Why Texas Beats Alberta With Wind Energy

Were Alberta and Texas separated at birth?

It’s actually not that much of a stretch. Both share a deep appreciation of prime rib, free enterprise, and rodeos. Both have prospered from their abundant natural resources — not only oil and gas, but also the steady winds that blow across the open range.

Indeed, with some of the continent’s breeziest landscapes, both Alberta and Texas proved themselves wind-power early adopters. Unfortunately, on this front Alberta has since lagged far behind its American cousin — which is now a national wind-power leader.

How did it happen? As early as 1999, Texas legislated a so-called renewable energy mandate. The policy directs utilities to source a share of their total electricity sales from renewable sources. By next year, it will deliver an impressive 5,880 megawatts of clean power to the Lone Star grid; by 2025, that number will almost double.

By contrast, in Alberta, wind power capacity currently sits at just over 1,000 megawatts (1,120 MW). The Alberta Electricity System Operator’s recently released long term outlook forecasts 2,263 megawatts of wind power capacity by 2024.

In 2008, Texas really took the bull by the horns, and designated five distinct zones where research showed wind could compete against fossil fuels in energy generation. It then built almost 3,600 miles of high-capacity transmission lines to deliver the output from an estimated 18 gigawatts of new wind capacity to Houston, Dallas, and other cities.

Even smaller municipally-owned utilities, such as Austin Energy and San Antonio’s CPS Energy got into the act, setting — and meeting — their own renewable-energy targets. As a result, last year Texas generated more wind power than any other state in the union — an amount equivalent to about half of Alberta’s total annual power supply.

Of course, all this activity has attracted the notice of investors. Consulting giant Ernst & Young recently pronounced Texas the third-most attractive state for renewable energy investment.

There’s lots of clean-energy money pouring into Canada as well. In 2013, Canadian renewable energy investment grew 45 per cent over the previous year to reach $6.5 billion, making ours the second-fastest growing market for clean energy in the G-20.

Unfortunately, as one of the very few jurisdictions in North America to lack a renewable energy policy, Alberta received very little of this windfall. Due to a lack of supportive policy, not a single megawatt of wind energy came onto the province’s grid last year.

While Alberta was once a leader in wind power, this wasn’t the result of provincial policy, but rather a federal production incentive and the prospect of sales of renewable energy credits to other jurisdictions, like California. But these policies have either expired or not longer apply, as Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently noted: “The drivers that have fuelled Alberta’s wind build in the past … are mostly no longer relevant.”

And as our most recent Power to Change report — co-authored with the Pembina Institute — revealed, it doesn’t have to be this way. Alberta can drastically reduce its reliance on fossil fuels for power generation and replace it with a mix of gas and renewable energy sources such as wind, sun, biomass, hydro and geothermal energy.

Doing so will create a new industry, and insulate consumers from the risks inherent in relying too heavily on one fuel source. Instead of a big hit in the wallet, such a move would actually save them money over the long term, the report found.

The government of Alberta is currently developing its long-awaited, and oft-delayed, renewable and alternative energy framework, though according to rumours the current draft version doesn’t do nearly enough to diversify and transition the province’s coal-reliant electricity system.

To help shed light on how Texas embraced clean power — and how Alberta might follow its lead

— on July 15 my team is hosting a lunch event with Austin-based renewable energy pioneer Michael J. Osborne. Enbridge and Suncor are generously co-sponsoring the event, along with Calgary-based BluEarth Renewables and the Canadian Wind Energy Association.

With a competitive electricity market similar to Alberta’s — not to mention a conservative political climate — market-oriented, oil-and-gas focused Texas has found ways to diversify its electricity mix and attract big dollars. As Osborne will likely show, Alberta has many of the same options at its disposal, too.

It’s high time we took advantage of them. This show is just getting started, and Alberta needs to get out of the bleachers and into the ring.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Calgary Herald.

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