October 17, 2006

Wind blade blows its way into Austin

In years past, “Texas’ biggest fan,” a 120-foot wind-turbine blade owned by the Dallas power company TXU Corp., received little notice when it was displayed in Austin.

This year, it drew its share of gawkers as well as reporters and protesting environmentalists. The blade was planted on an extra-long flatbed truck on 18th Street just east of Congress Avenue, or, perhaps more to the symbolic point, around the corner from the Public Utility Commission, which may be scrutinizing the company for manipulating power rates.

The spot was also within blocks of the Capitol, where Gov. Rick Perry has been rallying support for the company over its controversial proposal for 11 new or expanded coal-burning power plants for the state.

At 14,000 pounds, the fan is enormous. Too big to be used, actually. TXU, which owns no wind farms and makes little use of wind power, bought the blade as a showpiece after it was found to be a half-inch too long, enough to throw an entire wind turbine into a wobble.

The blade is in town to kick off a tour in which TXU employees will travel to Victoria, Houston and Corpus Christi to show it off and teach kids about the future of wind energy. In one activity, the kids will stand in place and wave their arms, pretending to be wind turbines, according to a company spokeswoman. (No, they will not pretend to be coal-fired power plants, she said.)

Normally anything associated with wind energy, a renewable alternative to coal or fossil fuels, gets a thumbs up from the green community. But Tom “Smitty” Smith, one of the small contingent demonstrating nearby, called TXU’s effort a public relations scheme.

“It’s greenwashing,” he said.

TXU insists the blade is symbolic of its decades-long effort to help the environment. The company is the largest purchaser of wind energy among companies in Texas, according to Sophia Stoller, a TXU spokeswoman. It currently buys about 580 megawatts of wind energy, enough to power about 110,000 homes.

“By purchasing wind energy, we’re helping out the environment,” she said.

While Austinites are served by a city-owned utility, Austin Energy, residents of surrounding areas – Round Rock and Burnet County, for instance – receive services from TXU’s power division. Under a TXU program, customers can opt to get all their energy from renewable sources.

But wind makes up only 1 percent to 2 percent of TXU’s entire portfolio. And though the company touts its commitment to double its renewable portfolio by 2011, it would more or less be meeting statewide goals set by the Legislature.

The company has gotten heat from environmentalists, and support from the governor, for proposing 11 coal-fired plants to meet the state’s growing energy appetite. A July report found that the TXU plants (along with six others proposed by other companies) would translate to a 30 percent increase in greenhouse gases across the state.

Last month, The Dallas Morning News reported that a study commissioned by the Public Utility Commission concluded that one of the state’s biggest electricity suppliers probably manipulated the market. The supplier was not identified, but details in the report pointed to TXU.

In any case, wind energy is becoming a hot commodity in Texas. This year, the state passed California to become the No. 1 wind energy producer in the nation. And a state law requires the state to get five percent of its energy from renewable sources such as wind by 2015, and 10 percent by 2025.

The wind blade tour began in Austin, in part, because Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo had invited the company to show off the blade as the city hosts an oil and gas conference.

“I wanted to brag that we’re number one in wind energy in the country,” he said.

By By Asher Price, American-Statesman Staff
asherprice@statesman.com; 445-3643


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