Longhorns, Long Wires, and Big Ideas in Green Energy

By Chris Mooney | May 17, 2010 6:58 am

This is a guest post from Melissa Lott, 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 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.

As the nation moves toward a green energy future, it has found a leader in Texas. While Washington debates federal clean energy policies, the Lone Star State has taken up the reins in the renewable energy sphere. Should we be surprised that this iconic leader in our nation’s energy history is now uniquely positioned to lead us into our energy future?

wind_BrazosTexasAs a University of Texas at Austin graduate student and a woman with deep hill country roots I’m well acquainted with the state’s reputation as the home of big oil and gas. This image has been cultivated over the years through scenes with James Dean (Jett Rink) in Giant and Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing) in Dallas. Truth-be-told, much of the economic development in the past 100 years in Texas can trace its roots back to 1901 when Spindletop came gushing in and the real-world Jetts and J.R.s found their strides.

Today, Texas is the nation’s leader in total energy consumption, using about 12 percent of the country’s total energy. If Texas was a nation, it would rank seventh in the world for carbon dioxide emissions – just ahead of Canada and a smidgeon behind Germany. Texas boasts some of the largest petroleum refineries in the United States and the Houston area, including its aptly named Energy Corridor, is home to many oil and gas giants including Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, BP America, and Exxon Mobil. The Lone Star State is undeniably a principal in the traditional energy industry and at the same time is uniquely positioning itself to be the nation’s leader in the green energy movement, particularly green electricity.

Texas is not only rich in oil and gas reservoirs (good ole Texas Tea), but also has expansive renewable energy resources including solar and wind. Over the past decade, the state has cultivated its wind power industry with a set of progressive policies including a statewide renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that have driven Texas to be the nation’s leader in wind power. To date, almost 10 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity have been installed within the state’s borders – enough to power almost 3 million homes. On February 28, 2010 Texas hit another impressive benchmark when it supplied a jaw-dropping 22% of its total electricity demand using wind energy. In doing so, it demonstrated the state’s ability to be a model for adding renewable electricity to the grid throughout the nation.

Why Texas? What makes Texas unique?

I’d like to offer up what I believe is the main reason – Texas’s electricity grid.

In the continental United States, there are three grids (East, West and Texas) that serve as electricity pipelines to move electricity from power plants to our homes and businesses. The self-contained Texas grid (operated by ERCOT) is unique. It allows for regulation of transmission on a state basis, as intrastate activities are not overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commissions (affectionately called FERC).  This means that, if Texans want to test the limits on how much renewable energy they put on the grid or see how a renewable energy technology performs in a grid system, they can do so without Washington’s approval. In other words, Texas is like a 100+ million acre test lab that the entire nation can benefit from.

A shining example of this is seen in the state’s capital. In Austin’s Mueller Development, the Pecan Street Project has taken on the role of America’s clean energy laboratory.  This laboratory spans over 711 acres and is home to approximately 10,000 residents that live in 4,600 single-family, condo, or 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 town center full of cafes and shops. Not exactly your traditional Bunsen burner and vent hood, but rather a huge outdoor dynamic laboratory for real time feedback and data collection.

The Pecan Street Project is bringing together scientists (engineers, geologists, and chemists), politicians (from rural Republicans to urban Democrats), and Texas residents from all walks of life to see what we can achieve. This community, inspired by the smart grid concept, will test theories and technologies like advanced energy storage, real-time pricing, and an array of efficiency projects that not only target energy, but will also work to decrease water demand in the community. And the best part of this project is that the lessons we learn from this community will be shared with the rest of the nation.

Texas has a rich energy history and appears to have equally high prospects for its energy future. Because of its unique position – with rich resources and independence in its grid – it is able to pursue exciting opportunities in the energy arena that the nation (and the world) will benefit from in the future.


Comments (28)

  1. GM

    As the nation moves toward a green energy future

    One can basically stop reading after this. Or, alternatively, one can continue, just to see if by some miracle the article will actually explain how the nation is going to replace what it’s getting from fossil fuels with renewables. Of course, it doesn’t

  2. kirk

    Dearest GM – please go the the chalkboard and write:
    “We can’t have more wind and solar without a smartgrid.”

    The article explains it to you but it can’t understand it for you.

  3. GM

    While it’s absolutely necessary to replace the grid, a smart grid will not create any negative entropy so on its own it is useless to solve the global sustainability crisis.

  4. Guy

    The smart grid won’t be the only innovation that helps to solve the energy problem. It is a significant component within a comprehensive set of solutions.

  5. GM

    Which includes…?

