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Texas “Tea” becomes the Texas “E”?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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At 1 P.M. on February 28, 2010 a jaw-dropping 22 percent of the electricity being used in the state of Texas was supplied by the wind. Today, Texas is home to more than 10,000 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity—more than the next three largest wind states (Iowa, California and Washington) combined. In the course of a year, these renewable megawatts will supply 5 percent of Texas’s power needs. The Lone Star State is quickly becoming the Green Star State.

While we might typically think of Texas in terms of its rich oil and gas resources (good ol’ Texas Tea), the state also has extensive renewable electric energy resources including solar, wind and geothermal (the new Texas "E"). Over the past decade, the state has encouraged the use of these resources with a statewide renewable portfolio standard (RPS). This standard has driven Texas to become the nation’s leader in wind generation, with enough installed capacity to power almost three million homes.

Quickly and quietly, Texas is becoming the nation’s leader in green electricity. But, why is this happening in Texas? What makes Texas unique?

One of the main reasons might be found in Texas’s electric grid.

Every day, there is a mass migration of electrons across the United States along a web of wires to make sure that, when you flip a switch, the lights come on. Electric grids—comprised of transmission and distribution lines—are responsible for moving almost three petawatt-hours (pWh) of electricity around the continental United States each year. This is the energy equivalent of filling up your car’s gas tank more than nine million times per day, all year. More than 14 percent of the energy supplied by these electrons is used in Texas, contributing to the state’s status as the nation’s leader in total energy consumption. American power companies built the electric grid over the last century, at first stringing wires to connect cities to small local power plants. Later, the Rural Electrification Act brought electricity to America’s countryside—via hundreds of thousands of miles of new wires. Today, our nation is home to an electric grid that includes more than 160,000 miles of transmission lines (the huge silver towers you see along the road) and millions of miles of distribution lines that bring electricity to your doorstep.

Throughout the electric grid’s evolution, states have become increasingly connected to their neighbors. Except Texas. The famously independent Lone Star State is the only state of the continental 48 with its own electric grid.

The modern U.S. continental electrical grid is broken down into three interconnections: East, West and Texas. The Texas Interconnection, overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), is a self-contained electrical grid that provides 85 percent of the state’s power needs. Unlike the other 47 continental states, ERCOT’s territory is physically tied to adjoining regions by only a few high-voltage lines, helping to protect Texas from outages and system disruptions in neighboring regions (and vice versa).

The Texas electric grid itself connects more than 200 power plants and wind farms in the state to the customers who purchase the electric power that these facilities provide. The self-containment of the Texas grid allows for self-contained regulation, as intrastate activities are not overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commissions (affectionately called the FERC). Texans can make quick decisions regarding upgrades and expansions of their transmission infrastructure. In 2008 Texas made a $5 billion commitment to Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) transmission lines—designed to access the richest wind resources in the state.

In a larger context, this independence means that, if Texans want to see how a new energy technology performs in a grid system or if they wish to test the limits on how much renewable power they can put on the grid, they can do so without Washington’s approval. Texas’s independence in the electricity grid regulatory maze results in a 100-plus million acre test lab that the entire nation can benefit from—and already has.

The result: February 28, 2010’s spike in use of the new Texas “E.” And Texas is not stopping there.

Texas continues to expand its wind and other renewable generation capacity, and, on a smaller scale, the state has become America’s end-to-end clean energy laboratory. Not exactly your typical Bunsen burner and vent hood lab, the Pecan Street Project will study how consumers use electricity and how new efficient energy technologies work in a grid-based system over a 711 acre development with approximately 10,000 residents. These individuals and families live in 4,600 single-family, condo, and apartment homes.

Twenty-five percent of these homes are reserved for families that qualify for affordable housing programs. Also on the site are Dell Children’s Hospital, a Home Depot, and a center full of cafes and shops. The best part of this project – the lessons that are learned will be shared with the rest of the nation.

After more than a century since the strike at Spindletop ushered in the Texas oil boom, we are entering a new century with the Texas “E” boom. The Texas rush to a sustainable electric grid will enable the state to lead in technologies like electric cars, efficient manufacturing, renewable generation expansion, and end-to-end energy management. Texas’s embrace of the big “E” positions it to remain as our Nation’s energy capital.

1. Assumes: Gasoline = 116,090 Btu/gallon, Electricity = 3,412 Btu/kWh, gas tank = 24 gallons

Image Credits: Photo by: Mary Christenberry Lott

About the Author: Melissa C. Lott is a dual-degree graduate student in Mechanical Engineering and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work includes a unique pairing of engineering and public policy in the field of energy systems research. Melissa has worked for six years with YarCom, Inc., as an engineer and consultant in energy systems and systems design. She has previously worked for the Department of Energy and the White House Council on Environmental Quality for the Obama Administration. She is a graduate of the University of California at Davis, receiving a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biological Systems Engineering. Melissa is also the author of the blog Global Energy Matters: Energy and Environment in Our Lives.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. letxequalx 4:16 pm 12/2/2010

    22% percent of the State of Texas powered by wind – that’s amazing. I imagine if they covered the of the state with turbines they could power 22% of the state and a couple of major cities and how much fossil fuel did it take to make and install those turbines and how often will they require servicing and how soon do they wear out?

