A Voice in the Desert: Texas Beckons Sustainable Investment in Wind Energy

495px-james_dean_-_giant“Everybody thought I had a duster. Y’all thought ol’ Spindletop Burke and Burnett was all the oil there was, didn’t ya? Well, I’m here to tell you that it ain’t, boy! It’s here, and there ain’t a dang thing you gonna do about it! My well came in big, so big, Bick and there’s more down there and there’s bigger wells. I’m rich, Bick. I’m a rich ‘un. I’m a rich boy. Me, I’m gonna have more money than you ever thought you could have--you and all the rest of you stinkin’ sons of…Benedicts!” -- James Dean as Jett Rink in the film Giant (1956)

I was recently in Marfa, a small town in the middle of the high desert of far West Texas for the opening of Data Deluge, an exhibition I co-curated with Rachel Gugelberger at Ballroom Marfa, a non-profit contemporary arts space whose name pays homage to the site’s previous incarnation. One of the works in the show is a commissioned “bio-acoustic” sculptural installation by the Italian artist Roberto Pugliese that transforms real-time wind data, among other live meteorological stats, into digital sounds, creating, as suggested by its title, “A Voice in the Desert.” But artists aren’t the only ones who have been drawn by the siren's call of the nation’s second windiest state.

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW

To be sure, the times and the landscape have changed in West Texas. Instead of drilling rigs sucking the hydrocarbons below, windmills catch the moving air above. Today, thanks to renewable energy production incentives, a favorable regulatory environment and large expanses of windswept landscapes, Texas has become America’s wind power leader. With over 10GW of installed wind power capacity, it boasts nearly a fourth of the nation’s total.

Pat Hemlepp, a spokesman for American Electric Power (AEP), one of the nation’s biggest power companies, which has built wind farms in this hot and dry region, describes West Texas as "very suitable for large-scale wind farms—open spaces and plenty of land," noting "fewer siting headaches than other places in the country.”

PTC: JUMPSTARTING THE TRANSITION TO A LOW-CARBON ECONOMY

But if Congress fails to renew the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC), which expires in December, wind energy experts believe that the gale force Texas wind industry will be reduced to a breeze. Of course, there is always pressure to make cuts, but de-incentivizing the renewable energy industry is a tough pill to swallow if the United States is to remain competitive in leading the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), argues that the PTC is one of the most effective tools in the sustainable finance toolkit, leveraging in recent years some USD 16 billion annually in private sector investment and supporting tens of thousands of jobs in the manufacturing sector.

And it’s not just Texas that will be affected if the credit isn’t renewed. Kansas, which led the nation last year in wind turbines in construction, boasts an impressive 1,189 MW of wind power scheduled to come online this year. America is closing the wind energy gap with China, which assumed the top spot in 2010. But losing the PTC threatens that progress.

SUSTAINABLE FINANCE + FINANCIAL CERTAINTY = SAFE & SECURE CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE

In January, President Obama called on Congress to pass clean energy tax credits. And at a Senate hearing earlier this month, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called wind energy “part of the race we cannot cede to the rest of the world,” adding, “It is an opportunity we ought not let pass from us.” Noting the regular legislative fluctuation of the PTC, which has been allowed to expire in past years, Salazar said after the hearing, “I think we need to move forward with financial certainty for the industry so they’re not having to go through the stop and start of the past.”

There is bipartisan support for extending the credit. Last month, a dozen senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, urging the PTC’s immediate renewal. “The future of the American wind industry requires a stable tax environment in which to operate,” said senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), John Thune (R-S.D.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

“If we are to expect wind energy to contribute to our country’s future energy needs, Congress must quickly work to reauthorize the wind production tax credit before our wind production capabilities are damaged," the senators said.

THE CLEAN RENAISSANCE OF TEXAN ENERGY

“We’ve been through lots of booms and busts with the oil and gas industry," said Doug May, economic development director for Pecos County in West Texas. "The oil and gas areas deplete over time, the wind resource here is sustainable. We look at these wind farms as a long-term investment in the future.”

Pugliese’s wind-data-gathering sculpture shows how far Texas has come, particularly because it was built specifically for Marfa (and specifically at Ballroom Marfa, which itself is powered by 10,000-kilowatt hours of solar energy, thanks to Green Mountain Energy).

One of the town’s main claims to fame is being the filming location of Giant, the 1956 film about a Texas oil ranching family, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Jett Rink, a poor ranch hand who becomes rich after striking "black gold."

To be sure, there is a Texan energy investment opportunity that matches the state's sprawling 269,000-square-mile expanse. But this time around, the object of that opportunity is renewable, sustainable and isn't nearly as dirty as Spindletop. It's simply air, moving across the surface of the Earth like it has done for billions of years and will do for billions more to come. Now that's a voice in the desert that is music to the environment's ears.

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NOTES

According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), North Dakota leads the nation in wind energy resources.
United States Department of Energy. Wind Powering America: U.S. Installed Wind Capacity.“ September 30, 2011. Accessed March 6, 2012.
Sebastian, Simone. “Winds of fortune sweep West Texas.” Houston Chronicle. March 4, 2012. Accessed March 6, 2012.
World Wind Energy Association WWEA.
Obama, Barack. State of the Union Address 2012. January 24, 2012. Accessed March 6, 2012.
Pro Politico. via Gray, Tom. American Wind Energy Association. “
Salazar, citing ‘race we cannot cede,’ backs extending PTC.” March 1, 2012. Accessed March 6, 2012.
Ibid.
Kerry, John, et. al. Letter to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. February 22, 2012. Accessed March 6, 2012.
Gray, Tom. "Texas wind transforming oil country." American Wind Energy Association. March 7, 2012. Accessed March 21, 2012.

image: James Dean as Jett Rink in Giant (1956) (Wikimedia Commons)

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