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Windmill State of Mind

A new book on the story behind Texas wind power

By Nora Ankrum, Fri., Aug. 23, 2013

Windmill State of Mind

Wind power may seem to be the redheaded stepchild of Texas' energy portfolio, but it turns out to have a legitimate claim to the historical, cultural, and political milieu of the oil and gas state, as energy reporters Kate Galbraith (who recently left the Texas Tribune to move to California) and Asher Price (of the Austin American-Statesman) discovered when writing their new book, The Great Texas Wind Rush: How George Bush, Ann Richards, and a Bunch of Tinkerers Helped the Oil and Gas State Win the Race to Wind Power. We recently spoke with them about the book, the future of wind power, and some of the colorful characters (both fictional and non-) that have played a pioneering role in the story of wind in Texas.

Austin Chronicle: How did this project evolve? What made you decide to do a book?

Kate Galbraith: I'd been in Austin from 2005 to 2007 covering the Southwest for the Economist magazine, and I really had barely set foot in Texas before that. I come from London, and I was very surprised that one of my stories ended up being how Texas has passed California to become the No. 1 wind power state, and I thought, "I thought Texas was about oil and gas?" I just became really interested in the subject, and I reached out to Asher to see if he was into doing a book, and he was. And so we took it from there. I went to the East Coast for a little while, sort of bounced around a little bit. But I ended up back here at the Tribune, and so we were able to work on it together.

AC: So just how much wind does Texas have?

KG: I mean, it has a lot of wind. Wind power is now about 9% of the power on the state grid, and Texas is one of the top ranked states in terms of total wind capacity. One of the things that captured me – and we put this in the book – is a fellow in Lubbock who told me when he was a kid, he and his friends would tie sheets to their wrists and get on bicycles, and they would just sail off. I mean, it's incredible.

Asher Price: Another way to think about how much wind there is in Texas is in some ways related to the amount of electricity we're using at any given time. Texans use more electricity in the summer than in the winter, because in the summer we're running our AC systems. The proportion of the electricity coming from wind power is less in the summer than in the winter. So in the winter ... I think the power coming from wind power has exceeded 25% at particular moments. In other words, imagine at 3am on December 20, you probably don't have a bunch of electricity running at your house. So wind can step in and provide more of that power.

AC: In the book, you demonstrate these concepts through the lyrics of Woodie Guthrie and passages from Texas literature and old dime store paperbacks, like The Wind. How did that literary approach evolve?

AP: Wind is an intangible thing, so figuring out how to describe it, in some ways it's best to think about the effects on people and places and things. It turns out there's a great literature about just that, about the landscape in the Panhandle and West Texas, where a lot of these turbines have been planted. Kate and I reached out to somebody at UT who has written about the literature of Texas and asked for suggestions, and we picked up lots of things here and there. It was a way of telling the story more colorfully. ... I loved reading that novel, The Wind. There was a lot more stuff I could have quoted from it. I think early on I sent Kate like three pages of direct quotations from it. It was like a file called "excerpts from The Wind." Obviously we weren't going to put it all in the book, but there were these crazy passages of this young woman going mad – literally insane – because of the relentlessness of the wind on her homestead near Sweetwater.

AC: In the book, you describe a time when Texas was covered in windmills, particularly along railroad lines and in rural areas, like farms and ranches. And then rural electrification had a big impact on those windmills. Can you tell me about that?

KG: Yeah, that is a fascinating aspect. I love the fact that Midland, Texas, which we now think of as oil central, used to be called Windmill Town. And the minute you start looking into wind power in Texas, you get drawn back to the fact that, as Michael Osborne and others put it to us, it was the old water windmills and whirligigs that you still see all over the place in rural areas that really helped settle the Texas plains, because otherwise, there's no obvious water to speak of, so people can't live there. Windmills really enabled that expansion, and then people coming back from World War I and so on started tinkering around with ... airplane technology ... and that brought experiments that had been going on since the late 1800s up to the ability to put quote "wind chargers" – a form of these early electric windmills – on a rural homestead and turn some lights on. And that sort of spreads to the need and desire for self-sufficiency. We found some folks, like Father Joe James – Asher, you talked to him – but his dad essentially made one of these things out of automobile parts and a blade he'd bought at a hardware store. These incredible stories. ... One of the things I really liked about doing this story is that it's really a tale of pioneers in a way. It seems to me one of the last great pioneering tales in America that hasn't been claimed. You've got these hinterlands of West Texas, very remote places, and just a lot of self-sufficient characters who grew up in eras when they were good at fixing stuff and tinkering with stuff and curious about things, and they were working on putting up these turbines in these very remote areas and encountering sort of pioneering challenges of both land and the technology, so that was one of the things that drew me to this.

AP: Just to echo what Kate said, part of the idea of the book is that this is kind of a late 20th, early 21st century version of what happened 100 years earlier with the oil rush, when you had oil catters.

AC: So much of the book is about these ironies, not just in the obvious way of an oil and gas state becoming No. 1 in wind, but it's also a conservative state that socialized the cost of transmission. Can you tell me more about that?

AP: There was a lot I liked about telling this story. Part was the pioneers, another was literature. Another was the backroom politics involved in the Nineties with getting wind power off the ground. So in a nutshell, this legislative mandate required utilities to get a certain amount of energy from renewable sources, which de facto is wind, for various reasons. It came about as a kind of horse trading involving a broader electricity deregulation effort. So that's in a nutshell how you have this odd mandate. But again we decided to tell that story through characters. You have characters like this Dallas billionaire Sam Wyly, who was trying to elbow his way into the electricity game. And he had a lot to gain by folding some of this renewable mandate language into the deregulation package. The book goes into Ken Lay's interest – Ken Lay, at Enron, his interest in all this. And we write about George W. Bush and his efforts to burnish his environmental credentials ahead of a possible run for presidency, and we talk about how a couple of the state lawmakers who were players in this came to this issue. We wanted to make sure it was interesting for our readers – the sausage making.

