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.
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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.
Algae in particular is a fascinating option for Texas: Our vast aquifers filled with brackish water and our position as the top CO2 emitter in the nation suddenly become assets we can exploit. As Bob Avant, the director of bioenergy programs for Texas AgriLife Research, often jokes, “Algae only needs three things to grow: lots of sunlight, lots of CO2, and lots of non-potable water. Texas has all three!” It’s likely that Texas, with its never-ending acres of sunlit nonarable land sitting atop sprawling saline aquifers, has greater potential to produce algae-based fuels than any other state. Biofuels production from algae is likely to be many times more fruitful in terms of gallons of oil per acre per year than production from conventional sources such as corn and soy, so despite our late start we can make up ground quickly.
It so happens that several of the world’s leading algae researchers work at the University of Texas at Austin (which runs an algae lab funded by the National Science Foundation). And Texas A&M already has an algae R&D facility near Pecos and more than twenty faculty members working on this biofuel technology. Today we have hundreds of thousands of pump jacks distributed throughout the state, each putting a few barrels of oil a day into a web of storage tanks and pipelines that carry the liquids to centralized processing and refining facilities. Imagine a future where we replace those pump jacks with distributed algae ponds that feed into the same networks of pipes and tanks. We can combine that expertise with our in-state knowledge of fuels production to create a viable next-generation biofuels industry.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Many people consider the electrification of transportation through plug-in hybrids (also known as PHEVs) to be one of the transformative steps we can take toward solving our energy problem. Electricity is cheaper per mile than gasoline, and it is much easier to clean up the emissions from hundreds of stationary, electricity-generating smokestacks than from millions of moving tailpipes on Loop 610. What’s the Texas angle? In 2006 Austin Energy, the public utility that provides electricity to Austin and parts of Travis and Williamson counties, launched a grassroots campaign called Plug-in Partners to drum up national support for switching from regular gas cars to PHEVs. This program turned out to be the catalyst: Several auto manufacturers have now announced their new hybrid electric cars for launch as early as 2010. And if that’s not enough, the breakthrough technology that makes PHEVs possible is the remarkable energy density of lightweight lithium-ion batteries. The inventor of that battery, John Goodenough, is a professor at UT.
Carbon sequestration. Surprisingly, we might make the biggest contribution by helping the globe with carbon dioxide disposal. Currently political leaders in the state make a point of whining about the specter of looming legislation that would institute carbon prices. These arguments are a worthless distraction. Customers for oil and gas aren’t going to suddenly disappear because of carbon prices; those fuels are simply too valuable and irreplaceable. But carbon prices would enable us to add a new dimension to our energy economy, creating a more diverse, healthy, and productive sector.
To get a sense of scale, the world emits about 29 billion metric tons of CO2 each year. Many scientists believe we have to radically reduce that number in the next few decades to avoid irrevocable, damaging climate change. One approach is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), by which we capture CO2 from smokestacks and refineries, then inject it into the ground for permanent storage. To make a difference, we will need to inject two billion tons of CO2 into the ground annually, equivalent to cramming every single person in the world underground six times a year. There is only one industry with the capacity to move that much material around: the energy industry.
If carbon trading becomes a reality in the U.S., states across the nation could send us their CO2 (in pipelines we build and control), which we would dispose of for a handsome fee. We could take this vision global by receiving liquefied CO2 in tankers from emitters around the world who have no other way to deal with their carbon.
Imagine a future where instead of being a leading carbon source in the world, we become one of the leading carbon sinks. We have the geological formations that allow us to sequester billions of tons of CO2. Texas, it turns out, might be the best international carbon destination in the world, rivaled only by Saudi Arabia. We have pulled billions of tons of stuff out of the ground over the past century, and if the world wants, we can put billions of tons of stuff back in.
It’s clear we have the capabilities, resources, scale, and technical know-how. All we lack is the determination and political will to succeed. Just as the renewable portfolio standard in 1999 put us on a path toward the use of renewable power, the Legislature can once again nudge us toward a low-carbon and economically bountiful future. Here are a few tangible, practical suggestions for what we can do to kick-start the system down the right track.
• For starters, our political leaders should be aggressively courting green energy employers. Houston-based ConocoPhillips announced last July that it was investing millions of dollars to build a renewable energy research center with thousands of high-value jobs—in Colorado. Vestas, the world’s leading manufacturer of wind turbines, also built a new facility in Colorado, partly because of political support. We need that political support in Texas. Instead of hurling invectives about climate change and watching the jobs go somewhere else, our leaders should step up and recognize that clean energy means money.
• We should increase the budget of the Texas Emerging Technology Fund (a source of state money to foster commercialization of innovative ideas) in exchange for its focusing its efforts on clean energy research and commercialization opportunities.
• We should invest aggressively in algae by establishing a low-carbon fuels standard, creating straightforward policies for obtaining permits, and encouraging pilot-scale demonstrations of integrated biorefineries.
• We must believe in science again. Instead of watching other states like California, Michigan, and Illinois invest actively in science and engineering research (one reason the engineering programs at their flagship universities are all higher ranked than Texas’s), we should step up to the plate and do the same. But we don’t need to lean entirely on the state’s coffers for that burden. Some of the world’s most profitable companies are located in Texas. We should team up with them using an R&D matching program. The state should match every dollar that companies invest in low-carbon and renewable energy fuels and technologies at universities in Texas. This matching program would give huge incentives for companies to keep their research centers—and dollars—in Texas. And it would make taxpayer dollars go further.
• We need to keep raising the renewable portfolio requirements but include made-in-Texas targets to foster local production of wind turbines, geothermal turbines, and solar panels so we can keep that money at home.
• We should make it possible for homeowners to finance the purchase of solar panels by amortizing the cost over twenty years and rolling the payments into their property tax bills. We also must remove policy barriers to renewable power, like prohibiting homeowner’s associations from blocking solar-panel installations.
• We can also use our incredible energy consumption as a way to raise money to support these programs. An almost imperceptible one percent electricity rate hike on residential users could raise more than $100 million each year for R&D and demonstration projects in clean energy. With that kind of money, Texas would quickly be in a position to fill the innovation pipeline with profitable ideas.
• We need to incite a full-fledged carbon industry. We already have companies who want CO2 and will pay handsomely for it, and we have other companies who have CO2 and don’t want it and would be willing to sell it. In other words, Texas can create a naturally functioning carbon market without the contrived contraptions of a cap-and-trade regime weighing it down—we just need some initial government help to play matchmaker.
But the biggest thing we need is a new attitude. All too often we Texans treat low-carbon and renewable energy sources as if they are signs of weakness. This approach is backward. After all, the Roman Empire conquered several continents entirely on renewable energy. Imagine what we could do if we matched up our renewable resources with our technical abilities? Instead of being the country’s number one contributor to global warming, we could be the leader in reducing air pollution and greenhouse gases. Environmental groups everywhere would lose their favorite whipping boy. And Texas entrepreneurs would laugh all the way to the bank.