Texas’ wind power industry has seen huge growth

"We’ve used Texas as the poster child for wind energy for the last five to six years," American Wind Energy Association official Kathy Belyeu told a group of wind industry professionals Tuesday.

"If everybody would do like Texas, the wind energy industry would explode," said Belyeu, the group’s manager of industry information.

Texas, the nation’s premier energy-producing and energy-consuming state, is no longer just the leader in oil and natural gas production. It also far outpaces the 49 other states in wind power, with 9,506 megawatts of generation capacity in place and thousands more humongous, breeze-capturing turbines expected to be erected in West Texas, the Panhandle, South Texas and perhaps even off the Gulf Coast in the coming decade.

The six largest U.S. wind farms all are in Texas. If it were a nation, it would rank sixth among the world’s nearly 200 countries in wind-generation capacity.

Up to 25,000 people are expected to descend on the Dallas Convention Center today through Wednesday for the wind association’s annual conference. Wind industry professionals, business leaders and government officials are expected, with featured speakers including former President George W. Bush, a onetime Midland oilman.

The U.S. has the most wind farm generation capacity in the world, having surpassed Germany in 2008. But China is now second and added more new wind generation than the U.S. last year.

The U.S. installed more than 10,000 megawatts of new wind generation capacity in 2009, its largest total ever. That represented 39 percent of all electric generation capacity added in 2009, and the average annual growth rate for wind capacity for the past five years also is 39 percent, the wind association said. There are now more than 33,000 wind turbines in America and 35,064 megawatts of wind generation capacity. China is second at 25,805 megawatts.

Texas wind generation

Despite the huge growth in American wind power, it provided only 1.8 percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2009. In Texas, wind provided 6.2 percent of generation for the power grid operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which accounts for 85 percent of the state’s electric load.

The U.S. wind industry is experiencing a significant slowdown in adding capacity this year, but the longer-term expectation is for continued major expansion. In 2008, the U.S. Energy Department said wind power — which has been boosted by substantial federal, state and local tax incentives — could generate as much as 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030.

All is not rosy, however, even in wind-rich Texas, where a sizable drop-off in new wind installations is expected this year, compared with the robust gain of 2,292 megawatts in 2009 –an increase more than double that of any other state.

Growth is slowing in Texas as it awaits construction of 2,400 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that will carry wind power from the turbines in West Texas and the Panhandle to Dallas-Fort Worth and other major population centers. The $5 billion undertaking is already under way and targeted for completion by the end of 2013.

Projected benefits

A study released Thursday by The Perryman Group, led by well-known Texas economist Ray Perryman, forecast that the construction of huge 345-kilovolt transmission lines would pave the way for a continued major expansion of wind generation. That in turn would lower typical residential electric bills by $13-$30 a month, generate more than 40,000 jobs, reduce emissions and save the state 17 billion gallons of water annually — about as much water as Fort Worth residents use in a year. (Unlike nuclear and coal plants, wind farms don’t require large volumes of water.) The Perryman study was funded primarily by the wind industry.

Added wind generation has been delayed somewhat by the recession, which slowed growth in power demand and made it tougher for wind developers to secure financing. Natural gas prices have also been a factor — it’s tougher for wind generation to compete on economic terms when prices are low for natural gas, the source of much of Texas’ electricity. Dallas billionaire Boone Pickens has cited low gas prices as one reason for putting on hold plans to build a massive wind farm near Pampa in the Panhandle.

Wind association officials and others have estimated that Texas’ wind generation capacity could roughly double after the new transmission lines are completed.

Big drop in costs

As the wind industry has developed and major technological advances achieved, costs have dropped dramatically in the past two decades. Today’s wind turbines are six times larger than those of 20 years ago, and they generate 14 times as much power, Belyeu said.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, state director of Public Citizen, an environmental and consumer group, forecasts that renewable energy, led by wind power, will be the state’s "major source" of electric generation a decade from now — outstripping natural gas, coal or nuclear generation. Renewable energy also includes solar, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric power.

Smith said wind power will make great strides in part because of new, tougher regulations to restrict emissions of carbon dioxide and air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, mercury and particulates. Coal ash, the waste from burning coal, will also be more strongly regulated, he said.

Wind power drawback

A major rap on wind power is that in West Texas and the Panhandle, where most turbines are, the wind often blows little during peak periods for electricity consumption, such as hot summer afternoons, but blows more at night, when power demand is lower.

That’s a problem because it’s generally difficult and costly to "store" electricity for future use.

Smith predicts, however, that the coupling of added wind generation capacity with advancements in energy-storage capabilities — including a technology known as compressed air energy storage — "will become the breakthrough technology" that will greatly expand Texas’ reliance on renewable energy.

Wind association officials say energy storage has long-term potential, but they are wary of its high cost. They stress, however, that expanded use of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles could significantly increase nighttime demand for wind power, as cars recharge at night.

The transmission lines being built are "going to have a huge impact on wind" by greatly advancing the movement of breeze-generated electricity to the state’s population hubs, Smith said.

"The analogy is it’s sort of like building a six-lane superhighway compared to dirt roads," he said in reference to the current, undersized transmission network.

Bernard Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, isn’t so optimistic about the growth rate for wind and other renewable energy.

As a clean energy source that helps diversify Texas’ energy mix, "wind is great," he said. "But it’s not going to be a major contributor to our energy future. I think you could say that about renewables in general … at least for the next 30 years."

North Texas impact

Wind turbines blanket the horizon in the Abilene and Sweetwater areas of West Texas. But the wind industry is also making itself felt in North Texas, where the big turbines are virtually nonexistent.

A Trinity Structural Towers plant in Fort Worth builds huge 260-foot-high towers for wind turbines. Affiliated operations haul the towers to wind farms and build concrete foundations for them.

"In 2008, we put almost 1,000 towers in the Texas market," said Kerry Cole, president of Trinity Structural Towers, a unit of Dallas-based Trinity Industries.

Fort Worth-based Cummings Electrical, near Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, is "a turnkey electrical contractor for the large wind farms," said Jim Thompson, sales and marketing manager for its renewable-energy division. It installs wiring that links turbines to the power grid.

In Gainesville, Molded Fiberglass Cos. manufactures 131-foot, 13-ton blades that power turbines.

Dallas-based electric generator Luminant and Shell Wind Energy have signed a joint development agreement to build a big wind farm of up to 3,000 megawatts in Briscoe County at the southeast edge of the Panhandle. Project discussions are ongoing as the companies await construction of transmission lines.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, the wind association conference that kicks off today is symbolic of the enormous strides made by the wind industry.

"Wind is not a niche player like it used to be," Belyeu said. "It’s becoming mainstream."

By Jack Z. Smith, www.dfw.com