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Story Publication logo December 4, 2023

Texas Goes Green: How Oil Country Became the Renewable Energy Leader

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The U.N. climate conference in Dubai saw a milestone as 123 countries signed a statement...

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Video courtesy of PBS NewsHour.

One of the big announcements at the UN climate conference this weekend in Dubai was a pledge by more than 110 countries to triple the amount of renewable energy they are generating by 2030. That work is already underway in a rather unlikely place. William Brangham reports in collaboration with the Global Health Reporting Center and with support from the Pulitzer Center.

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Geoff Bennett: One of the big announcements at the U.N. climate conference this weekend in Dubai was a pledge by more than 110 countries to triple the amount of renewable energy they're generating by the year 2030.

As William Brangham reports, that work is already under way in a state that might surprise you.

This story is a collaboration with the Global Health Reporting Center with support from the Pulitzer Center.

William Brangham: If you had to guess which state in America was hands down producing the most green renewable energy, what would you guess? California? Massachusetts?

It's Texas. The state that epitomizes oil and gas and got rich powering the nation for decades is now the biggest producer of wind and solar. So how did deep-red Texas turn so green?

Michael Webber, University of Texas: It's not unusual for Texas to do all the right things for all the wrong reasons, and the rise of renewables is one of those examples.

William Brangham: Michael Webber studies the energy transition at the University of Texas and is author of "Power Trip: The Story of Energy."

Michael Webber: We didn't do it for the cleanliness. We didn't do it for climate change. We did it because it makes us a lot of money for the landowners and saves us a lot of money for the consumers.

William Brangham: One study found that all this cheap renewable energy is saving the average Texas household almost $200 a year, though skeptics say that figure may be inflated.

There are a slew of factors that contributed to this boom. Texas' geography is one. Rob Minter works for the energy company Engie, which has major renewable projects across the state.

Rob Minter, Engie North America: It's a big state. There are a lot of areas where it's sunny and it's windy. In the wide open spaces of West Texas and South Texas, there are some wonderful areas for development of renewable resources.

William Brangham: Texas also had its share of influential oilmen who saw the light on renewables, people like billionaire T. Boone Pickens.

George W. Bush, Former President of the United States: This session will mean low electric rates for people all across the spectrum.

William Brangham: There's even one who became governor. In 1999, then-Governor George W. Bush, working with a Democratic legislature, signed a law deregulating Texas' power market to make it more competitive and enshrined a state mandate for wind power.

Emily Foxhall, The Texas Tribune: He wanted to support wind power.

William Brangham: Emily Foxhall covers the energy industry for The Texas Tribune.

Emily Foxhall: There were landowners who were willing to lease their land for these new industries.

William Brangham: These newfangled industries.

Emily Foxhall: Yes, it was a new way for them to make money when perhaps they were struggling to do so with agriculture.

Michael Webber: Texas had a mandate before England, before California, before New York. You list all these liberal economies, and Texas had a renewables mandate before them.

William Brangham: Today, the Lone Star State generates more megawatts of wind power than any other in the nation. When it comes to solar, Texas trails only California and actually ranks first in utility-scale solar projects.

Combined with nuclear, Texas now generates almost 40 percent of its total energy needs from carbon-free sources, a huge surge in just a few years' time. Texas, of course, like so many other parts of the country, has suffered through a string of climate-driven disasters. They just had record-breaking heat waves this past summer. And this area is always under threat from hurricanes.

In fact, six years ago, when I was here for Hurricane Harvey, this entire area was underwater.

Emily Foxhall: The interesting piece here is, climate change is the context through which we should be talking about all of this, right? Like, the reason we have this renewable power coming onto the grid is because, in order to slow climate change, we have to slow carbon emissions. But in the Texas legislature, you really don't hear climate change coming up.

William Brangham: In fact, Texas' renewable boom isn't always being celebrated. During 2021's paralyzing winter storm in Texas, which caused widespread blackouts and left 246 people dead, renewables were falsely blamed for making things worse.

Governor Greg Abbott had this to say.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX): Our wind and our solar got shut down, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power. And this shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.

William Brangham: But a subsequent analysis showed it was unwinterized fossil fuel plants, principally natural gas, that were responsible for most of the blackouts.

Michael Webber: The biggest failure was by far the gas system. So about 85 percent of the gas production in West Texas froze up, about 50 percent statewide.

William Brangham: In this year's legislative session, Republican legislators, many with the support of the fossil fuel industry, introduced a slew of anti-renewable bills, including a new tax on owners of electric cars.

Michael Webber: I have to pay a $200 annual fee in Texas to register this car. I'm subsidizing gasoline and diesel drivers around the state. The focus was on how to punish renewables, how to punish wind and solar.

The grid needs to be reliable. Wind and solar are not reliable, so goes the story. Therefore, we need to punish wind and solar.

William Brangham: But in a surprising turn, almost none of the anti-renewable bills passed and made it to Governor Abbott's desk, proof, Michael Webber says, that green energy in Texas has become more or less politically bulletproof.

Michael Webber: The urban Democrats like it because it's clean and renewable, and the rural Republicans like it because it's good for economic development.

William Brangham: Texas' clean energy boom is also being driven by its ready-made army of workers and entrepreneurs coming directly out of the oil and gas industry.

Tim Latimer is the CEO of the geothermal company Fervo Energy. Geothermal energy comes from drilling underground to tap the heat below the earth's surface to spin electrical turbines.

Tim Latimer, Founder and CEO, Fervo Energy: And because we're not burning anything or combusting anything, we're just using the natural heat of the earth, what we can do is produce electricity around the clock 24/7, and do so without carbon emissions.

William Brangham: It's an ironic twist. Today's advanced geothermal would not be possible without the drilling and fracking technology developed for natural gas.

Tim Latimer: When I started my career in oil and gas over a decade ago…

William Brangham: Latimer, like so many within Texas' larger renewable industry, started his career in fossil fuels.

Tim Latimer: What we see as time goes on is people have realized that climate change isn't a far-off problem. They're still passionate about providing affordable energy to the world, but the priorities shift a little bit because of how urgent the climate crisis is.

And I think there's a lot of people who have made that realization, just like I have.

William Brangham: None of this means that Texas has turned its back on fossil fuels. It is still by far the national leader in oil production and natural gas production.

And this is the essential challenge for negotiators gathered in Dubai. How quickly can the world's powers shift this balance and transition as fast as Texas, if not faster?

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.


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