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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2006 : Energy


Wind Power: Texas vs. California
While both states lead the country in this renewable energy, Texas is edging out the competition.

by Peter Asmus

California was held up as a role model on energy policy throughout the world for decades beginning in the 1970s, when the state came up with the novel idea that reducing energy consumption could stave off the building of nuclear power plants up and down the coastline of the state. Unlike other states, California banned oil as a fuel for electricity generation and halted construction of coal-fired power plants due to concerns about air pollution during the same decade.

Yet the state’s real claim to fame came in the 1980s, when California literally gave birth to the world’s renewable energy industry. In the course of just five years, a combination of tax credits, long-term power-purchase contracts and state technical assistance jumpstarted the wind, solar, geothermal and biomass power industries.

This past summer, however, Texas—a state most of us associate with oil and natural gas—surpassed California as the nation’s top wind-power-producing state. This might come as a surprise to many, but not if one has ever traveled through west Texas, where the wind never seems to stop blowing.

Ironically enough, California does not feature anywhere near the nation’s best wind fuel. According to rankings compiled by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), Texas ranks second in the nation (behind North Dakota) in terms of total available wind fuel, while California does not even appear in the top 10.

California was in the lead for more than two decades due to policies dating back to the days of Gov. Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown. The passage of the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) in 1978 allowed for private companies to build new power plants relying upon renewable fuels. California was the most aggressive state when it came to implementing PURPA. Among the incentives offered for wind power developers in California under Gov. Brown were generous state investment tax credits (which augmented federal tax credits); standard long-term utility power purchase contracts that featured fixed prices during the first five to 10 years of operation; and a state-funded wind resource assessment that identified California’s best wind energy opportunities.

Approximately $1 billion was diverted from federal and state taxes into wind farms between 1981 and 1985 to jumpstart the world’s wind power industry in California. The end result of this effort was the addition of 1,700 megawatts (MW) of new wind power capacity to the state’s power plant portfolio. Generally speaking, 1 MW of electricity can power 225 to 300 U.S. households. That translates into California powering as many as 500,000 homes with this amount of wind power capacity online some 20 years ago. California was once home to more than 80 percent of the world’s total wind power capacity. But the state stood virtually still between 1994 and 2004, and California’s share of global wind power capacity has shrunk to single digits. Current trends suggest that global wind power capacity will reach 75,000 MW by the end of 2006, enough electricity for more than 22 million homes.

The history of Texas energy policy, on the other hand, has been dominated by unfettered consumption of oil, natural gas and coal. Due to aggressive energy efficiency programs, California uses less than half as much electricity per dollar of gross state product as does Texas. Texas did not even begin to seriously entertain renewable resources until 1999, when legislation signed into law by then-Gov. (and now President) Bush included a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). Inspired by Europe—which prefers some government planning instead of relying purely upon the “magic” of free markets—the RPS sets numerical targets for renewable energy for utilities. Renewable energy developers then compete to supply the clean electricity. Wind power has been the first choice of most since it is currently the cheapest renewable energy resource.

Texas recently increased its RPS goal to supplying 10 percent of its total electricity consumption by 2015 with renewable energy. California surpassed that benchmark well over a decade ago. The current California policy is to have renewable sources supplying 20 percent of the state’s total electricity by 2010, and 33 percent of total state supply by 2020.

Living In The Present
According to AWEA, as of the end of June this year, Texas surpassed California in terms of the amount of installed wind power capacity, bringing 2,370 MW online. This compares to California’s current installed capacity of 2,323 MW. Mike Sloan, managing consultant with the Wind Coalition, an Austin-based wind energy advocacy organization, said, “Texas has managed to keep its renewable energy rules pretty straightforward. California would be well-served to heed the words of Elvis: ‘A little less conversation, a little more action, please.’”

According to V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, “When it comes to renewable energy sources such as wind power, California has earned a reputation for providing a lot more words than megawatts. Everyone in California is in favor of renewable energy sources, but we can’t seem get to get our collective act together to get stuff into the ground to actually produce clean electricity.”

Bob Gates, who helped develop some of the first wind farms in California in the early 1980s and is now a senior vice president with Santa Barbara-based Clipper Wind, is clearly frustrated with the slow pace of new wind development in his home state.

“ In the eighties, we had rules that created a stable market, which is very important for the financial side of things. Today, we worry excessively. California is now considered a laggard,” he said. “I think we need a wholesale retooling of California’s approach. It’s just too laborious to get things done in California today. To say that permitting facilities goes faster in Texas (than in California) is a dramatic understatement.”

Of course, it has to be pointed out that the air quality in Texas is in jeopardy due to the simultaneous licensing of 17 new power plants that burn coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuel sources. In this case, the ease of permitting new power plants works against the environment. Texas state legislators are likely to exempt these power plants located upwind of the smoggy Dallas-Fort Worth area from a federally mandated plan to improve regional air quality.

Looking To The Future
California still leads the nation in solar, geothermal and biomass renewable energy resources. There is a long list of technical and esoteric reasons why California, despite its impressive-looking public policies, is falling behind on its RPS targets. It seems a balance between the ever-present search for perfection that epitomizes today’s architects of California’s energy policies and the simplistic business-friendly attitude of Texas might well be the answer.

With issues such as global climate change, the terrorist threat and clean air on the table, California, Texas and every other state in the country needs to play a role. So far, 22 states and the District of Columbia have adopted an RPS to foster new markets for clean renewable energy sources (see Race to the Top: The Expanding Role of U.S. State Renewable Portfolio Standards,

Peter Asmus is author of Reaping The Wind: How Mechanical Wizards, Visionaries, Profiteers Helped Shape Our Energy Future (Island Press, 2001).

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