When Californians think of Texas, images of JR Ewing and pump jacks quickly come to mind. But the Lone Star State is greener than you think – it leads the country in wind power, thanks to a law signed by Governor George W. Bush in 1999. Texans also claim the state can comply with President Obama’s Clean Power Plan with technologies and policies already on hand. Ranchers and former oil men are dipping their toes into renewable energy. What else is in the clean energy pipeline?
Stephanie Smith, CEO of Greencastle, is a native Texan whose early law career focused on clean energy deals. “It did not go over well,” at first with her parents’ friends, she laughs. “I believe ‘hippie tree hugger’ was used fairly frequently. But, it was pretty amazing how, I’d say within about a year, the conversation was changing.”
Convincing her family that renewables made sense was, as with many fossil fuel holdouts, a matter of economics. Once their west Texas friends started installing wind turbines on their land, she says, “It evolved really quickly. Because the economics were great for those farmers.”
For Pat Wood, former Chair of Texas’ Public Utility Commission, the impetus came directly from his boss. “We like wind,” then-Governor George Bush told him in 1996. Wood’s first response was, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But after a series of hearings and public policy educating sessions, he came around. “The surprise out of that whole process was how much broad public support, after learning the pros and cons of everything, people really like this.”
“We got a bill that opened up the power industry, and the rest is history,” Wood continues. “And part of that was a renewable goal mandate for the state that we’re going to hit 2,000 megawatts of wind by 2009; well, now we’re at 18,000. So it's been a big success.”
Kip Averitt, who ran the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, admits to being “a bit of a nerd – I like to see results.” Much of what happens in the public policy arena is vague and difficult to track, Averitt says. “But when it comes to clean air, there's a scientific way to measure your results. And so when we enacted policies we could actually track over time, whether or not they were working …our clean-air programs happened to be very successful.”
Averitt agrees that economic issues have helped drive the state’s attitude shift, especially in impoverished rural areas. “This renewable energy search is bringing it back to life…the new schools and the property taxes and stuff like that. That is a real-time, tangible result that people can feel and see.
“When I was in office, I would tell folks 30 and 40 years ago in Texas, if you were concerned about the environment you were a communist and you could not get elected to public office,” Averitt continues. “Today in Texas if you're not concerned about the environment, you’re a goober and you’ll have a very hard time getting elected to public office.”
Wood believes that much of the Republican opposition to the clean air agenda has been the result of backlash against the Obama administration and its support of renewables. “It was a pretty lonely place to be, a clean energy supporting Republican, for the last eight years,” he admits.
Texas may still be one of the reddest states in the union. But could its commitment to renewable energy be altering the color chart? Not exactly, says Wood.
“It’s red, white and blue – I like that answer,” he states. “Everybody says it was red, it was blue, it was purple – but I like red, white and blue. I think that works even better.”
This program is made possible by support from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.