When Texans turn on their lights, run their air conditioning, charge thier cell phones or even plug in their plug-in hybrid cars, they are getting an increasing amount of power from the wind.
Figures released by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the pseudo state agency that regulates the Texas electric grid, earlier this month show that last year, nearly 8 percent of the power on the state’s electric grid was generated by wind. That’s more than three times the national average.
Wind-generated power has been growing rapidly in the state, and Texas now has nearly three times as much wind capacity in place as the next-closest state, Iowa, The state also broke the 10,000 megawatt barrier for the first time last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The rapid growth (from 6.2 percent of the Texas grid’s generation in 2009 to 7.8 percent last year) came despite transmission-line constraints in West Texas, which has the vast majority of the state’s wind capacity. This limitation has resulted in some wind turbines having to be shut down even when the wind is blowing, because there is not enough room on the wires to move the power hundreds of miles away to the urban areas that need it.
Much of the new wind has come from a different part of Texas — along the Gulf coast in the south, especially Kenedy and San Patricio counties. The Public Utility Commission, says there are now about 1,100 megawatts of wind in ERCOT’s south zone. That translates to roughly one-ninth of the total wind capacity in Texas.
In addition, a privately owned transmission line built by a Florida-based renewables company, connected an enormous wind farm in Kendall and Taylor counties to the grid. That line began operating in fall of 2009, so the wind farm’s contribution showed up more fully last year. The state has planned $5 billion worth of other transmission lines to remedy the congestion in West Texas, and just last week approved the route for transmission through the Texas hill country.
The big loser in the newest figures was natural gas. While natural gas is abundant in Texas, less polluting than coal and substantially cheaper than it was jut a few years ago, it is also easily replaced by the wind. Lt. Governor Dewhurst has talked recently about providing incentives for new natural gas plants in an effort to slow or even halt the construction of new coal-fired plants.
The gas industry has talked of trying to shift more costs to wind to make up for the wind’s intermittency, arguing that other types of power plants pay penalties if they go offline unexpectedly, but wind is allowed to come and go in accordance with the whims of nature. However, there is no particular legislation right now that would change those dynamics.
Meanwhile, wind will continue to grow, and when the state-planned $5 billion transmission line is built-out, that should nearly double the wind-energy capacity that’s currently on the Texas grid.