Jennifer Bogo writes about whether Texas should join the national energy grid or maintain its own grid:
Since roughly 1935, the majority of Texas utilities have opted to isolate themselves from interstate connection and thus from federal regulation over rates, terms and conditions of electrical transmission. Managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), they now provide more than 85 percent of the state’s electrical load, covering 75 percent of its land area. For utilities, that makes energy a straightforward market to do business in, and it allows them to be more nimble and innovative with new energy sources. It also vastly expedites the process for renewable energy developers that want to plug in to state transmission lines.
If you go to either of the other two grids you’ve got to get 20-something state utility commissions to agree on something," B.J. Stanbery, the founder of the Austin-based solar manufacturer HelioVolt, says. "In Texas, we’ve only got one to persuade. Now, that’s a big benefit." As a result, Texas has, in very short order, erected enough wind turbines to become the national leader in wind-energy production—by a wide margin. If it were a country, Texas would rank sixth in wind power. With a semiconductor industry already based in Austin, Texas could do the same with solar, according to community leader Brewster McCracken. "The fact that we have a major technology center and we’re not on the federal grid means that if we decide to lead, we’re well positioned to lead," he says.
Companies such as Microsoft, GE, Oracle, GridPoint and Intel saw the lack of federal red tape as an advantage, too, which is why they invested time and money in an alt-energy think tank in the state capital. Launched in December, the Pecan Street Project is a nonprofit effort to turn Austin into a laboratory for smart-grid technology. "As we develop Pecan Street and some other things, we feel like we’re going to be able to have a great deal of flexibility in what technologies we can apply to the grid, how we can locate them and the willingness to support their application," says John Baker, Austin Energy’s chief strategy officer. That’s great news for companies who want to test out smart-grid software in a real-world setting; it could also help Texas’s utilities quickly arrive at a lucrative business model for distributed energy.
If it were a country, Texas would also rank sixth in wind power, after Germany, the U.S. as a whole, Spain, India and China. While U.S. wind-power capacity grew by 43 percent in 2007, in Texas it rose by 57 percent. All told, the state’s turbines now produce more than 8300 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 2 million homes; nearly 3000 are produced in Sweetwater’s Nolan County alone. In comparison, Vermont produces 6 megawatts; Oregon, 1408. Even California generates just 2781 megawatts from wind power, and it built its first wind project nearly three decades ago.
And that is the curious paradox of Texas: While seemingly more virtuous states labor over environmental impact assessments, Texans see a business opportunity and grab it—and so could very well end up leading the nation in clean energy. “In Texas, because we don’t care about the environment, we’re actually able to do things that are good for the environment,” says Michael Webber, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s the most ironic, preposterous situation. If you want to build a wind farm, you just build it.”
On private land, wind developers simply make a deal with landowners and pay them a royalty. But there’s no siting review process for wind farms on state lands, either. Plus, the state’s boundary extends 10.3 miles from the coast, a stipulation made by Sam Houston, Texas’s president, before the republic joined the United States in 1845. Federal waters off all other coastal states begin 3 miles offshore, which means wind projects beyond that point—such as Cape Wind, which was proposed for Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts in 2001—fall under the jurisdiction of the Minerals Management Service.
“If you’d like to build a wind farm off the coast of Texas, you only have to deal with the Texas General Land Office, and we’re a very eager leaser,” Jim Suydam, the office’s press secretary, says. “My boss is a Texas Republican. He’s an old Marine lieutenant colonel who carries a gun in his boot. But you’ll find no bigger proponent of offshore wind power, because he sees it as a vital part of a diversified revenue stream for public education.”