Fast Company

Big Wind from Texas

Fast Interview: Jerry Patterson, Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, on how Texas became the leader in wind power development.

Quick! What state symbolizes the old petroleum economy? Texas, of course. Now, what state leads the way towards a future of clean, renewable wind energy? Texas again! By early 2008, Texas had installed more than 5,300 megawatts of wind production -- more than twice second place state California -- and had another 2,000 megawatts under production. Why in the name of Sam Houston is the state of Spindletop messing with wind? We'll let Jerry Patterson explain that. As Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, Patterson is responsible for managing energy leases on state lands and waters and has used his office as a bully pulpit for wind power.

Why is Texas becoming such a hotspot for wind?

Texas has been in the energy business for about a century. Wind is energy. So what's your next question?

It just seems pretty simple to me. We've been building offshore oil and gas rigs for about 60 years and now we're building offshore wind platforms. We look upon energy as a good thing, and we're not handicapped by BANANA syndrome -- build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody. We don't mind looking at oil and gas rigs and we certainly don't mind looking at wind turbines.

Wind is controversial in other states -- witness the huge delays that have mired Cape Wind in Massachusetts. What do you think about the fuss up there?

My first reaction is, who are these people and what's wrong with them? Let's start with Ted Kennedy. We don't have Ted Kennedy in Texas, so we don't have anybody with the hypocrisy of "I'm in favor of green power. Oh, but you're going to put it here off my house? No, no, no we don't want that." We have people who are realists. I don't even get into the debate about global warming. It's an argument that has no justification because we need to be doing the same things whether global warming is man-made or not. We're running out of hydrocarbons. Therefore going to alternatives, renewables and conservation are things we should be doing even if global warming is caused by polar bear flatulence.

For years, California was the leading state in wind power and then Texas went great guns and within a few years surpassed California by 2006 and continues to pull away rapidly. What happened?

There are two reasons. California is an oppressive regulatory environment. Texas is not. And Texas has a lot of open space to build wind power. To California's credit, when you're a pioneer in something you're going to make mistakes. The early technology turbine blades that turned faster, at Altamont Pass, killed a lot of birds. And we have a different attitude here. People here are concerned about bird kills because they want to shoot the birds, not have them have them killed in a turbine.

Do the bird people appreciate your sense of humor?

I talked the Audubon Society and told them, "Don't worry about this, after several generations we'll have smarter birds." They did not think that was funny. The other thing I told them was wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico would be the first line of defense against avian flu. These people have no sense of humor. You can't break the ice with them.

Do you ever foresee a day when alternative energy surpasses fossil fuels in Texas?

Yeah, of course. Because we're going to run out of oil and natural gas.

How soon?

I don't have clue. If knew, I could make a bunch of money. I think it will be a while, but, you know, it's not important. We should be doing the exact same things we are doing, because it's going to go away someday. Whether it's 50 years or 150 years, I don't know.

To what degree has Texas' history with oil and natural gas leases established a model for wind energy?

Texas has an energy history in exploration, production, and in the law. In Texas, the mineral estate is dominant over the surface estate. In other words, if you own the surface and somebody else owns the minerals you can't stop them from accessing the minerals.

We have an interesting dynamic. Rural Texas has been hurting economically. Farming and ranching are less profitable and people are moving away from towns in rural Texas. Now we have wind power, and farmers and ranchers that were having trouble making ends meet are now leasing land for wind have another source of income. The footprint of a wind farm is minimal. You can still farm, you can still ranch and you can still hunt.

How about transmission?

That is the problem. The wind blows away from the load. The wind blows in the panhandle and far west Texas and the load is in Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio.

T. Boone Pickens , the oil tycoon who wants to build the world's largest wind farm, says it's more about money than environmentalism.

Wind is economic now and Texas is taking advantage of that. When anything becomes economic, the market works. It's the same thing as $4 gasoline. We don't need CAFÉ [Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations]. The market is doing what some say the legislature should do -- mandating a fuel economy standard. We got $4 gasoline. People are going nuts trying to get rid of their SUVs and get some kind of four cylinder, five speed econobox instead.

Do you hear much from environmentalists down there?

We see some but not many. Quite frankly, a lot of them are hung up on the "we're going to kill the birds" stuff. The environmentalists are favorable on renewables but they get squishy when we start talking about wind farms because they just don't know what to do. They're having to operate in the real world but are having difficulty doing so, which is characteristic of most environmentalists.

Yet you find yourself aligned with many environmentalists on wind and it's case of strange bedfellow. You were the author of the Texas concealed handgun legislation. Is it true you carry a gun in your cowboy boot?

Yes.

Does that help break the ice with the Audubon people?

I guess as long as I don't have it loaded with birdshot they're ok with it.

For years, you've been talking about the Texas Wind Rush. How many projects do you have pending offshore?

I think we have three or four leases. We don't have any production yet…It's a large capital investment. Offshore costs twice as much as onshore. The good news is the wind is better. The wind offshore blows during the day and therefore it has greater value. If you're producing electricity by wind power at five o'clock in the afternoon in August, it's a very valuable commodity. Another advantage is when you build offshore you're 10 miles from the grid.

The other advantage is you're dealing with one right of way owner and that would be me. I manage all state lands, which includes submerged lands in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, this is one thing you might not know: most coastal states have an offshore jurisdiction of three nautical miles but Texas has nine nautical miles, or 10.3 statute miles. When you're dealing with wind in the Gulf of Mexico out to 10.3 miles, you're dealing with the state and not the feds. We are a lot more responsive and able to move than the federal government.

Does your office oversee leases on land?

We have one wind lease on state-owned land. Texas, about 95 of the surface is privately owned. Our involvement on onshore wind is really more a cheerleader. I got little skirt, a little sweater that says W. It ain't a pretty sight, trust me.

What other renewables are you seeing in Texas?

Our surface acreage is in very good solar territory. We just recently signed a utility scale solar lease on 400 acres of land in far west Texas and I think that has tremendous potential. Solar is not economic yet, but some new technologies are going to make it economic. Of course, the price of natural gas is helping that circumstance come to reality. And we have some significant, we think, geothermal potential as well. Geothermal is really exciting because we've got lots of holes in the ground already. We take that down hole heat and essentially make steam out of it and drive a turbine generator of electricity.

Put on your cheerleader costume here. What should the world know about alternative energy down there in Texas?

This is the frontier for alternative and renewable in the United States. We're not only interested in installing wind and solar, we're interested in manufacturing the components as well. Why build them in Sweden, when you can build them in Texas, right close to where you're going to be installing them? It just makes sense.

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2 Comments

  • Timlynn Babitsky

    As humorous Patterson points out here, energy transmission is THE problem, not just in Texas but all over the country. The aging transmission infrastructure across the US is indeed the bottleneck for renewable energy. But in our rush to “fix” this problem, we need to avoid making the same mistakes that were made in the 1970s.

    Take a look into the hostile 1970s power-line protests in west-central Minnesota with their shootings, vandalized towers, felony arrests, and home visits by the governor to calm things down.

    The USDA has a major agenda to develop a Smart Power Grid. But look carefully at the details.

    We must be careful not to become so focused on a Smart delivery technology that we ignore Smart planning for the placement of those power lines.