  6. Guy

    It’s still to be determined what all the solutions will be. Most likely it will be shift towards wind, solar and nuclear power. When you consider the scale, yes it is enormous, but there is nothing physically keeping us from doing it. There is a mathematical proof that all the potential energy we need is there in the form of renewable energy. The technological challenge is to capture it, distribute it and use it as efficiently as possible. The political challenge is to convince enough of the people that we need to. The economics of it are just as daunting.

  7. GM

    And despite all of this, you see no problem?

  8. Guy

    There is definitely a big problem. I for one do not think that it is impossible to solve. It can be solved if we dedicate enough resource to the problem.

  9. Matt T

    GM…what’s YOUR solution? The smart grid is “useless” and apparently we will never be able to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Please enlighten all of us.

  10. GM

    The only solution is recognizing the simple mathematical truth that infinite growth in a finite system is impossible, then the other, slightly more complicated and this time ecological, truth that populations that have overshot the carrying capacity of their environment end up collapsing (and destroying a lot of that carrying capacity in the process), and taking measures accordingly. None of which is even remotely within the sphere of what is talked about even among people who label themselves as being for a “green future”, because the vast majority of them have no clue about what the situation really is; in fact they are only slightly more enlightened than the people who are in denial that a problem even exists.

  11. Guy

    “The only solution is recognizing the simple mathematical truth that infinite growth in a finite system is impossible, then the other, slightly more complicated and this time ecological, truth that populations that have overshot the carrying capacity of their environment end up collapsing (and destroying a lot of that carrying capacity in the process), and taking measures accordingly.”

    There are lessons to be learned from history where this occurred. Easter Island is a fairly good example. The person that cut down the last tree had to of known it was the last one but did it anyway. Deforestation created the problem of soil erosion, which meant that farming produced less food, which meant starvation and war over resources. Eventually, the population did stabilize (well before the more advanced civilizations discovered the island). They worked out a system of mutual benefit for everyone and kept their population in check. The reason they are gone now is because in their weakened state, they could not defend against foreign invaders and slave traders.

  12. Matt T

    GM…again, I ask what is YOUR solution. You said the word “solution” and then restated the problem. It’s easy to yell from the peanut gallery, taking jabs at the work of other people, saying that solution A is insufficient, solution B is impossible, blah blah blah. Perhaps you advocate doing nothing to solve the problem, because you apparently think that the problem is unsolvable?

    I will not join your position. I would rather test as many intelligent solutions as possible. And having a Texas-sized lab available to test the fit of these puzzle pieces seems like a great idea.

  13. GM

    Well, if you want an escape plan, I can definitely give you one, but it is quite long and it involves such things as moratorium on births until population is reduced by at least 95% (with the inevitable forced abortions, sterilizations and even infanticide which come with it due to the fact that the majority of people will not comply), complete eradication of religion and draconian mandatory educational standards for everyone, doing away with things like free markets and democracy, and seriously revising the list of basic human rights. All things most people would probably never call a “solution” as they care much more about their own well-being here and now than they care about what the state of humanity will be 200, 2000, or 20,000 years from now.

  14. GM.. what in the world sort of person are you? Really? Your big idea, which is so much more likely to succeed is to basically kill off anyone who won’t comply? What? Honestly? Sure, it would be all Utopian to have us on one mindframe, but only if that one is of peace toward each other and our planet, I don’t really think it’s rational, or for that matter, potentially sane to think that your big idea is the great solution to the world’s ills.
    On that note, I agree, when asked your solution, you danced like a little puppet and tried to (in a very wordy manner) act as though your restatement of the problem was some answer. You STILL have not really answered the question. What if you had 3 sentences, what would you say?
    Nevermind the idea that the human race, it’s mental state and spiritual well-being cannot be nurtured in any way if we’re all DEAD. If we don’t do something that is eco-responsible immediately, we have no chance of survival on this planet. That time frame you’re talking about, 20,000 years from now is going to look a lot like “Resident Evil” if our planet dies. It is a living thing and if we don’t care for it, like our bodies, it will deteriorate and dissolve into remnants.
    On an airplane, the emergency plans indicate that adults should put on their own oxygen masks before their child’s. Selfish? No, what’s selfish is giving that child a mask, and then letting them endure floating around in the ocean alone. If you aren’t alive to protect them, there’s nothing they can do for themselves. You are effectively killing both of you by not putting on your own first. This is the same. If we don’t preserve our environment WHILE we strive for a better society at the same time, we will have neither in the long run you are so sure of.
    PS Matt T, you really said all of that well.

  15. --bill

    Just a spelling flame here–in that first paragraph, second sentence, it should be `reins’, not `reigns’.

  16. Guy

    The silver lining to overpopulation is having more people available to work on solutions…

  17. GM

    The silver lining to overpopulation is having more people available to work on solutions…

    How many people exactly are there that are working on solutions when the vast majority of the people alive today are either completely illiterate, some sort of mindless consumers, or something in between?

