Drive south from the Oklahoma Panhandle and the first thing that greets you, after the large green “Welcome to Texas” sign, is the nation’s largest wind farm. Head south for another five hours until you’re nearly in Midland, and you can take in the nation’s largest solar farm—well, the largest for now. In far northeast Texas, close to Arkansas and Oklahoma, another one is under construction that will eventually be the biggest in the country.
Texas generates more electricity from wind and sun than any other state and has since 2006. It ain’t even close. In 2021 Texas’s output was more than double that of the runner-up, a sizable state that hugs the Pacific Ocean and likes to boast about how green it is.
How did this come to be? Well, Texas has lots of sun and wind and lots of land to build on. But so do several other states. (Though let us note that the western half of the state gets more sun than the entirety of yet another large landmass—one that has the temerity to call itself the Sunshine State.) It was politics and policy that catapulted Texas to the top. “We like wind,” then-governor George W. Bush said in 1996. He was talking about wind power and aimed the remark at the chairman of the Public Utility Commission, who was baffled, so Bush reiterated his point. “Go get smart on wind,” he ordered. So began the state’s unlikely emergence as a renewables superpower. A few years later, Texas ended its century-old electric-utility monopolies, a move that opened the door wide for renewable-energy developers.
Bush’s unexpected affection for renewables had political roots. Two of his major donors, Sam Wyly and Ken Lay, had taken an interest in the field and supported changes to Texas’s electricity system that would allow renewables to flourish—and, not coincidentally, enrich themselves. (In the short term, at least. Wyly, a convicted tax cheat, eventually declared bankruptcy; Lay, best known as the founder of Enron, declared late in life that he was $250,000 in the red.) Bush was also considering a presidential run. A former Texas oilman might not play well nationally, but a fossil fuels fan who also liked renewables? That was something new.
If Bush set the table, his successor, Rick Perry, prepared the feast. In 2005 he oversaw a multibillion-dollar project to run power lines connecting the wide-open spaces in West Texas—where wind and sunlight and inexpensive land were plentiful—with the energy-hungry cities along I-35 and to the east. The wind farms—and, a few years later, solar farms—piled up like rush hour traffic on the Katy Freeway.
Perry’s successor, Greg Abbott, has looked less favorably on Texas’s renewable output—he preposterously blamed it for the catastrophic 2021 blackouts—even though wind and solar farms have helped keep a lid on the state’s power prices. He has supported state legislators’ recent efforts to slow renewable growth, but thankfully the offending bills never made it off the floor.
Of course, Texas isn’t going to develop a full-on green reputation anytime soon; the rise of renewables hasn’t put a dent in our ability to churn out the old standbys. We’re still the nation’s top producer of oil and natural gas and will be for the foreseeable future. When it comes to barrels and electrons, Texas is adamantly ecumenical. If energy is our religion, we welcome all faiths to the promised land.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “We’re Number One in Renewable Energy and Nonrenewable Energy.” Subscribe today.