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Texas leads the nation in wind energy - here's how they did it

Texas has long been the country's petroleum capital. But the Lone Star State is experiencing another energy boom that has nothing to do with oil.

"People think Texas is all about oil and gas and drill baby drill," said Michael Slattery, director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "But we now lead the country in wind energy by a long way."

In 2013, Texas had more than 15 gigawatts of installed wind power capacity across the state -- the equivalent of seven Hoover dams. This is far more than second-place California, which produced just over 6 gigawatts the same year, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

On average, wind fuels about 11% of all electricity in Texas and, depending on the weather, can meet up to a third of the state's energy needs.

TCU is continuing the push for wind energy. In 2008, the university began a partnership with utility NextEra Energy Resources to study the social and economic impacts of wind farms.

In addition to how these wind farms could be integrated into the existing power grid, researchers at TCU looked at many other aspects of power-generating turbines. Extensive research was conducted on how the turbines themselves impact the environment, including aesthetics.

Additionally, the researchers closely examined animal fatalities due to wind farms, especially in bird and bat populations. Studies continue in Texas' Cooke County on how to minimize animal interaction with the spinning blades.

"I think will be a big player in finding common-sense solutions for the impacts these technologies have on the environment," said Slattery, who also serves as a lead scientist on TCU's NextEra Wind Research Initiative.

So how did a state with a conservative reputation become a leader in green energy?

Politicians played a role. Former governors Ann Richards, George W. Bush and Rick Perry all pushed for wind power. "They knew they needed to diversify the state's energy portfolio, and they knew it blows like crazy out west," Slattery said. This gave wind power a boost in 1999, when state legislation mandated that 2 gigawatts of produced energy be renewable and reach 10 gigawatts by 2025 -- a target Texas has already surpassed. An update to the legislation in 2008 funneled $5 billion into laying miles of transmission lines to move energy to the large markets of Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio, the Washington Post reported in that year.

"Smart policy out of our state legislature and strong government incentives have grown the renewable sector," Slattery said. "It's the big picture of a cleaner environment and transitioning to a low-carbon economy less dependent on fossil fuels."

Old-fashioned economic benefits are also a factor. "At the heart of the success of wind energy in Texas is local landowners understanding there's money to be made in spinning wind turbines," Slattery said.

Farmers and ranchers in West Texas and the Panhandle have allowed massive amounts of turbine construction on their own private property. The New York Times reported in 2008 that ranchers are paid $500 for each turbine that goes up on their land; this has pumped millions of dollars into these local economies and expanded wind power generation without the red tape that comes with building on public land.

Slattery also credits Texas for investing in training facilities, as opposed to importing skilled labor from out-of-state, creating more than 17,000 wind-related jobs, more than any other state. "Texas has been very successful at utilizing local skills and retooling and retraining people for this new industry," he said.

Slattery remains bullish on the future of wind production in Texas and beyond. The hard part, Slattery said, is moving energy from the windswept middle of the country to the more populous coasts. "We have to find ways to invest in transmission," he said.

Additionally, he said, state and federal governments must ensure that wind power is priced on par with other forms of energy.

"All energy sectors receive huge tax credits and incentives," Slattery said. "It's very important that wind energy is put on a competitive playing field with oil and gas. If we do that, the future for wind looks very bright."

--Jamie Van Bergen for TCU

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