Wind giant Texas stands tall as rule change looms

WASHINGTON — When the government proposes new limits on power plant greenhouse gas emissions next week, the proposal is likely to give a big boost to natural gas at the expense of dirtier-burning coal.

But other non-emitting electricity sources — including wind and solar — also stand to benefit from the requirements set to be announced June 2.

And depending on how the Environmental Protection Agency writes the new rules, states such as Texas and California that have embraced renewable power or boosted their gas use may not have far to go to meet the mandates.

“Some states have made an awful lot of progress, and there are affordable and reliable ways to do more,” said Tom Vinson, vice president of federal regulatory affairs for the American Wind Energy Association. “We don’t know what the EPA is going to come out with in terms of required emissions reductions, but states like Texas that are so far ahead of where others are, and even states like New York that have done a lot already, could be far along the path of meeting whatever the EPA comes out with through wind.”

President Barack Obama directed the EPA to write the new requirements under the Clean Air Act as part of a climate action plan he unveiled last summer. But the agency had wide latitude to draft the measure, with the broad goal of paring emissions tied to electricity generation nationwide.

‘Flexibility’

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has repeatedly insisted the rule will give states enough time and “enormous flexibility” to comply. Energy analysts, utility leaders and other experts generally say that’s a signal that states will be allowed to meet the standards with broad, systemwide changes that go beyond the fence line at existing power plants.

Kyle Aarons, a fellow with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said a major question is what measures states will be able to use in reaching the targets.

“We think it would be sensible for EPA in its guidelines to allow a broad range of options — to give states a lot of flexibility in how they want to reach the standard,” Aarons said. That could include statewide mandates for more renewable power in the electricity mix, energy efficiency programs and carbon pricing, he added.

It also is not clear what baseline EPA will set or how much time it will give states to make cuts, which could be as deep as 25 percent. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which wrote its own blueprint for EPA, suggested the agency set the starting point using states’ emissions from a three-year period, possibly as early as 2005 to 2008.

That would benefit states that have made great strides in cleaning up their power in the years since, whether by bringing more natural gas plants online or boosting their use of renewable sources of electricity.

For instance, Texas has doubled its reliance on wind power since 2008, when it represented just 4.9 percent of the state’s energy use, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator. In 2013, Texas drew 9.9 percent of its electrical power from wind, behind nuclear (11.6 percent), coal (37.2 percent) and natural gas (40.5 percent). Biomass, solar and other sources were 0.9 percent.

New generation

But those numbers could shift over the next decade, as most of the new electric generation in Texas is slated to come from wind — well beyond the expected new natural gas power capacity in the same time.

A paper released by the wind association on Tuesday shows that wind energy produced in Texas in 2013 reduced carbon dioxide emissions in the state by nearly 9 percent, or 25.4 million tons. The analysis, conducted using an EPA model, also shows that nationwide, the 167.7 million megawatt-hours of wind energy produced in 2013 pared power sector carbon dioxide emissions by 126.8 million tons, or 5 percent overall.

Improvements in the equipment that harnesses wind power — including taller turbines and longer blades — mean that existing Texas installations could get a boost with more productive replacements years from now. And in less-gusty southeastern states, wind projects may now be economically viable because of the improvements.

“Wind is one of the biggest, cheapest, fastest ways to reduce carbon, short of just not using the electrons at all,” said Peter Kelley, vice president of public affairs for the wind association. “That’s a message that can reassure states that have a lot of wind or even states like New York that just have more wind to be developed. You can meet these standards and you can meet them at a profit to your state.”

Some critics say that despite recent cost reductions, wind power is still costlier than other power sources if federal tax incentives are removed. Wind industry advocates note the presence of tax subsidies across the energy sector and say planned projects even in states without renewable portfolio mandates show it is cost effective.

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Coal-industry allies and energy-intensive manufacturing interests also have blasted the coming greenhouse gas rules, saying they will cause power bills to rise and speed the retirement of coal-fired plants that now produce about 40 percent of the nation’s power.

In a May 16 letter to Obama, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said EPA rules “will incapacitate — and possibly eliminate — critical sources of energy while stifling job creation and threatening American energy security.”

Solar potential

Another renewable option, still largely untapped in Texas, is solar power.

Kate Zerrenner, an Austin-based climate policy expert for the Environmental Defense Fund, said a better regulatory framework and improved incentives could help lure more solar projects to the Lone Star State.

“Solar is also a way for us, in the middle of a drought, to use a low water intensive resource,” Zerrenner said. “If you lay a map of water-stressed parts of the state on top of the places with the most solar potential, they line up. We could change the economics of solar if we
really wanted to.”

Ultimately, experts say the quickest, cheapest option for compliance — if the EPA allows it — will be boosting efficiency.

Renewables cost more upfront than paring energy use, even if they pay off over the long run, Zerrenner said.

Matthew Tresaugue contributed to this report from Houston.