The One and Only Texas Wind Boom
Wind power has transformed the heart of fossil-fuel country. Can the rest of the United States follow suit?
Rolan Petty stabbed at the dirt with a boot toe and looked up at the broiling west Texas sun. “I call it farming on faith,” he said of his unirrigated cotton farm. “You just have faith that the rain is gonna come.”
If it doesn’t come, Petty has a backup income stream: leasing fees. All around us, towering 150 feet over Petty’s combine and the scrubby-looking cotton plants in neat rows, stood a forest of wind turbines that stretched to the horizon. Petty’s land on the arid plain of west Texas lies on the edge of the vast Horse Hollow wind farm, with 430 turbines spread over 73 square miles. It was the largest wind farm in the world when it was completed, in 2006. Petty’s family leases land to Horse Hollow and another wind farm in the area, making about $7,500 a year on each of the several dozen turbines on their property. Wind power has become a big windfall for the Pettys, as it has for many landowners in Texas—allowing Rolan and his parents and three brothers to make hundreds of thousands of dollars every year whether the rains come or not. And the Petty farm is just a small player in the largest renewable-energy boom the United States has ever seen.
With nearly 18,000 megawatts of capacity, Texas, if it were a country, would be the sixth-largest generator of wind power in the world, right behind Spain. Now Texas is preparing to add several thousand megawatts more—roughly equal to the wind capacity that can be found in all of California. Most of these turbines are in west Texas, one of the most desolate and windy regions in the continental United States. Fifteen years ago, when the groundwork for this boom was being set, this area had little but cotton and grain farms, oil fields, scrub and dry riverbeds, and small towns that were mostly withering.
Today it’s a land of spindly white turbines that line the highways—and the pockets of landowners. At night, when the wind blows strongest and steadiest, if you stand out in one of the fields you can hear the great blades make a ghostly shoop-shoop sound as they turn. Wind power has brought prosperity to towns that were literally drying up less than a generation ago. “In the 2011 drought a lot of people around here would have filed for bankruptcy if not for the turbines,” said Russ Petty, one of Rolan’s brothers, who was giving me a driving tour of the property. “What it’s done is helped keep this land in the family.”
It has also shown that a big state can get a substantial amount of its power from renewable sources without significant disruptions, given the right policies and the right infrastructure investments. The U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 report “Wind Vision” set a goal of getting 35 percent of all electricity in the country from wind in 2050, up from 4.5 percent today. In Texas, at times, that number has already been exceeded: on several windy days last winter, wind power briefly supplied more than 40 percent of the state’s electricity. For wind power advocates, Texas is a model for the rest of the country.
But it also reveals what wind power can’t achieve. Overall, wind still represents less than 20 percent of the state’s generation capacity—a number that dips into the low single digits on calm, hot summer days. And even with the wind power boom, the state’s total estimated carbon emissions were the highest in the nation in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available—up 5 percent from the previous year.
What’s more, the conditions that have spurred Texas’s boom may not be easily duplicated. Not only is Texas scoured by usually steady winds, but it has something most other places lack: a gigantic transmission system that was built to bring electricity from the desolate western and northern parts of the state to the big cities of the south and east, including Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. Under a program known as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, or CREZ, the power lines were approved in 2007 and cost nearly $7 billion to build. They have added a few dollars a month to residential electricity bills, but they now look like a far-sighted infrastructure investment that other states are unwilling or unable to make.
I drove nearly 1,200 miles, from Abilene to Amarillo and many places in between, this summer to explore the wind explosion in Texas. I wanted to understand what was driving this ongoing boom, and what the ultimate limit might be. How much wind power can the Texas grid absorb, economically and physically? And can other states, and other nations, achieve what Texas has, or are there conditions here that will be difficult or impossible to reproduce anywhere else?