KG: I will also say that one of the additional ironies is I don't think that wind power would be able nowadays to get the kind of policy boost that it got 10 to 15 years ago. In my mind, the rise or the intensification of the small-government movement as encapsulated by the Tea Party means that another renewable technology, solar, is not going to get any of the same kind of boost that wind clearly got from Texas lawmakers, and indeed there's now a bit of a backlash against wind both at the national and state level. Every time at the national level they try to renew the crucial tax credit to help wind, it's a major policy struggle and discussion, and at the state level there was an effort to repeal the renewable energy mandate of Texas – which is in some ways irrelevant, because Texas has already long surpassed it, but nonetheless, is had some technical meaning. It's also, I think, symbolic of the fact that wind is in no way as popular as it was back in the day.

AC: How much of a moving target was this topic? Given that the energy sector obviously changes so fast – definitely in terms of the impact of natural gas on the prospects for wind. Did you have a sense of this story changing under your feet?

KG: That's a good question. We closed off on the book about a year ago or something, so we couldn't capture, for example, what happened in the recent Texas legislative session, which turned out to be nothing too huge, but we were lucky enough to write this story after the natural gas and the fracking boom had come into play, so that offered some new angles and change of approach. T. Boone Pickens was promoting wind back when natural gas was expensive and then that sort of pulled out after gas become so abundant. We were able to capture that.

AC: Another irony you encounter in the book is that Texas can have too much of a good thing – too much wind.

KG: In the mid-Nineties, they were like, "Where should we put this first big wind farm in Texas?" It was a project driven by the LCRA [Lower Colorado River Authority]. They looked for the windiest spot. ... They found the Ridge on the Delaware mountains, and then a few months later some giant storm comes up and blows some of them out, and they're like, "Huh. I guess that shows that it's windy there. But too much wind might also not be ideal." So it was funny. It was very much a learning and evolving process.

AC: Going forward, what can we expect from wind?

KG: I think there's still some expanding left to do because these CREZ [Competitive Renewable Energy Zone] lines – these power lines to West Texas that utility companies and ultimately Texas rate payers are financing to reach West Texas and bring the wind back to the cities – those are going to be totally built out by the end of this year. That, plus the extended federal tax credit, will enable more wind farms to be built out there. I will say that I think that the CREZ lines are kind of a classic example of how the state has maybe shifted its views a little bit on wind power. The Legislature approved these lines, and the public utility commission mapped them out after this agonizing process. ... A wind farm in West Texas can't by itself just magically send power to Dallas, it also needs these big ugly power lines to transport it, and I think that was a really agonizing feature. It's a bit of another contradiction in that it's sort of an infrastructure state but also trying to respect landowners, and I think those kinds of conflicts were very apparent in the CREZ process. And for the future power lines for wind, I think those two sides will be pretty well established.

AC: What's the role of coastal wind?

AP: There's a lot of potential there, obviously. I think one of the big stumbling blocks has been the cost of putting a turbine in offshore versus putting it on land. One reason I think there's a lot of potential with wind power is because there's a lot of innovation that's there for the taking, or at least people are working on the problem, like with batteries for example. ... If someone can figure out how to store energy generated by these turbines and use it at different times, then wind power will become yet more valuable.

KG: I will also say that before we even get to offshore turbines, of course they're building out onshore coastal wind farms that are better suited to the needs of the electric grid because they produce a lot of their power in the afternoon when the air conditioners are on and the power is needed. Austin Energy just announced a new coastal wind contract in June, so that's where a lot of the attention has been the last couple of years and will continue to be as well as in the Panhandle, which is the windiest region in Texas but has been so remote that it's been challenging to harvest that power, so the new power lines will assist that.

AC: The book touches on another irony in a quote from Michael Webber [of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at UT-Austin], who says that in Texas, because we don't care about the environment, we can do good things for the environment. That's a theme I hear a lot, especially in energy circles. Can you elaborate on that?

AP: Texans are certainly more willing to build turbines offshore than we see in other places, notably in Massachusetts. As robust as the environmental movement is in Massachusetts, ... because of their views, it makes it more difficult to do some of the work that people are willing to do in Texas.

KG: I think what he meant by that is that Texas has this kind of "let's do it" attitude and doesn't want to get bogged down in regulation of any sort, and so you know, if they see an opportunity in the plains of West Texas – yeah, let's do it, let's go build these turbines. And because the environmental movement isn't anything like it is in California, you're not going to get people agonizing so much in the early days of a wind farm about what it's going to do to the landscape and the birds, so it is a kind of funny situation.

AC: Can you tell me about the role Ann Richards played in encouraging the wind industry in Texas?

AP: At least rhetorically, expanding Texas energy holdings was important for her and really getting into renewable energy was important to her. She had a lot of other things on her plate during her tenure, so she wasn't herself that actively involved with getting renewable energy off the ground, but I think she gave hope and some kind of an injection of energy, so to speak, to the sorts of people who were working seriously on this issue and at this point.

KG: The Eighties were a sort of time of some depression for renewable energy advocates and developers, because oil prices, after being quite high in the Seventies and incenting renewable power, sort of sank, and then to have this political figure come in and set up a framework to think broadly about renewable power in the Nineties was very encouraging to folks who wanted to do wind.

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