- [host Joe Hanson] Is this a Spaghetti Western I hear?
Or the sound of untapped kinetic energy?
We're in Texas.
It's my home state.
It's a place most folks associate with these guys.
But Texas is quickly becoming a national leader in wind energy.
- If Texas were a country, and believe me some people think that it is, it would be fifth in the world for wind energy generation.
- [Joe] How we get our energy is changing fast.
But what's really behind this shift from buried fossils to harnessing power from a breeze?
- And how do we make sure that there's always power on the other end of this?
- [Joe] You can't grow up here and not be aware of the oil story.
- Stuff like Spindletop and the Gusher Age, they passed into lore, almost like the Alamo story or something like that.
- [Joe] Oil, the real lifeblood of the state - [Varun] For the last century or more the identity of Texas has been intertwined with energy.
- [Joe] This is Dr. Varun Rai.
He's an expert in energy policy at the University of Texas at Austin.
- Last two decades really has been the story of renewals.
[pensive music] - [Joe] 2020 was the year that wind overtook coal in Texas which was previously the second biggest energy producer in the state behind natural gas.
In 2020, Texas clocks 29,407 megawatts of installed wind power capacity.
Those wind projects combined could power nearly six million homes, and that's great news for our warming climates.
As global demand for energy is increased, so are the emissions caused by traditional sources of energy production.
Electricity production is actually the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions behind transportation.
- [Varun] Burning fossil fuels generates greenhouse gas emissions and that contributes to climate change.
So that's an important issue.
How do you mitigate that?
- [Joe] Wind energy is on the rise across the country and increasingly it's corporate and residential customers that are pushing for that change.
- [Varun] The customer has become an active participant.
And increasingly that discussion has taken the shape of where do we take the resources and technologies we have to bring more resilience to the system and do that in an environmentally sustainable way.
- [Joe] But wind energy also just makes sense and dollars for the folks who have invested in it.
The cost of installing and running a wind farm has decreased significantly in the past decade.
One study showed the cost of wind energy went down by almost 70% since 2010.
Generally, the more wind power, the less expensive it gets.
That's because the infrastructure that brings the power to homes and businesses across the state is getting beefed up.
- [Varun] As you produce more, you learn to do things better.
In academic language, this is known as learning by doing.
- [Joe] Most energy consumers are likely not aware of what is powering their lives.
Power arrives at our homes and places of work seemingly by magic.
We don't have to consider where it came from or what went into bringing it to us.
So let's get into that for a second.
There's been a long trend of burn thing, make heat, use heat to do work.
Gas, biomass, or coal is burned to heat up water to create steam.
And that steam spins a turbine which powers a generator that then feeds energy into the grid.
- Wind energy is a kinetic source of energy.
It's energy in motion.
And it's also a form of solar energy.
Now wind occurs for a bunch of different reasons and they all come back to the sun.
- [Joe] Wind is the result of the sun heating up parts of the earth and atmosphere differently, and the rotation of the planet itself.
People figured out how to convert that kinetic energy from the wind into mechanical energy centuries ago.
The windmill has been around since at least the ninth century but the technology has come a long way, even in the last couple of decades.
For one thing, modern turbines are 15 times the size of a traditional windmill.
- It feels huge to be able to see the expanse of it across the mesas.
- [Joe] That's Jeff Hill, and he's out at High Lonesome Wind Farm in West Texas.
- [Jeff] This is a wind farm of 164 300 foot tall fully autonomous robots who track the wind, determine the most efficient way to capture the energy from the wind and transform that into a power that we can use as a people.
- [Joe] The property is about 200 square miles.
That's like just under nine Manhattans.
- [Jeff] This land is mostly used for ranching, sheep, cattle.
The farmers are able to continue their same lifestyle that they always have.
- [Joe] The turbines take up less than 5% of the total property but clearly they're an impressive part of the landscape.
- [Jeff] The swept diameter is anywhere from 116 meters to 132 meters.
- [Joe] Did you catch that?
That's longer than a football field.
The blades spin a shaft, which turns about 12 to 18 revolutions per minute.
Then that rotor shaft spins a series of other gears in the turbine which ramp that RPM to about 1,200 to 1,500 revolutions per minute.
A generator inside the turbine can then start to make electricity.
- [Jeff] The electricity is sent down tower usually to some sort of transformer and then sent out through a collection system, which all converges on a substation.
The substation then collects it all and puts it uniformly into a larger transformer.
That larger transformer then sends that out to the grid.
High Lonesome has a total capacity of 500 megawatts, enough to power 173,000 homes for the entire year.
- [Joe] But it's not just homes that these farms are powering.
High Lonesome's owner, Enel Green Power made headlines in 2019 when a partnership it had formed with a pretty big beer producer resulted in this ad at the 2019 Superbowl.
Anheuser-Busch partnered with the company to generate 15 years worth of power out of one of their Oklahoma wind farms.
- [Varun] Communities, and increasingly companies, are going directly to production facilities and signing up what are known as long-term power purchase agreements, or PPAs, where the production from the farm, all of it or part of it, is directly assigned or credited to these communities or to the companies.
Having power purchase agreements really helps wind farms or solar farms access capital to fund the projects.
- [Joe] Enel has PPAs with more than 20 different brands, including one that helped make High Lonesome possible by guaranteeing that a chunk of the energy from some of their turbines would be purchased exclusively for that company's operations.
- [Varun] PPAs are, at bottom up, change without any policy or regulation at the federal or state level.
- [Joe] It's exactly this kind of creativity and innovation that are going to help push us into a new future in energy.
A future that includes an ever expanding need for energy paired with an increasing imperative to reduce emissions.
- [Varun] Diversity is a very powerful thing.
Wind and solar energy are intermittent sources.
You will not have wind generation when the wind is not blowing.
You will not have solar generation when it is cloudy or dark.
So how do you create a portfolio of technologies and infrastructure including thermal generation that is able to supply reliable power to our masses and for our economy in an environmentally responsible manner?
I'm very optimistic that Texas, with its manpower, with its technology, with its history, with its to-do and will-do, can-do approach.
This will be a very, very important part of the future of energy system in the world.
- You know, being a Texan is a certain kind of identity but that identity has never meant just one thing.
And it's important to remember just how quickly things can change, hopefully for the better.
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