Not blowing smoke: Wind has overtaken ‘risky’ coal for energy use in Texas for the first time

Source: By Vandana Ravikumar, USAToday • Posted: Friday, July 26, 2019

The coal industry’s slump has hit Texas.

For the first time since the Electric Reliability Council of Texas began collecting data on the state’s fuel mix in 2003, wind surpassed coal as an energy source during the first half of this year, according to data released this month. The ERCOT report shows that 22% of the state’s energy was derived from wind, overtaking coal by 1%.

The slight shift doesn’t mean that wind energy is dominant in Texas’ fuel mix. The use of wind and coal are both dwarfed by natural gas, which accounts for about 40% of the state’s energy.

The change does, however, illustrate the steady growth of an industry that has been on the rise for years, said Dr. Andrew Swift, a professor at Texas Tech University’s National Wind Institute and its associate director of wind energy education.

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Swift told USA TODAY that while building new coal plants requires a significant investment, wind farms are more of an “incremental investment.”

“There’s lots of new wind capacity going in as coal plants are getting older,” Swift said. “It’s hard to build new [coal plants]; it’s risky, it’s expensive. You don’t know where public policy is going to be.”

He added that wind energy has become a “significant contributor” to the fuel mix in part due to the decreasing cost of harvesting wind energy, the production of more efficient machinery, and the state’s support for wind energy development.

“Texas leads the nation in installed wind capacity by a significant amount,” Swift said. “It’s been growing since the turn of the century.”

The growth of wind energy is only likely to continue — most of the new energy generation projects being considered for the ERCOT region are utility-scale solar and wind projects.

A recent report from Rice University concluded that the Lone Star State could easily survive without coal, the Houston Chronicle reported in January.

“There is no where else in the world better positioned to operate without coal than Texas is,” Dan Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice who co-authored the report with a student, Joanna Slusarewicz, was quoted by the newspaper. “Wind and solar are easily capable of picking up the slack.”

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The shift comes as the coal industry continues to suffer losses in Texas, which, historically, has been among the country’s leaders in electricity produced from coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A 470-megawatt plant near Bryan announced it would shut down by October, the Chronicle reported this month. That follows the closures last year of three Vistra Energy plants with the combined generation capacity to power at least 800,000 homes.

The news is equally depressing for coal elsewhere. The fourth major coal company since last October filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, jeopardizing some 2,000 jobs across four states.

The bankruptcy filing from Revelation Energy LLC and its affiliate Blackjewel LLC, the nation’s sixth-top coal producing company in 2017, comes amid President Donald Trump’s ongoing efforts to boost the struggling industry.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to revitalize coal and save miners’ jobs, despite scientists linking the burning of the fossil fuels to global warming, but the industry has continued to suffer losses.

Coal’s share of the U.S. electricity mix fell from 48% in 2008 to 27% in 2018 and is projected to be 22% in 2020, according to the Department of Energy.

Contributing: Kristin Lam, USA TODAY

Thurmond, at a pastoral bend of the New River in southern

Once-thriving Thurmond, W.Va., is now a coal-country ghost town