Giant wind turbines are popping up all across West Texas. Where do we stand when it comes to wind energy?
This has been a banner year for the state’s wind industry, which now has approximately 2,150 turbines. In May Jerry Patterson, the commissioner of the General Land Office, announced plans for the largest offshore wind farm in the country. Located off the coast of Padre Island near Baffin Bay, it will cover 39,900 acres. (“The race for wind energy is like a modern-day space race,” Patterson said without a hint of irony at one press conference.) This summer Texas surpassed California as the top producer of wind energy in the United States. And in October FPL Energy (Florida Power and Light) dedicated the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, which the company is billing as the largest wind farm in the world. It sprawls across 47,000 acres in Taylor and Nolan counties, not far from Abilene, and has the capacity to produce 735 megawatts.

High school physics was a bit of a blur. What’s a megawatt?
One megawatt—or one million watts—of wind can power about three hundred homes for one year. (So, in theory, Horse Hollow could keep the lights on in Lubbock with energy to spare.) Currently Texas produces 2,631 megawatts of wind energy, or less than 3 percent of the electricity the state uses in one year.

What’s driving the growth of this industry?
Three things: rising energy costs, government subsidies, and political will. In 1999 lawmakers in Austin adopted the Renewable Portfolio Standard. It calls for Texas to increase its output of renewable energy (including solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric sources) to 2,880 megawatts by January 2009. During the last session, the Legislature upped the ante, expanding that figure to 5,880 megawatts by 2015. The long-range goal for the state is to obtain 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2025.

So what’s the cost?
The price for wind energy has dropped more than 80 percent over the past two decades, to less than 5 cents a kilowatt-hour, which makes it more competitive with energy produced by coal or natural gas. But that happens as a result of state and federal subsidies, because major power companies are required to purchase a certain amount of wind energy each year. A separate issue is the huge investment in infrastructure. Because the wind farms are in West Texas, new transmission lines must be built to bring the energy to the state’s metropolitan centers—at $1 million a mile. That means Texas utility companies will spend more than $1 billion to meet the goal of 5,880 megawatts, a cost that will almost certainly be passed on to consumers.

Why are wind farms located so far from the state’s largest cities?
The General Land Office has a color-coded map called Wind Energy Classification that shows wind patterns across the state. In East Texas, for example, there’s little or no wind available for the turbines. The best wind is located in far West Texas and the Panhandle. Part of the allure of the offshore projects is that the wind is also strong along the Gulf of Mexico—and it’s closer to critical load centers.

Once the infrastructure is in place, can wind carry the, ahem, load?
No. One of the problems of wind is that it’s not reliable. Because the energy can’t be stored—it’s transmitted in real time—there is no power if there is no wind. Wind blows the least during the summer months, when the demand for power is at its peak. To make matters worse, it blows more in the morning than in the afternoon, when homes and businesses are blasting their air conditioners. At the highest demand periods, it produces less than 20 percent of its maximum generating capacity.

How does that affect supply?
The easiest way to understand the state’s energy grid is to think of it as a lake that is used for irrigation. Electricity flows in like water, and wires take it to lightbulbs, computers, and machinery, just as pipes and spigots lead to farms. For the system to work, supply has to match demand. If too much power hits the grid, the wires overheat and the system fails. If too little flows in, that causes blackouts and the system fails. Because you can’t predict how much wind will be available at any given time, you must have more-reliable systems such as coal or natural gas on line to balance the supply.

So what’s the long-term outlook?
Wind is clean and renewable, and it offers an attractive supplement to the state’s energy options. But its limitations are best summed up by C. John Wilder, the chairman and CEO of TXU, which buys more wind energy than any other company in the state. “Wind is cost-effective with subsidies from the government, but it’s not reliable,” he said at the Lehman Brothers CEO Energy Conference in September. “It’s a niche thing.… It absolutely cannot address—even remotely address—the heavy-duty needs of our economy and keep the lights on as effectively as possible.”