Last week, oil prices went negative. There is nowhere to store the oil being pumped out of the ground because demand, due to the coronavirus, has collapsed. There is less flying, less driving and fewer factories operating. So oil producers and their financial backers have been paying folks to take their oil. There are jokes going around that if you had a big storage tank in your basement, you could get paid to take some oil and sell it at a huge profit when, and if, the price goes up again.
West Texas is oil country. But there is something else going on in West Texas: it is a world capital of wind energy. Last year, Texas got more of its energy from wind — 23.4 percent — than any other U.S. state. In fact, if Texas were a country (which some might argue it is) it would rank fifth in the world in wind power generation, just behind Germany and India.
Wind in oil country may seem like a contradiction, but to Texans it makes perfect sense.
How Texas became wind country
Texas uses a LOT of energy. Since 1960, it has consumed more energy annually than any other state — a hundred times more than Vermont, and 40 percent more than California, which has far more people. More than half of this energy usage is industrial — a lot of it goes to manufacturing and agriculture, and some into energy production itself — and folks sure like their air-con down there.
This insatiable appetite for energy has given Texas an incentive to look for new power sources. Over the past two decades, it’s found one on its western range, where gale-force winds sweep the plains. Twenty years ago, most of this wind was going to waste — Texas had less wind power than California, Minnesota, or even little Iowa. But in the early 2000s, wind turbines began sprouting all over the state, propelled in part by tax incentives that made wind a profitable enterprise.
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Then, in 2007, the state approved a $7 billion investment in transmission lines from West Texas. Someone was thinking ahead — the new lines cleared up transmission congestion that was holding back the potential of wind power. With the transmission lines in place, large amounts of wind-generated electricity could be sold to the big cities — Dallas, Houston, Austin — in the eastern half of the state.
All this focus on wind may seem surprising — we all know West Texas is oil country, and that the entire state often leans to the right politically. What’s encouraging is that, in this respect, Texans are behaving like conservatives are supposed to: they are ignoring ideological and partisan dogma and instead doing what makes economic sense. Wind has been forecast to be cheaper than oil in the long run — once the transmission lines and windmills are up, the costs, in theory, drop way down.
The risk of this purely economic approach is that, should wind power become less profitable, Texas could return to fossil fuels, which are dirt cheap right now because demand has crashed. (All the fracking over the past decade has reduced oil prices, too.) Texas cities like Georgetown, whose Republican mayor, Dale Ross, famously did the math in 2011 and began shifting the town to 100 percent sustainable energy, could quickly abandon those plans if oil proves to be cheaper than wind, as it is at the moment.
There’s a great Butch Hancock song by The Flatlanders, a West Texas band, called “The Wind’s Dominion.”
When Ross laid his plans, forecasts said the price of fossil fuels would continue to rise, and that wind and solar coming from West Texas would level off in cost. “A no-brainer,” Ross was quoted as saying. But the forecasters didn’t account for the big drop in fossil fuel prices, so Georgetown began to have trouble selling its excess wind energy, and eventually went into debt. Voters were pissed off, and climate deniers and green skeptics cheered, “Told ya so!” But I suspect the story is not over yet.
Wind is keeping up
Not too many years ago, many experts believed that getting the share of wind power usage above 20 percent in Texas would be difficult. But by 2017, the state was already up to 18 percent.
The plummet in oil and gas prices is giving non-fossil fuels a run for their money. But as more transmission lines and turbines are installed, wind keeps getting cheaper, too. In the past decade, the price of wind energy has fallen by nearly 70 percent, making it the cheapest form of energy in many parts of the U.S. This demand has led to a wind-farm building boom — in 2016, wind power surpassed 82,000 megawatts in the U.S., making it the country’s number one source of renewable energy. Wind has proven itself competitive.
That means places that aren’t politically progressive will keep adopting it for economic reasons. Eastern Oregon is deeply conservative, but it has lots of wind, and the economies of many of its small towns have been revived by wind power. The same is true in Wyoming, where the biggest wind farm in the U.S. is being built by a conservative oil tycoon. Saving the climate isn’t the incentive in these places — profitability is.
In a recent national poll, 59 percent of respondents said they’d support a government investment of $1.5 trillion in wind and solar. It seems to me that if we live in some semblance of a democracy then politicians should support these wishes.
Wind is never going to work everywhere — some places just aren’t very windy — but investment in turbines and transmission lines in windy zones around the world can at least take a good percentage of the load off fossil fuels. Wind is also, realistically, never going to cover all our current energy needs. But if other states can be inspired by the Texas example, as we can see they are, then that 23 percent can happen nationwide.