Texas to unlock wind potential
by Eric E. Silagy
With demand for electricity-and consumer interest in how it is generated-on the rise, Texas is poised to unlock its vast potential for wind energy.
The electric industry has been in the national spotlight for several months, with the electric generation sector at center stage. And standing in the glare are grassroots organizations and environmental groups expressing views on the types of generation resources we all need.
After eclipsing California in 2006, Texas is now the leading producer of wind energy in the country, capable of generating nearly 3,000 megawatts.
There is no question that additional generating capacity is necessary to ensure our country’s energy security. Public awareness extends from Main Street to Wall Street and all points in between, making the need for economic, reliable and environmentally conscious sources of electricity an important issue in households, boardrooms and capital buildings across the country.
Texas has become a major attraction in the electricity supply spotlight. While recent power industry transactions are transforming the wholesale and retail provider landscape, community and environmental organizations across Texas have taken a more active role in proposed fossil-fuel power projects. As a result, elected and appointed officials are taking a keen interest in the environmental implications of additional electricity supply. Balancing the need for energy to meet consumer demand with cleaning up the environment was a greater challenge until the last few years, but technology has provided viable solutions.
With the state’s electricity environment so prominent in the headlines, it should come as no surprise that a recent survey showed that Texas voters overwhelmingly support wind energy development. The results reflect a strong belief that wind-generated energy should be part of Texas’ overall electricity mix.
January’s statewide survey of 809 Texas voters provided several key findings:
- 86 percent said that the state should support the development of additional electricity sources.
- 90 percent believe that wind energy should be a part of Texas’ power generation portfolio.
- 93 percent support further development of wind energy in the state.
The survey also found that Texas voters recognize that the state is facing important environmental issues.
- Nearly seven out of every 10 agree that global warming and pollution are a problem.
- More than six out of every 10 believe that water contamination from chemicals and pollutants is a problem.
- More than half said that emissions from power plants are a problem in their areas.
No easy answers
After eclipsing California in 2006, Texas is now the leading producer of wind energy in the country, capable of generating nearly 3,000 megawatts, enough power for more than 700,000 homes. Wind is abundant in several areas of the state, most notably in the western half, and it is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to generate electricity.
Advanced technology is the key. Advances in wind energy technology have led to increased production and lower electricity costs for consumers. According to the American Wind Energy Association, a modern turbine generating 1.65 megawatts of power can produce 120 times the electricity of an older 25-kW turbine at one-sixth the cost. Moreover, association statistics show that over the last 20 years the cost of wind energy has declined approximately 90 percent and is now as competitive as gas-fired generation. In the early ’80s, costs were around 30 cents per kWh; today, they’re 4 cents to 7 cents per kWh.
So, based on the data and the public desire, one might conclude that the simple solution to Texas’ electricity needs is wind energy, right?
Not exactly. There are, of course, no easy answers, and electricity supply is certainly no exception. Part of the solution is having a diverse mix of fuel sources to generate electricity. Avoiding interruptions and price spikes is paramount since electricity is a staple of economic development and public safety. Wind doesn’t blow 24-7, and, as we know too well, hurricanes blow through the Gulf of Mexico and can interrupt gas production. To keep the lights on, diverse types of generation-and locations for that generation-are important. Electric transmission lines are the means of diversifying that power supply geographically and are essential to reliability.
Consequently, at an open meeting in March 2007, the commissioners of the Public Utility Commission of Texas requested interested parties to identify additional transmission solutions to maximize the benefits of windy areas, called Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ), and improve the reliability of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) transmission grid. The PUCT’s strong interest in an examination and analysis into the best use of transmission system technologies was not only an important step forward for grid reliability, but also a giant leap toward the most forward-looking planning for renewable resources in North America.
The Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center is spread over nearly 47,000 acres in Taylor and Nolan County, Texas. Photo courtesy of FPL Energy.
Every CREZ nominated under the Commission’s docket was aimed at new wind development in or near the western half of Texas. With proven and abundant resources and supportive communities, Texas is positioned to realize the full benefits that renewable energy can provide. However, there is an obstacle to fully utilizing Texas’ wind resources. The west Texas transmission network was not designed to transmit significant amounts of electricity to cities in the eastern part of the state.
In order to cost-effectively deliver renewable and other available power from the west to areas in the north and east, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, the state recognized the need for a comprehensive system-wide plan for integrating renewable sources of electricity into the grid. And, in true Texas fashion, the impact of a long-term, coordinated approach to the bulk power system could be big.
By creating opportunities for large-scale renewable energy development in west Texas through the CREZ process, billions of dollars (that’s not a typo) in new economic development would occur and thousands of jobs in Texas would be created. Thousands of additional megawatts of generating capacity could be added to the grid in a much shorter time frame than it would take to site, permit and develop traditional fossil-fuel generation assets such as coal plants. From an environmental standpoint, the renewable energy sources would be emissions-free and require no water to operate. In effect, addressing the West to North transfer limit in this manner would provide the equivalent of multiple zero-emissions generation facilities inside our cities.
Finally, consumers would benefit from increased price competition from renewable energy that could displace costlier forms of energy. Proposals for the construction of transmission lines to serve the CREZs have been submitted by FPL Energy, Panhandle Loop Intervenors and Electric Transmission Texas, and would provide more cost-effective supply and competition to ratepayers in Texas.
Although wind power alone cannot meet all the energy needs of Texas consumers, it can and should play a greater role in the state’s electricity supply mix. However, in order to recognize its full potential and benefits, a comprehensive and cost-effective approach that leverages the state’s wind and transmission resources is required. Through the CREZ process-and the industry’s response to it-the Lone Star State is taking a leadership role in proactively promoting a plan that will ensure sustainable development and delivery of clean, renewable electricity to Texans.
Eric E. Silagy is vice president and general manager-Texas for FPL Energy.