Almanac Table of Contents | Chapter Seven Table of Contents | TEC Home Page

NEXT PAGE * PREVIOUS PAGE Go to page 1*2*3*4*5*Notes


Texas Environmental Almanac, Chapter 7, Texas Energy, Page 5


With its fertile soil, sunny weather and strong winds, Texas holds great promise for renewable energy. Wind energy, solar power, biomass and hydropower could play large roles in the state's energy mix. However, at present, the state derives only about 0.4 percent of its total energy demand from renewable sources.


Texas residents have been harnessing the stiff Texas breeze for decades. Before electrification, rural residents relied on windchargers for electricity. Similar to windmills, these units turned wind energy into electric energy, which was used to charge batteries that powered electric lights and other devices. Rural residents also relied on windmills to pump water. Today, many windmills have been replaced by electric water pumps, but some 80,000 windmills continue to pump water for rural agricultural users in Texas.(101)

Wind could provide Texas with vast amounts of electricity. Studies have shown that up to 136,000 megawatts of electricity - more than twice the state's total generating capacity - could be generated in Texas if all the state's wind resources could be captured.(102) Unlike fossil fuel-fired power plants, wind-energy plants do not create carbon dioxide or other air pollutants.

Wind farms in California have proven wind can be a reliable energy source. California now gets 1,600 megawatts of power from 17,000 wind turbines and the state is developing 1,500 megawatts of new wind power.(103) Although California leads the world in wind-energy production, Texas has almost 20 times more wind-energy potential than California. (104)

Several utilities have taken note of Texas' wind-energy potential and numerous projects are underway in West Texas. Some 250 megawatts of wind-generated electricity will come on-line in 1995.(105) While wind-energy shows great potential, several hurdles must be cleared before it will become a major energy source in the state. First, all of the planned wind units will be in the rural areas of West Texas, far from the urban and industrial areas where electric demand is highest. To capture all of these wind resources, new transmission lines will have to be built. No reliable estimates are available regarding the cost of building these new power lines.

Second, wind farms can threaten wildlife. For reasons still not clear to biologists, the wind turbines have killed many birds of prey. But wind energy promoters say the bird mortality problem can be solved.

The new class of wind turbines can generate power for as little as five cents per kilowatt hour, slightly more than the cost of coal-fired power plants. But when external costs, like air pollution are figured in, wind may be a cheaper power source than either fossil-fuel or nuclear plants.



Texas' solar energy potential far exceeds its wind energy potential. If the 262,000 square miles of Texas were covered with solar cells, the state would generate 550 quadrillion Btu's of electrical energy every year. That is equal to one and a half times the total energy used in the world.(106) Obviously, the state won't ever be paved with solar cells, but Texas could easily incorporate solar power into the fuel mix.

Texans already rely on photovoltaic cells to power highway lights, railroad switches, weather stations, outdoor lighting, gate openers and many other devices. Cheaper to install in remote areas than conventional power lines, photovoltaics are gaining popularity as evidenced by their increasingly common application in rural parts of the Third World.

Some Texas utilities are looking at increased use of the solar cells as a low-cost, non-polluting source of power generation. For example, the city of Austin electric utility operates two photovoltaic stations that generate 450 kilowatts of electric power - enough to supply 50 to 100 homes. The Austin utility is the largest solar power producer in the state.

As the price of producing photovoltaics continues to decline, solar cells could become a more common source of power. For example, utility companies in California have begun installing photovoltaic systems on residential rooftops.

Solar water heaters could decrease demand for natural gas and electricity. In use for decades, solar water heaters are relatively inexpensive and can heat water for household use or provide space heating during winter months. To cut electricity usage, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District has financed the installation of solar water heaters on its customers' rooftops. Some 1,800 residents in the California town have now installed the units, which are providing hot water at a cost far lower than electrical heating units.(107)

Thermal solar power generators also offer great promise. Already installed in California, these systems use reflective mirrors to concentrate sunlight, which then heats oil or water to generate steam. That steam then drives a turbine which generates electricity. This technology is now being tested in West Texas.



The stored energy of water has been used by humans for centuries. Streams and rivers were dammed or re-routed to provide power for milling grain or cutting lumber. Today, dams are an important part of the Texas economy, providing water for irrigation and recreation as well as electricity for industrial and residential use.

Dams in Texas provide 529 megawatts of electric generating capacity.(108) While that is only a fraction of the state's total electric needs, these hydropower facilities are non-polluting and provide reliable power. However, expanding the state's hydropower base may be difficult, as dams can adversely affect aquatic habitat and free-flowing streams.


Three communities in Texas - Center, Cleburne and Carthage - are using municipal solid waste to generate electricity. (However, this is not a perfect technology. See Municipal Solid Waste Chapter.) Half of the lumber companies and three-fourths of the paper companies in Texas burn wood waste to generate power.(109) Texas generates huge amounts of plant and animal waste that could be utilized for thermal power generation. Every year, Texas produces some two quadrillion Btu's of energy in the form of agricultural waste, municipal waste and energy crops.(110) If all that energy could be recovered, it would be enough to generate two-thirds of all the electricity used in Texas. State agencies are now examining how biomass might be used to generate electricity.(111)

As a large grain-producing state, Texas may be able to use some of its farm production to make ethanol and methanol, which can be used as a motor fuel. They can also be combined with gasoline. Ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel made from fermenting grains and sugars. Methanol can be produced from municipal solid waste, crop residues, natural gas or coal. However these fuels have drawbacks. Methanol is highly toxic. Ethanol contains less heat energy than gasoline. Thus, vehicles running on ethanol get about 30 percent fewer miles per gallon than similar gasoline-powered vehicles. Both methanol and ethanol emit gases that are suspected carcinogens.(112) These drawbacks could limit the use of these fuels.

Increased use of biomass as an energy source has only recently gained attention. But this resource could play a larger role in Texas' renewable energy mix.

Texas Environmental Almanac, Chapter 7, Texas Energy, Page 5

Almanac Table of Contents | Chapter Seven Table of Contents | TEC Home Page

NEXT PAGE * PREVIOUS PAGE Go to page 1*2*3*4*5*Notes


Please send questions, comments, or problems with this page to