In the USA, the proportion of energy generated by wind power is growing. The biggest producer is Texas, but the state of New York is planning to catch up

In the USA, the proportion of energy generated by wind power is growing. The biggest producer is Texas, but the state of New York is planning to catch up

Cattle, oil, and wind power

Readingtime 7 minutes

Texas has reinvented itself as the largest producer of wind energy among U.S. states. But the next wind turbine boom is on the horizon – offshore developments along the Atlantic coast in the country’s Northeast.

PUBLICATION DATEJUNE 3RD 2022

TextNorbert Kuls

Everything is bigger in Texas. The Capitol building in Austin, the state capital, is almost 15 feet taller than the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Of all the U.S. states, Texas has the most cattle and produces the most oil and natural gas. Hollywood contributed significantly to the Texas Wild West myth. A 1950s movie classic told the story of a Texas ranching family fighting to survive changing times at the beginning of the great oil boom. The apt title of the film with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor: “Giant.”

It is time for a new epic. Over the past two decades, Texas has discovered a new growth area: Wind power.

TEXAS – THE LARGEST PRODUCER OF WIND ENERGY IN THE U.S.

The Lone Star State, the second-largest U.S. state by land area after Alaska, has become the largest producer of wind energy in the United States. If Texas were an independent country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest producer. In addition to cattle, cowboys, and oil rigs, the vast plains of West Texas must now be associated with giant wind turbines.

Yet renewable energy was virtually unknown in oil-rich West Texas until the late 1990s. “But one day a client came into my office and said, ‘Look at this, someone gave me a wind lease, they actually want to build a wind farm on my ranch!’,” recalls Sweetwater attorney Roderick Wetsel. It was the beginning of the wind energy boom in that small Texas town three-and-a-half hours west of Dallas.

Three hundred ninety wind turbines, some manufactured by Siemens, make the Sweetwater Wind Farm, completed back in 2007, the fifth largest wind farm in Texas. Both Austin and San Antonio get their electricity from there.

THE "WILD WEST OF WIND"

For many ranchers who sold access to their land to project developers, the wind farms were a new economic lifeline. Some complained that the structures blight the landscape, but the financial benefits outweighed the criticism. Wetsel, who likes to call Texas the “Wild West of Wind” and has taught the new field of wind law at the University of Texas School of Law since 2012, is one of many whose lives now revolve around renewable energy in business-friendly Texas. Texas currently employs 25,000 people in the wind industry and generates more than a quarter of all wind energy in the United States.

The state is ideally located in the “wind belt” in the middle of the United States, accounting for nearly 80% of the country’s current and planned wind energy capacity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Texas produced more electricity from wind power in 2020 than the next three largest states (Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas) combined. The capacity was 30.2 gigawatts.

However, Texas generates and consumes more electricity overall than any other state. Wind energy still accounts for just under 20% of Texas’ electricity generation mix. In contrast, in two other states – Iowa and Kansas – wind power has already become the primary source of electricity generation. There, wind power replaced coal, a CO2-emitting resource, as the top source of electricity generation in 2019.

SHARE OF ELECTRICITY FROM WIND POWER IS STEADILY RISING

In the United States, 8.4% of commercial electricity generation came from wind turbines in 2020. According to the EIA’s preliminary estimates, a record amount of new wind capacity was commissioned in the United States in 2021. As a result, the EIA projects that wind power’s share of electricity generation in the United States rose to 10% last year.

This year, wind capacity is likely to expand further. Wind energy accounts for nearly one-fifth (17%) of all new capacity to be added to the U.S. electric grid. However, solar power accounts for almost half of the capacity additions, followed by natural gas at just over one-fifth.

Still, wind power in America marked a new milestone on March 29. On that day, wind turbines generated more electricity than coal and nuclear energy for the first time in U.S. history, according to EIA data. Wind power accounted for just under one-fifth of U.S. electricity production that day, and only natural gas had a larger share at nearly one-third. One factor may have been the typically high wind speeds in the spring. At the same time, coal and nuclear power plants typically curtail their electricity production at this time of year because of somewhat diminished demand.

NEW WIND TURBINES FOR NEW YORK

Wind as an energy source is not just an issue in the U.S. wind belt. In February, the federal government auctioned off six leases for offshore wind turbines in the New York Bight, the shallow waters between New York’s Long Island and New Jersey, to utilities and offshore wind energy developers. The preliminary winners of the auction bid a total of $4.37 billion. According to officials, this is the highest amount ever bid in an auction of offshore leases in America – including oil and gas leases.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland touted the result as evidence of “undeniable enthusiasm” for clean energy. “The investments we are seeing today will play an important role in delivering on the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to tackle the climate crisis and create thousands of good-paying, union jobs across the nation,” she said.

Winners of the auction will be able to build wind farms that generate up to 7 gigawatts of energy – enough to power 2 million homes. That would require 600 to 700 turbines. “We are at a turning point for domestic offshore wind power development,” Haaland said. “We must seize this moment.”

OFFSHORE WIND FARMS: BREAKING AWAY FROM NATURAL GAS AND COAL MOVES FORWARD

The goals are ambitious. “There has never been anything like this in the Western Hemisphere for offshore wind,” said Mike Jacobs, an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. To date, there are only seven offshore wind turbines in America – five at a wind farm off Rhode Island and two others built as test facilities in Virginia.

The recent auction of leases off the Atlantic coast in the Northeast is just the first of many planned initiatives: The Biden administration has announced plans to increase offshore wind generation capacity to 30 gigawatts by 2030 – about four times what would be possible in the first step on the New York Bight. That’s still a fraction of the roughly 1,000 gigawatts Americans consume annually. However, it would still go a long way toward helping the United States move away from coal- or natural gas-fueled power plants and, in turn, reduce the generation of harmful greenhouse gases.

It would also create nearly 80,000 offshore wind jobs by 2030, according to government figures – almost double the number of coal jobs in the country. Project developers must strive to use unionized labor to build their projects and submit plans to build a domestic supply chain. Companies that successfully source key components domestically will be eligible for lower lease fees.

WIND TURBINE CONSTRUCTION: CHALLENGES AND FEARED DRAWBACKS

The plan builds on the groundwork laid by U.S. President Joe Biden when he signed the infrastructure bill into law last November. Biden’s plan, however, is in danger of failing if the Democrats lose the next presidential election. After the leases are auctioned off, the permitting process could drag on for up to three years. Building the turbines will take another two years. That would provide more than enough time for political opponents to torpedo the plan.

Offshore wind power has critics in America. In New England, local fishermen joined forces with an oil industry lobby group in December to oppose a proposed 84-turbine wind farm in waters off Cape Cod. A lawsuit filed by the fishing industry remains pending. The turbines could negatively impact marine life, according to the fishermen. Fishers are also concerned that the turbines will interfere with radar and that safety zones around the turbines could prevent them from reaching their fishing grounds.

The challenges don’t end there. Even if the wind turbines are built, the power they generate will need to be transported. Power transmission lines – high-voltage cables strung on steel poles across much of the country – are typically built by regional organizations, and there may not be enough. The infrastructure law, therefore, provides funding for transmission lines.

The government also announced an initiative to build a better power grid. However, it is unclear whether the expansion of transmission grids will be completed before the first wind turbines start turning in the New York Bight.

Photo: Marc Morrison/Redux/laif

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