It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Green Star State"

In an influential article in Texas Monthly and in a series of lectures, UT Engineering Prof. Michael Webber argues that Texans, who by an undeserved twist of good fortune, led the world into the carbon-burning age, may well be the ones who are doubly fortunate to lead us out.

Webber so argued today at this month's monthly talk at The Austin Forum, a series of public talks held at the TACC/UTIG facility where I work, and I attended.

He doesn't mince words:
Despite the general perception of our energy consumption, Texas is already doing much more to promote clean energy than the world realizes. For example, we created the nation’s first comprehensive municipal green-building program (in Austin) and the first technology incubator designed explicitly to encourage clean energy start-ups. Our biggest impact has been the aggressive use of renewable electricity—we were one of the first states to establish a renewable portfolio standard, which requires that a certain percentage of an energy company’s power generation come from renewable sources. Today half the states have something similar, following, to their surprise, in the footsteps of Texas (and Nevada). The renewable portfolio has been a huge success, leading us to create the largest installed base of wind capacity in the nation, about 9,000 megawatts, nearly three times as much as second-place Iowa. Our quick ramp-up of wind farms has pushed the U.S. ahead of every other nation, including Germany, the former leader, in terms of installed renewable capacity.

One of the ironies is that in Texas, our lack of concern about the environment enables us to do great things for the environment. You hardly need permission to build a wind farm here, and your neighbors cannot sue you for blocking their view. It’s much more difficult in environmentally inclined states like Massachusetts or California, where activists worry about the impact of the turbines on wildlife and ocean vistas. We don’t mind raising wind turbines, building transmission lines, or laying pipelines, all key advantages for renewable energy, which is diffuse by nature and requires vast tracts of land and sprawling infrastructure to be effective. Texas has a long history of trading blight for money. Why stop now?
He also notes that by a combination of extensive experience in big energy, geographic enormity, and dumb luck, Texas is well-positioned for wind, solar and biomass. While it is not obviously dominant in any of these categories it is easily the best positioned to move resources among the three. Also, not only does Texas have good geological formations for carbon sequestration, Texas also has the companies with experience running CO2 pipelines and pumping it underground.

I think a strong majority in the audience, myself included, agreed with Jeffrey Sachs (This was originally on Grist but several efforts by me today to find it there failed. If David or somebody over there wants me to file a bug report on how the site search went drop me a line. Linked is the Guardian's version.)
That leaves the U.S. with no choice but to develop and use CCS technology, despite the fact that it's never been successfully implemented, he said. Renewable energy sources and improvements in efficiency won't come close to meeting the world's growing energy demand, he said.

"There's no quantitative way to get this right without the nuclear industry playing a really large role," he said. "It's not a happy thought, but it's unavoidable."
Well, agreed except for the "never successfully implemented". Hey. Guys. We do it all the time. We have CO2 pipelines runnin all over WesTixes and N'Mexico.

There was some CO2/greenhouse skepticism in the audience, but it was polite and intelligent, for which I am grateful.

Most of the Austin Forum talks have been excellent, by the way. July's is being given by me. Y'all come.

11 comments:

thingsbreak said...

This the Grist article?

Reading the the rest of your post now, that just jumped out at me...

Marion Delgado said...

No, I don't think so. Just as Texas was a very significant adjunct, but still second fiddle, to California in the high-tech revolution, the same will be true for the green-tech revolution.

Michael, the next time I go to things like the WELL or the SLI I'll take pictures, record some video or audio and write you about it.

gravityloss said...

I've heard the natural gas magnates are really interested in building wind power - it would up the need of natural gas for reserve power when it isn't windy.

I have some business ideas for making life in Texas nicer and more energy efficient but lack the means to pursue them.

Michael Tobis said...

Marion, well, consider it a friendly competition.

It would be more of a surprise if Texas leads the way, though, wouldn't it?

GL, I know what you mean in a vague sense. It's hard to know how to promote commercial ideas without being part of a certain crowd. I have this one of my own about web-based journalism but I just don't know what to do with it...

Dano said...

There was some CO2/greenhouse skepticism in the audience, but it was polite and intelligent, for which I am grateful.

Intelligent, eh. You are trying too hard.

The other thing that jumped out at me was the cowboy mentality that yew kin do anythin as a key component to innovation also allows you to screw hit up jest as quick-like.

YMMV.

Best,

D

Michael Tobis said...

D,

Stubborn and ill-informed, sure, but not stupid or rude or obviously malign.

As for cowboys screwing things up, well, yeah, obviously.

The interesting thing sociologically is that you can count on redneck philosophy to always come out on the self-interested side, though. Renewable energy comes from agriculturally marginal or barren lands, and down here we have a whole lot of that.

There may well not be any justice in this Tex-centric outcome, but that's better than boiling the dang oceans, don't you think?

jg said...

In California, we can't stitch up powerlines or carve out a pipeline without a federal environmental impact statement (EIS).

I'd think the same requirement would apply to energy infrastructure in Texas. Does it?

California also has more requirements on top of the EIS, so maybe that's where the difference is. But we also have a lot of rugged and inflammable terrain, as as well as biologically sensitive areas. It's hard to find a location for transmission lines that doesn't affect the safety of a community or stomp on something precious.

My understanding of an EIS is that it has to say what a project will do, but doesn't prevent decision makers from making a bad decision. For example, in a pumped storage project I've followed, the EIS showed the project would lose $124 million dollars a year. So, decision makers can still approve a money-losing project; perhaps in California, they just have to squirm a little more in justifying such a decision.

jg

Michael Tobis said...

California is beautiful and complex. Texas is flat and ugly. Therein lies our fundamental advantage.

Dano said...

Stubborn and ill-informed, sure, but not stupid or rude or obviously malign.

As for cowboys screwing things up, well, yeah, obviously.


Well, by golly, you've convinced me that I want these people setting environmental and ecological policy!

Best,

D

Michael Tobis said...

Policy isn't the only problem. Somebody has to be the first to do the actual work.

Dano said...

Well, at least I'm working at giving you at least tangentially relevant info for your request for realistic economic scenarios. ;o)

Best,

D