Friday, December 15

Whichever Way the Wind Blows


Midland, Tex.

Time for another news quiz: Which American state produces more wind-generated electricity than any other? Answer: Texas. Next question — this one you’ll never get: Which politician launched the Texas wind industry? Answer: Former Gov., now President, George W. Bush.

Yes, there are many things that baffle me about President Bush, but none more than how the same man who initiated one of the most effective renewable energy programs in America, has presided over an administration that for six years has dragged its feet on alternative energy, used its regulatory powers to weaken efficiency standards for major appliances and stuck its head in the sand on global warming.

I’ll wait for historians to sort that out. But here is some immediate advice I can give the president: If you want to salvage any positive legacy, it will not come from Iraq. There are only tears left there. No, the only way for you, Mr. President, to salvage any legacy is to get back in touch with your green Texas roots and devote the rest of your term to REALLY ending America’s oil addiction, liberating us from dependence on petro-authoritarian regimes and making America the leader in renewable energies that combat climate change.

If this isn’t the core of Mr. Bush’s next State of the Union, he might as well go back to Crawford now. At least there he might be able to contemplate what went wrong with his presidency under lights powered by clean, wind-generated electricity that he promoted.

I came down to West Texas, the Saudi Arabia of wind, to find out how it all happened. Pat Wood, a friend of the president, was chairman of Texas’s Public Utility Commission when the push for wind energy started.

“At the end of a meeting on transmission policy in mid-1996,” he recalled, “I was on my way out the door of the governor’s office, when Governor Bush said to me, ‘Pat, we like wind.’ He was at his desk. I said, ‘We what?’ He said: ‘You heard me. Go get smart on wind.’ ”

Mr. Wood, his fellow commissioners and the Texas utilities did just that. They conducted polls and were stunned by the results: Texas electricity customers were ready to pay a little extra to get more clean renewable energy. So Mr. Bush instructed Mr. Wood to work on wind with the utilities and the environmentalists. Together, they created the Texas Renewable Portfolio Mandate, which Mr. Bush got passed by the Texas Legislature in 1999, as part of a power competition bill. The mandate stipulated that Texas power companies had to produce 2,000 new megawatts of electricity from renewables, mostly wind, by 2009.

What happened? A dozen new companies jumped into the Texas market and built wind turbines to meet the mandate — so many that the 2,000-megawatt goal was reached in 2005. So now the Texas Legislature has upped the mandate to 5,000 megawatts by 2015. Everyone knows they’ll beat that, too, because all this investment has driven down the costs and made wind power in Texas competitive with clean coal, nuclear and natural gas, even without the temporary tax break. Mr. Wood says he thinks Texas could be producing 15 percent of all its energy from renewables by 2015.

An energy wiz, Mr. Wood now advises Airtricity, an Irish wind-power company that also entered the Texas market. He and I toured its new wind farm near Midland, which will provide enough wind electricity — 125 megawatts — to power 40,000 homes in Dallas, replacing gas, nuclear and coal. The farm consists of giant turbines that sprout like Star Wars machine-monsters from the hardscrabble plains around Midland — amid the mesquite, rattlesnakes and oil-pumping jacks.

When Mr. Bush ran for governor, his motto was: “What Texans can dream, Texans can do.” Just substitute “Americans” for “Texans,” and he’s already got the last line of his next State of the Union. What would the substance be? First, let’s set a Texas-like renewable energy mandate for every state. Second, let’s forge a national electricity transmission grid from the Dakotas to Texas to take wind electricity from where it is best produced to the big cities where it is most needed. Finally, let’s create a long-term tax subsidy for building and buying plug-in hybrid cars. Wind energy is produced abundantly at night, when demand is lowest. Electric hybrids would be charged at night. That would mean hybrid electric cars, which emit virtually no carbon, could be powered by wind, which produces no carbon. If that scaled, it could be better than Kyoto.

You got something better to do, Mr. President?