Texan green socialism

The unlikely socialist model for promoting wind energy: Texas

It’s a strange fact that the leading American state in installed wind power isn’t California as you would expect, but Texas :

Wind table.jpg

Source: American Wind Energy Association, and a 1991 study it cites for potential; class 3 wind resource, with moderate land use exclusions; annual kwh output converted to MW capacity at 33% load factor. Full table for all states, going back to the 1991 study, here.

The 1991 study by the (Federal) Pacific Northwest Laboratory is a good and farsighted piece of work – but why hasn’t it been updated? The core prediction was that technology would greatly expand the area where wind energy can be exploited economically.

Spot on. Costs per kwh have declined steadily at 3% a year, as the technology cashed in on the usual sources of progress: mass production of standardized designs (GE has only three sizes in its catalogue), design tweaks to aerofoils, towers and controls, and greater size. The reference installation for the calculation of potential bravely assumed a 50m tower. The current standard is a 1-2MW unit on an 80m tower – height matters as the wind speed goes up. The main development the 1991 authors didn’t see coming was offshore wind power, which is more important to crowded Europe, with its huge continental shelf, than to the US. There’s no reason to think that the progress of this young technology will plateau soon.

Conclusion: you could now equal the total American electricity demand (about one terawatt) by covering the Great Plains with wind turbines.

wind farm.jpgThe cost on site would be in the area of 5c per kw/hr, comparable to other sources, even without the carbon or energy security tax that good policy would impose on fossil generation. Of course the variability means that a wind-only future is impracticable, but we are a long way from the practical limit. Denmark’s electricity comes 20% from wind already, balanced by hydropower from Norway.

The economic potential is a moving target, dependent on technology, and the 1991 report isn’t gospel on this. But it must still be right on the relative potential of different regions of the US, which depends on wind speed and terrain. The installation so far has been led by West Coast blue-state enthusiasts, rather than in the prairie red states where most of the usable wind is, like the Dakotas. These have low populations, but power could surely be exported at reasonable cost to the cities of the Midwest. Long-distance transmission would also be needed if generation were to shift, God forbid, to coal power.

The shining exception is Texas. (An honourable mention also goes to Iowa). How come? There’s no subsidy, or a mandated target as in California. It’s windy, but being hot, Texas has its peak electricity demand in the summer, when the wind drops – unlike the cold Dakotas.

What Texas does seem to have is a good regulatory environment. Its copy of Maggie Thatcher’s electricity privatisation in the 1990’s was much better than California’s. Enron was not, I think, able to manipulate the wholesale market the way it did in California. (Corrections welcome.) Utilities were forced to split their generating and transmission businesses (SB7, Section 17). As utilities couldn’t discriminate against their rivals in transmission, they were ready to hand over effective control of the grid to a quango, ERCOT (footnote). This stands for “Electricity Reliability Council of Texas”, but it bears little relation to the similarly-named talking-shops for coordination elsewhere in the US. ERCOT is an activist monopoly British-style grid operator covering most of the state, with a mandate to promote competition. The formula has proven ideal to encourage distributed generation.

The key Texas legislation, SB7 of 1999 was signed into law by George W. Bush as governor. It may well go down as his single real achievement, like Stalin’s Moscow metro .

If I’m right, what’s missing in the Northern Great Plains is a comprehensive, public-sector, interstate, common-carrier, electricity grid.

So I offer an energy policy slogan to other windy Blue states, and the next Administration :

Emulate the achievements of real existing Texan green socialism!

Well, the wording could perhaps do with improvement.

Footnote 1

Class 3 corresponds to a minimum average wind speed of 6.3 m/sec (23 km/hr, 14 mph) at 30m above ground, corresponding to the sailor’s “moderate breeze” or Beaufort Force 4..

Footnote 2

ERCOT’s website is incompatible with Firefox, which can however read the text-only pages in the Google cache.

Footnote 3

You get the same misallocations in Europe. Spain has five times the installed wind power of France or the UK, in spite of less wind. But the gap is not so extreme. The Spanish secret is I guess part government subsidy (now withdrawn), part highly decentralised regional and local government, so that municipalities (and in some cases no doubt their mayors) pocket attractive rents for the permits.


Photo from Foster Associates.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web