are off the charts, making us the country’s leader in both dubious categories. While Texans constitute 8 percent of the U.S. population, we’re responsible for more than 10 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions—and a whopping 2.2 percent of global emissions. The average Texan consumes 66 percent more energy per capita than the average American, who in turn consumes more than the average European. If Texas were a country, we would be eighth on the list of the world’s biggest CO2 emitters, ahead of the United Kingdom and barely behind Canada.

Some of this profligate consumption is rooted in our culture. In our history energy has equaled money; the more we (and everyone else) consumed, the richer we got. That attitude prevails today. We like to drive big gas guzzlers long distances; we like to build large homes that need to be air-conditioned for most of the year. But the real force behind our consumption is that Texas does the nation’s dirty work—refining the country’s oil and manufacturing many of its products. As a result, industry consumes half the energy in Texas, a much larger proportion than in other states. Californians and New Englanders can criticize us all they want for our energy consumption and emissions, but at the end of the day, they want our products and our refined gasoline.

Despite the general perception of our energy consumption, Texas is already doing much more to promote clean energy than the world realizes. For example, we created the nation’s first comprehensive municipal green-building program (in Austin) and the first technology incubator designed explicitly to encourage clean energy start-ups. Our biggest impact has been the aggressive use of renewable electricity—we were one of the first states to establish a renewable portfolio standard, which requires that a certain percentage of an energy company’s power generation come from renewable sources. Today half the states have something similar, following, to their surprise, in the footsteps of Texas (and Nevada). The renewable portfolio has been a huge success, leading us to create the largest installed base of wind capacity in the nation, about 9,000 megawatts, nearly three times as much as second-place Iowa. Our quick ramp-up of wind farms has pushed the U.S. ahead of every other nation, including Germany, the former leader, in terms of installed renewable capacity.

One of the ironies is that in Texas, our lack of concern about the environment enables us to do great things for the environment. You hardly need permission to build a wind farm here, and your neighbors cannot sue you for blocking their view. It’s much more difficult in environmentally inclined states like Massachusetts or California, where activists worry about the impact of the turbines on wildlife and ocean vistas. We don’t mind raising wind turbines, building transmission lines, or laying pipelines, all key advantages for renewable energy, which is diffuse by nature and requires vast tracts of land and sprawling infrastructure to be effective. Texas has a long history of trading blight for money. Why stop now?

Contrary to the fears of some politicians, our incipient greenness has not been bad for business. The clean-technology sectors are booming, creating jobs and revenues in many locations that needed them badly. But we’ve barely begun. Texas used its natural gifts to become the leader of the world’s energy industry, and we can once again use them to lead the green energy revolution. Just as we were blessed with the nation’s greatest allocation of oil and gas, we have also been graced with the nation’s greatest collection of renewable resources. Arizona and Nevada have the most sun, the Dakotas have the most wind, and Iowa is the most prominent supplier of corn ethanol. But Texas has the most combined wind, solar, and biomass sources of any state. We can make a lot of money putting these resources and other clean energy capabilities to work. Here’s how:

Wind. West Texas is already the world’s fastest-growing wind producer. But we can do more. With our in-state expertise in aerospace engineering (from the defense industry) and oil platforms, we can create offshore wind farms to generate power even on the hot summer days when the West Texas wind dies down just as demand peaks. We should also use our West Texas geological features to form large-scale compressed-air energy storage, which uses underground caverns to store high-pressure air that is compressed with wind power. In this way, we could create the world’s most extensive and effective energy storage capabilities, smoothing out the variability of wind and helping us integrate more of it onto the grid.

Solar. Germany leads the world in installed solar power, which is preposterous since it is cloudy much of the year. Because we are a photon-rich state, with hundreds of hot, sunny days annually, we can bypass the competition to bring solar power onto the grid by building utility-scale solar-power plants in West Texas and slapping photovoltaic panels on every south-facing non-shaded roof in the state. In the process we could create a thriving local industry for solar-panel manufacturing, installation, and maintenance. And just as Austin-based Sematech helped steer the nation out of a semiconductor crisis more than twenty years ago (we were losing ground quickly to surging Asian companies), it could lead the way again by forming another consortium to tackle shared technical problems in the industry and pushing our solar manufacturers ahead.

Biofuels. Despite the decades-long bipartisan fetish for biofuels from Washington, D.C., production today is expensive, limited, and possibly very damaging to the environment. That’s because we make ethanol from corn, which uses tremendous amounts of fossil fuel (for fertilizing and transportation). Because Texas hasn’t invested much in an ethanol infrastructure, we are not trapped into legacy thinking about biofuels and can jump ahead to better solutions. Let Iowans have corn-based ethanol. We can leapfrog them and the world by going to next-generation biofuels made from cellulosic materials or algae.

Tags: POLITICS

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