    You could pretty much have the same, if not higher level of scientific and cultural achievements if there were 7 million people alive on the planets, and not 7 billion, if those 7 million were highly educated, and not illiterate and innumerate

  18. GM

    Bonnie @ 14

    What you fail to understand is that there are things that are physically and biologically impossible. Like having 10 billion people living a Western lifestyle.

    It is understandable why you don’t understand that, as it requires not very deep, but quite broad knowledge in a lot of disciplines, most of which aren’t part of any typical curriculum that people go through, plus, what’s even more important, the ability to distance yourself from the dominant narratives of the culture you have been raised in, which even fewer people have.

    But this does not change what the situations is, as the laws of nature are completely indifferent to what our wishes are. It’s as simple as that.

    BTW, and this is another thing that people get horribly wrong, our goal is not to preserve the environment, our goal is to preserve our species.The only imperative that we follow is “survive and reproduce”, as do all other organisms on the planet, and we should be looking at the situation from a purely egoistical perspective, not through the “we are obliged to preserve the environment” frame. Obliged by who and what? It is all about basic survival, the difference is that we are supposed to have brains that in theory should allow us to see that maximizing our numbers and consumption is not the best evolutionary strategy in the long term. So what you consider “eco-responsible ” is also irrelevant, as “eco-responsibility” is a meaningless concept in the light of the above.

  19. Matt T

    I see GM’s name, and I get the image of a beautiful bird flying out of a window. Why, I wonder? Could it be because we have missed an opportunity to have an intelligent debate about a nuanced problem. Or is it because it represents the irrecoverable time wasted reading and responding to a troll with his thumb up his rear.
    Damn…there goes another bird…

  20. Bellhalla

    A minor nitpick: the state’s capitol is the 122-year-old domed, pink granite building at the north end of Congress Avenue. The project you referenced is in Austin, which is the state’s capital.

  21. GM

    I told you the solution – drastic downsizing in order to get us safely within the carrying capacity of the environment.

    This involves all of the unpleasant things I listed above because we have exceeded the carrying capacity in numerous ways, the majority of which building a smart grid and erecting a few wind mills do not address. It is the combination of peak fossil fuels, peak uranium, peak metal ores, peak phosphorus, peak fossil aquifers, climate change, general ecosystem collapse, soil degradation, and many others, all against the background of continued growth of population and per capita consumption, that has to be looked at in its entirety.

    The authors of this blog and most of the comments have a very poor track record in doing this, which is why I remind it from time to time; it does not help a lot, but when you apply cold logic to the facts, you reach the conclusions about what has to be done I listed a few posts above. I explicitly mentioned that for most people those are not “solutions”. which is probably why you kept insisting for me to list them. Well, I did, the problem is that if the only thing that you would consider a “solution” is some magic that will allows BAU to continue indefinitely, then you are never going to find such a thing

  22. Matt T

    Actively “downsizing” the population isn’t a solution, any more than jumping off a bridge is a solution to your boredom. The problem isn’t there anymore, but you’re not really addressing the spirit of the problem.

    I will agree that drastic conservation has to be part of the larger framework. And I will even give you credit for bashing on the western, consumer life style. But this article deals with the way Texas is leading the way on green energy development and implementation as a means to combat our energy woes. If Texas can move forward on the green pathway without forcing mandatory abortions, then maybe…just maybe…the rest of the world can follow suit.

    Furthermore, the goal of any living organism is reproduction and survival of the offspring for further reproduction. THATS IT. Forced abortions is the opposite of ensuring your offspring survive. Self-preservation is, and should be, an afterthought. Therefore, it is in our best interests to be eco-responsible to ensure that our offspring have the best chance to reproduce. Nobody is advocating “maximizing consumption”.

  23. GM

    As I said above, what may look like a very good evolutionary strategy in the short term, may not at all be good when the long term consequences are taken into account. Failure to account for the long term is usually called short-sightedness

  24. Dear all,
    It is good to see such intellectual debate on issues that are so daunting and important. With more of this I am seeing a glimmer of silver lining that a solution WILL be found. A thread that seems to follow through the posts seems to be that “only so many people can fit on one planet” Is that the real problem that needs addressing?

  25. GM

    No. You can “fit” trillions on the planet. The question is how many people can be sustained indefinitely at a sufficiently comfortable lifestyle level, so that we can keep developing science and technology and not be forever reduced to stone age-level existence.

    Which is not the same as “How many people can we fit?”

  26. @Bellhalla and @–bill Thanks to both of y’all for your comments regarding typos. Both should now be fixed.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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