South Texas Triangle Op–Ed
8. South Texas is the key to unlocking our transition to clean energy
Michael E. Webber
5 min read
8. South Texas is the key to unlocking our transition to clean energy

South Texas is the key to unlocking our transition to clean energy

With the resurgence of “America First” nationalism in the past decade and a series of extreme weather events inflicting damages and death, Texans are on a political and climate collision course.

South Texas, with its abundant energy resources and many connections to Mexico, might be key to the solutions for these challenges.

The climate crisis most visibly reveals itself through extreme weather, such as droughts, floods, freezes, heat waves and storms. To mitigate its worst risks, we will need to quickly decarbonize the economy.  In Texas — the world’s sixth-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, which is the dominant greenhouse gas driving human-caused climate change — we have work to do.

A key first step is to electrify as much of our energy consumption as possible — for example, with vehicles that use electric motors in place of gasoline engines — and to clean up the grid. Because the power sector relies heavily on coal and natural gas, which emit carbon dioxide, we need to add carbon-scrubbing systems and build cleaner power plants from sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear.

While this is daunting, Texas has many of these resources and the space to install batteries or other storage technologies to improve grid reliability.

Although West Texas’ wind and sunshine are well known, the lines that move the power from those locations to major load centers such as Dallas, Houston and South Texas are congested.  Meanwhile, the sunshine in South Texas is just about as abundant as that in West Texas. And the wind along the coast is even more desirable because it tends to be strongest when we need it most, on hot summer afternoons.

By building wind and solar farms in South Texas and new transmission lines from south to north, congestion on the west-to-east power lines can be alleviated with valuable clean electrons provided by and to the bustling South Texas economy. This, in turn, would relieve pressure on power lines to the benefit of the entire state.

South Texas also is home to some of the state’s best geothermal resources  — naturally occurring heat in the Earth’s crust. This can be harnessed with the drilling techniques mastered by the oil and gas industry. Geothermal can produce around-the-clock dispatchable electricity that, unlike solar and wind, does not vary with the weather or position of the Earth relative to the sun.

In addition to its natural resources, South Texas has infrastructure and other assets that could help facilitate the clean energy transition: a skilled energy workforce; pipelines; train tracks; and a port that could be used to export energy products, such as hydrogen or hydrogen carriers like ammonia, and to import energy technologies, such as solar panels, wind blades and turbines, or launch the ships that could help build Texas’ nascent offshore wind industry.

Though West Texas and the Panhandle captured a lot of the early fanfare from the rise in wind and solar in Texas, look for South Texas to be a growing contributor to the state’s overall clean energy mix. In fact, our analysis for decarbonizing Texas indicates South Texas might see tens of gigawatts of new power plants, representing tens of billions of dollars in new wind and solar farms alone.

South Texas also has some of the few remaining spots in Texas where energy access is a problem, namely in some of the colonias along the border, so there is real value from making the energy system more equitable.

In addition to serving as a key producer for energy transition, South Texas might help us overcome political nativism because of the opportunity to partner with Mexico.

Mexico is suffering from a double whammy of declining domestic oil and gas production, and harsh effects of climate change, both of which put upward pressure on the southern border. Thus, partnering with Mexico to improve its energy situation in tandem with ours has economic benefits (we are each other’s biggest trading partners), environmental benefits and security benefits as fewer people attempt to illegally cross the border to flee a declining economic situation at home.

We share a watershed and airshed with Mexico, so the decisions we make affect one another.  Partnering with Mexico to shut down its dirty and thirsty coal plants between the Amistad and Falcon reservoirs would free up water that could be used for agriculture, hydraulic fracturing or cities, or returned to the ecosystem, reducing the stress on the Rio Grande and improving the Mexican economy.  Switching those power plants to natural gas, wind or solar would reduce the loading of air pollutants into the common airshed.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, is mostly isolated as a grid, but it does have two connections to Mexico’s grid, which allows for imports and exports, and could form the basis for broader energy/economic coupling. When we are inevitably hit with another crippling storm, we could support each other when our grids are limping along. These connections should be expanded, which also would  help with reliability for the power sector while inspiring investment and creating jobs in South Texas.

Pipelines and rail lines also cross the border. Union Pacific and Texas Pacifico railroads have multiple border crossings, including at least one line that connects with a western port of Mexico, enabling global trade of energy goods in and out of the state, and the ability to connect to Asian markets without going through the Panama Canal. The Texas-Mexico border is the gateway to North American trade, but it also unlocks global connectivity for South Texas.

All told, the South Texas region, whose Eagle Ford Shale helped unlock domestic oil and gas production, might help us unlock the next pieces we need for a cleaner and more harmonious society.

Michael E. Webber is the McKetta Centennial Energy Chair in Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

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