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.