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Texan Louis Brooks stands near an old oil pump and dozens of wind turbines, in background, on his property in Sweetwater. Last year Texas generated twice the amount of electricity from wind than all of Canada. (Brian Harkin/The New York Times)
Texan Louis Brooks stands near an old oil pump and dozens of wind turbines, in background, on his property in Sweetwater. Last year Texas generated twice the amount of electricity from wind than all of Canada. (Brian Harkin/The New York Times)

Public policy

Texas emerges as unlikely leader on wind power Add to ...

This is part of an eight-week series on clean energy.

It’s 1996. Pat Wood, the chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission, is leaving a meeting with Republican Governor George W. Bush when his boss says something that stops him in his tracks.

“Oh Pat, by the way, we like wind,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Wood asked for clarification. The governor, a former oil man, had never before declared an interest in green energy.

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“Go get smart on wind,” Mr. Bush said.

The exchange marks the climax of The Great Texas Wind Rush, an engaging account of how the centre of the North American oil industry also became a leader in the production of renewable energy. Some Canadian policy makers may want to take note. If it can happen in Texas, it can happen anywhere.

The wind blows hard in Texas, especially across the panhandle, and the state’s entrepreneurial culture lends itself to big risks. But Kate Galbraith, co-author of Texas Wind Rush, said in an interview that the industry mostly is a creation of policy.

Ms. Galbraith and Asher Price, a fellow journalist, write about the “tinkerers” and dreamers who for decades attempted to build a wind industry from scratch. But it wasn’t until Mr. Wood got smart on wind that turbines started multiplying across the plains. Texas would become one of the first jurisdictions in North America to implement a renewable portfolio standard, mandating 2,000 megawatts of power from green sources by 2009. The state achieved that mark four years early and passed California as the biggest producer of electricity from wind in 2006.

Below Canada’s southern border, it’s the states – not Washington, D.C. – that are driving renewable energy generation. To be sure, a federal tax credit on renewable power generation is widely seen as key to the development of the U.S. industry. Yet Congress, which first introduced the credit in 1992, has had a tendency to let the incentive lapse, only to reintroduce it later. (It currently is scheduled to end this year.) That kind of uncertainty frustrates investors and has restrained the industry’s growth, said Mike Garland, chief executive officer of Pattern Energy Group Inc., a San Francisco-based operator of wind farms in the United States, Canada and Chile.

While hardly perfect, the states have been more determined in fostering green power. Twenty-nine of 50 states and the District of Columbia have renewable fuel standards, for example. “They have been very, very effective in driving deployment,” said Richard Caperton, a managing director at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, which specializes in energy policy. “I can’t think of anyone who gets a failing grade.”

By comparison, Canada’s provinces grade lower. They are getting better, but mostly are playing catch up. For example, New Brunswick enacted a renewable portfolio statement a decade after its neighbour, Maine. The reluctance of a critical mass of Canada’s provinces to engage shows in the national data: Despite a huge built-in advantage from its vast network of hydro dams, Canada produces just as much carbon dioxide as the United States when measured in terms of population and gross domestic product.

“It is public policy that determines the success of a renewables agenda, more so than the availability of the resource,” said Peter Prebble, a former Saskatchewan energy minister who now is director of environmental policy at the Saskatchewan Environmental Society in Saskatoon. “The illustration the U.S. is giving us is it’s possible to drive wind and solar in a significant way using policy to do it.”

Take wind. Canada generated about 6,200 megawatts of electricity from wind last year, compared with virtually none a decade ago. Texas – with a population and economy slightly smaller than those of Canada – generated 12,600 megawatts, even though the state’s current renewables mandate calls for only 5,880 megawatts by 2015.

The point is not to hold up Texas as a beacon of environmental stewardship. Ms. Galbraith said the state’s interest in wind has waned with the rise of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which has reignited the oil and natural gas business. Solar firms for years have been trying – and failing – to persuade Texas politicians to establish goals for electricity generated from the sun.

No state has enacted a renewable portfolio standard since 2009, and legislators in about 10 states introduced bills that would repeal or diminish mandates. So far, none of the efforts to roll back renewable portfolio standards has been successful. Yet that still is another example of the political uncertainty that so unnerves developers such as Mr. Garland, who says Manitoba now is one of his favourite places to do business.

Perhaps the next decade will be the provinces’ time. Ontario’s regime is as good as any on the planet, according to David Runnalls, a distinguished fellow at the Waterloo, Ont.-based Centre for International Governance Innovation. Quebec also is strong, experts say. B.C. was one of the first jurisdictions to introduce a carbon tax, and states such as California, Oregon and Washington now are following B.C.’s lead.

It’s unfortunate they weren’t so engaged sooner. Environment Canada reported last month the expansion of oil production in northern Alberta is adding carbon faster than the growth of renewable energy is reducing it. “No one is doing this particularly well,” said Ian Rowlands, an environment professor at the University of Waterloo.

 

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