Lubbock County, West Texas

Wind turbines in Lubbock County in West Texas

For the past few years, Texas has ranked as the state generating the most wind power. Several recent developments highlighted the importance of wind-generated electricity in the state, while some others underscored potential problems looming for the wind industry.

Texas continued to rank high in several lists featured in the American Wind Energy Association’s Annual Market Report, released earlier this month.

It was tied for first place with Iowa and Illinois as the states with the most “overall wind jobs” – 6,000 to 7,000 in each of those states.

It had the 11th-highest percentage of its electricity generation represented by wind power – 6.9 percent. (South Dakota was in first place, with 22.3 percent.)

And it ranked second, behind Kansas, in terms of wind projects under construction this year, with projects totaling 857 megawatts (MW). Kansas’ projects totaled 1,189 MW, while No. 3 California’s totaled 847 MW.

The trade group used the report to declare that if Congress does not act this year to renew a tax incentive for the wind industry called the Production Tax Credit, the subsidy’s demise would “put the brakes” on wind power’s rapid growth.

A recent appraisal of the political situation by Renewable Energy World, a web publication, warned, however, that renewable energy industries in general should not expect government support to continue at anything like the levels of recent years:

“…[T]he new state of politics dictates that subsidies will be phased out. Though some may yet be extended for at least the short-term, we’re likely entering a new era of energy policy in the United States.”

State Rep. Rene Oliveira, a Democrat from Brownsville, cited the possibility that the Production Tax Credit will not continue, as well as a slowdown in the addition of new wind projects in Texas since 2009, in a February letter to the state Public Utility Commission.

Oliveira asked Donna Nelson, the PUC chairwoman, to determine whether the current, large-scale buildout of transmission lines from wind-rich West Texas to more populous parts of the state could mean the wind energy actually being generated when the project is complete will be out of sync with the larger capacity of the power lines.

The nearly $7-billion transmission project was launched by the Legislature in 2005, when the Texas wind industry was booming, to carry electricity from power sources then expected to be built.

“Should you find that there will be a significant mismatch,” Oliveira wrote to Nelson, “I would ask that you examine whether the (power line) project could be scaled back in order to save ratepayers money. The final parts of the project are not scheduled to be completed until Dec. 31, 2013, almost two years from now. Even though complex engineering and legal hurdles may exist, we may still have time to adjust our plans so that we do not needlessly create transmission capacity, and then force ratepayers to cover the cost.”

J.J. Garza, Oliveira’s chief of staff, told TCN this week that the legislator had not received a formal answer to his inquiry, but the PUC has informally sought information needed to be responsive to his questions.

It may turn out, Garza said, that the power-line project’s construction has already passed “a point of no return.”

The transmission project was planned to carry up to 18,500 MW. Citing federal statistics, Oliveira’s letter noted that wind-generation capacity in Texas (including areas other than West Texas) stood at about 10,223 in 2011, with capacity additions slowing from a 2,760 MW jump from 2007-08 to a 134 MW increase from 2010-11.

Several rate cases involving different parts of the transmission project are expected to be filed with the PUC, and while at least one has been filed, none is close in the PUC process to an actual hearing before the commission, agency spokesman Terry Hadley said.

Wind-power development in Texas has slowed, according to the statistics deployed by Oliveira, but it has not stopped, as an announcement early this month by Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens illustrated.

Pickens’ Dallas-based Mesa Power Group said it would build the 377 MW Bor-Lynn Wind Project south of Lubbock with Wind Tex Energy.

Mesa said the project has reached the first agreement for an interconnection between a wind project and the West Texas transmission project that was the focus of Oliveira’s letter. The line in question will be completed in early 2013, the company added.

The Bloomberg news service reported that the wind farm was a scaled-down version of a ten-times-larger wind project in the Texas Panhandle that Pickens announced in 2007 but shelved in 2009.

Bloomberg added that Mesa was looking for a buyer for the electricity produced by the project, the company’s only wind farm in Texas.

A few days after the Mesa announcement, the Austin American-Statesman reported that a New Mexico company, Chamisa Energy, is planning to use a site south of Amarillo for a project that would address the argument that wind power, due to its inherent intermittency, can be less reliable than other methods of power generation.

The technology is not new, but company officials say using it to maximize wind generation would be a first for Texas.

Generators will use wind-generated electricity, mostly at night when power demands are low and prices are cheapest, to compress air into salt caverns that will be carved 2,000 feet below the surface. As the demand for electricity rises during the day, the process is reversed. A mixture of compressed air and a small amount of natural gas would generate power.

It’s a buy-low, sell-high business model that became possible with a recent decision by the Public Utility of Commission of Texas that allows all storage technologies to pay wholesale rates when they use electricity off the grid.

Strong continuing interest by some local government entities in Texas in using wind power was manifest in the latest lists of the nation’s top buyers of renewable energy, issued this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership.

Houston, Austin and Dallas were in the top three spots on the list of the Top 20 local governments, ranked in terms of their total use of “green power” in municipal operations.

Houston’s No. 1 ranking was for its 438 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of wind power – 35 percent of its total electricity use. Austin’s 406 kWh of wind power represented 100 percent of its electricity use. Dallas’ 295 kWh of wind power was 40 percent of its total use.

Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport was in ninth place on the local governments list for its use of wind power and the Austin Independent School District was No. 11, representing its use of biogas and wind power.

The Texas A&M University System, with 15 percent of its electricity use from wind power, was No. 15 on the Top 20 college and university list issued by the EPA.

The EPA also announced that Southwestern University in Georgetown, near Austin, had the largest “green power” purchase among the schools in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, an honor given as part of its Green Power Challenge for colleges and universities.

The EPA gave these details about Southwestern’s recognition:

“In 2010, Southwestern signed an agreement that will enable it to meet all its electric needs for the next 18 years with wind power. The initial contract is for five years and is renewable through 2028. The agreement will help Southwestern toward its long-term goal of being carbon-neutral.”

– Bill Dawson

 Image credit: Leaflet, Wikimedia Commons