Changing the World from West Texas

Energy Texas Wade's World

            New Orleans      Driving on Interstate 10, leaving New Orleans and heading west finds the end of the road in San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.  There are cities along the way, Houston first, then San Antonio, and eventually Phoenix, but the longest stretch, it often seems, runs between San Antonio and El Paso through west Texas.  Cows, oil wells, cactus and tumbleweed mark the trail.  All of which makes the title of Andy Bowman’s book, The West Texas Power Plant That Saved the World: Energy, Capitalism and Climate Change, seem kind of ridiculous.  It’s hard enough for anything, animal or beast, to survive west Texas.  They have trouble saving themselves, much less the rest of the world, so what’s going on here?

            I talked to Bowman on Wade’s World recently in order to sort this out.  Obviously, Bowman is engaging in some hyperbole, but it turns out it’s for a good cause.  Bowman is a serial entrepreneur, based in Austin, who has specialized in financing and developing renewal energy projects.  For most of his career that meant wind, and, there’s a lot of wind in Texas, just as there has been gas and oil.

            Bowman makes the case that much of the energy developed over the years in Texas came from long term, guaranteed contracts, common in the power industry, and supervised by government regulators that would allow utility companies to construct plants knowing before the first shovel turned dirt on the ground that they had a permanent market for what they generated. This issue is at the heart of the climate change fight with investor-owned-utilities (IOUs) and rural electric cooperatives, where campaigners and regular customers are fighting to leave 30-year coal contracts for example, now that other, alternative sources are both cleaner and cheaper.

            In some cases, what he calls “merchant” plants are built without those guarantees or fixed contracts, believing that if they build it, customers will come because of lower price or power needs.  The first of that breed of plants built on speculation was this little solar generation facility constructed in west Texas near Fort Stockton.  Capitalism being part of the subtitle, Bowman being both in the business and passionate about climate change, believes that building this plant in 2014 proved that solar was here to stay and help was on the way.

            Texas is an odd duck in the energy power world.  Bowman and I ended up following a lot of paths in discussing the unique grid in Texas, where only parts of the east and western area of the state can connect to the two major US grids.  All of this was in the context of the winter storm that knocked out power in Texas a year ago and the impact of a deregulated energy market which led to humongous bills for many Texans, and the bankruptcy of a lot of power companies and one REC in Texas, Bowman noted.

            Texas and energy are a hot mess, but Bowman’s enthusiasm for the West Texas plant is easy to forgive if, as he argues, the plant is the harbinger of real progress in moving aggressively to confront climate change and alternative energy sources.