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  2. 2. ddeangelis 4:17 pm 12/2/2010

    Thanks for writing this article. It’s always nice to see quantitative research backing policy decisions. I wonder how Texas became the only (continental) state with its own grid. Was this a calculated maneuver from way back when grids were being defined? Or maybe the energy needs of the petroleum industry were not being met by the other grids?

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  3. 3. letxequalx 4:18 pm 12/2/2010

    22% percent of the State of Texas powered by wind – that’s amazing. I imagine if they covered the rest of the state with turbines they could power 22% of the state and also couple of major cities and how much fossil fuel did it take to make and install those turbines and how often will they require servicing and how soon do they wear out and how much fossil fuel will all of that take?

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 4:56 pm 12/2/2010

    Unfortunately, much of the electricity generated in the U.S. is dissipated into the local environment as it traverses the more than 160,000 miles of the country’s long distance transmission lines to eventually reach its consumers.

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  5. 5. tharter 5:10 pm 12/2/2010

    Just as fast or slow as any other electric generator. It is all heavy equipment, it all works pretty much the same way. BTW were you to cover Texas with windmills you could supply a lot more than "a couple cities" with electricity.

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  6. 6. aktownsend 5:41 pm 12/2/2010

    An important clarification regarding the connections between ERCOT and the other grids: the connections are made via high-voltage DC lines, rather than the more common high-voltage AC lines. The DC lines allow more independence between the grids than AC lines would allow, which allows ERCOT to not be under FERC’s regulatory authority.

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  7. 7. McCarthyJF26 6:38 pm 12/2/2010

    Thought-provoking article. I live in California and often wonder where CA would be if it used some of the same ideas.

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  8. 8. gabriellyn 6:39 pm 12/2/2010

    What a pleasant surprise! Great background info on our grid here in Texas. I hope we continue moving forward.

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  9. 9. marc h 7:37 am 12/3/2010

    Regardless of the reason I am happy to see more wind, but lets remember TX got into wind because the royalty money from gas and oil has been shrinking for years. After a century of being an energy exporter, TX is now an energy importer (and WY thanks you for the business). Now TX needs to invest in storage to take full advantage of its wind potential.
    As for CA, they have made great inroads into wind energy considering the state ranks 17 in wind potential.

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  10. 10. LuisR 9:33 am 12/3/2010

    This is really good, I didn’t know about ERCOT and Texas’ grid.
    To think that, at least for one day 22%, of one of the largest states was powered by wind energy is very impressive!

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  11. 11. davidwogan 5:16 pm 12/4/2010

    Great post! It really is something to drive on I-10 and see wind turbines dotting the mesas.

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  12. 12. denswei 9:06 pm 12/4/2010

    The article implies that the wind providing 22% of Texas electrical power was an isolated event that occurred on Feb 28. The average amount over the year is 5%, which includes all those time when the wind is not blowing very strong.
    So yes it’s impressive, but there is still plenty of room for growth.

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  13. 13. dwbd 3:16 pm 12/5/2010

    What a Crock! 22% on a Sunday Afternoon in Feb when power consumption is minimum. Wind will Power 3 million homes?!? Do homes only use power when the Wind is blowing? Do homes use minimum power during typical Summer Heat Waves when Wind is notoriously at less than 5% of installed capacity?

    Renewable Portfolio Standards are a COWARDLY, DEVIOUS, DESPICCABLE way to Subsidize Renewable Energy, and hide the same. So an additional $5B (actually $7.8B) in subsidies for long distance transmission lines for fluctuating Wind. Lines that must be sized for Peak Wind Energy but only deliver on avg 30% of rated capacity. More money down the sewer.

    Recent Texas Wind Farms have run $2.5k per kw. Add $.5k per kw transmission. Most jobs created are foreign. Additional Job Losses due to higher power costs. At avg 30% CF that’s $10k per kwavg. Add the NECESSARY shadowing NG power plants and you are up to $12k per kwavg. And Grid Stabilization costs. And increased fuel costs due to the intermittent, fuel guzzling cycling Shadowing NG power plants, which must pay a higher demand charge on NG. Of the Wind/NG system, 80-90% of the total primary energy will come from the NG. Cycling inefficiencies in that 80-90% will use burn as much extra fuel as the Wind would theoretically save. A complete waste of Money.

    Reliable 24/7, rain or shine Nuclear Power is FOAK in USA $4-5k per kwavg. 1/2 the price of Wind. China is starting at $1.9k per kwavg Nuclear cost and is planning to reduce that to $1.3k per kwavg on their CP1000, with $1k per kw. Build times are at 4-5yrs with 3 yrs in sight. China Wind Farms are $1.5k per kwpk cost or 60% of USA. So, similarly their is no legit reason why USA Nuclear costs cannot be $3.2k per kwavg, dropping to $2.2k per kwavg. <20% the cost of worthless Wind Energy.

    Emissions increase due to Wind Energy in Colorado & Texas:

    Wind Energy DOES NOT reduce fuel consumption or emissions:

    #1 Wind Energy country, Denmark has the highest power rates in Europe and produces the highest CO2 emissions of 881 gm CO2 per kwh of electricity, #2 Wind Power Germany produces 601 gm CO2 per kwh, while Nuclear France produces 83 gm CO2 per kwh.

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