I have a conflicted relationship with the state of Texas, the home of some of my least-favorite politicians but also some of my favorite people: Tim Riggins, Matt Saracen, Eric and Tami Taylor, and (of course) my lovely and talented friend, Lauren, who hosted a group of our girlfriends from college for a long weekend at her family’s house in Spicewood.
We descended on Austin from across the country — from Berkeley to Chicago to Cincinnati to Washington D.C. — and couldn’t wait to catch up, eat tacos, sample some Texas barbecue.
[In front of the wall at Jo’s Coffee on South Congress Street in Austin. I love these ladies SO much!]
[Taco time at Torchy’s. We loved the green chile pork and friend avocado tacos, and also the amazing street corn.]
[We stopped at It’s all Good BBQ in Spicewood, and the food was true to it’s name!
[Clockwise, from left: brisket, tater tot pudding, cole slaw, squash, mac-and-cheese, pulled pork, sausage, green beans]
Unsurprisingly, Texas comes up often in national conversations both concerning the severity of climate impacts and the integration of renewable energy into the grid. Most conversations on the climate side center around water: too little water, exacerbating droughts and facilitating longer, more intense fire seasons; or too much, leading to sea level rise and on the Gulf Coast and flooding from extreme precipitation events in west Texas.
Where we spent time, in and around Austin, the former issue was far more apparent.
[Lights strung along the garden fence]
[Eating breakfast in the sunshine, outside on the beautiful patio.]
[Live oaks stretching out over the hillside.]
Austin and the surrounding Hill County is in the middle of a five plus-year drought. While many hoped that a strong El Nino this year would ease or end these conditions, recent rains have only slightly improved water levels. Lake Travis, situated west of Austin and on the way to Spicewood, is experiencing some of its lowest water levels on record. The Perdernales River has been reduced to a low-flowing stream, stranding docks and boats on the bank of what used to be a mighty tributary of the Colorado.
[Laura enjoying the grassy field, which used to be water. Notice the old dock behind her.]
[Lauren’s hungry pup, trying to steal some chips and guac — and maybe a sip of Shiner?]
[The Perdernales River braids through Hill Country, cold water on muddy banks.]
[Almost the whole group! Hard to believe most of us have known each other for close to 10 years.]
And, while still impossibly beautiful, the waters that normally flow over the limestone rocks of Hamilton Pool have been reduce to a trickle.
[The afternoon sun sparkles on the green waters of Hamilton Pool.]
[We all took the plunge — freezing cold, but quite invigorating!]
[Grateful for the warm sun on our faces and thoughtful conversation with good friends.]
[Limestone grotto surrounding the pool.]
Furthermore, the aquifer is not being replenished, which calls into question the long-term viability of farming and ranching in the area.
Texas has its worst wildfire season in recent history in 2011, with 6 of the 10 largest fires in the state’s history occurring over the course of just a few months. The fires were fueled by the hot, dry conditions normally associated with a La Nina year, and exacerbated by rising average temperatures due to climate change. That year, in fact, Texas experience average temperatures 1.5 degrees warmer than those in the 1980’s and 1990’s. While 1.5 degrees may not seem like a lot, as NCAR climate scientist Jerry Meehl put it, “even small changes can produce very big changes in extreme events. ”
Unfortunately, the severity of climate change impacts on the state has not changed the hearts and minds of many Texas leaders, like Governor Rick Perry and Senator Ted Cruz. Fortunately, pervasive — however misguided — climate denial has not stopped the state from moving forward with an aggressive renewable energy portfolio standard. In 1999, the Texas PUC set a target of 5,880 MW of renewable energy by 2015 and 10,000 MW by 2025. While seemingly ambitious 16 years ago, Texas has already achieved its 2025 goal, over 10 years ahead of schedule, leading the nation with nearly 13,000 MW of installed wind capacity.
And energy companies in the state do not appear to be slowing down. In fact, Texas made headlines this month when the Electricity Reliability Council released data showing that wind energy-generated electricity provided 10.6% of Texas’ power in January — the first time the state’s renewables mix has ever reached double digits. (Wondering where the other 91% came from? Natural gas topped the generation portfolio generating 41%, followed by coal at 36%, nuclear at 12%, and less than 0.5% coming from solar and other alternative fuels.)
Where did we get our energy, you might be asking?
[From delicious Baguette et chocolat baked goods and Texas-shaped cheese…]
[Naps in the hammock…]
[And adorable baby goats, like Oscar.]
Last August, the city of Austin passed The Affordable Energy Resolution, which directs Austin Energy to procure 600 MW of solar by 2025, meaning that 65% of the city’s power will be generated by renewable sources.
[Colorful neon signs light up the whole city, like these at Heritage Boot on South Congress.]
[No trip to Austin is complete without a stop at Amy’s for Mexican Vanilla ice cream.]
The resolution also calls for Austin Energy to phase out all carbon pollution from its power plants by 2030, and close the natural gas-fueled Decker Creek Power Station. These goals are particularly laudable given that, currently, the entire state of Texas only generates 185 MW of utility-scale solar. Congratulations to all the folks who helped push for such ambitious targets and for the City Council for demonstrating forward-thinking leadership on renewable energy.
[Round-the-world ping pong, creekside at Easy Tiger.]
[“…Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side/ Withstand the winter’s storm/ And spite of wind and tide/ Grow up the meadow’s pride/ For both are strong/ Above they barely touch, but undermined/ Down to their deepest source/ Admiring you shall find/ Their roots are intertwined/ Insep’rably.” – Thoreau]
I have only visited Austin twice, but each time I fall in love with the city’s energy — the music, the food, and the beautiful open spaces. But the ongoing, serious water scarcity issues give me pause about ending up in southwestern city like Austin. Austin Water’s website characterizes the current conditions as “extreme drought,” having imposed Stage 2 water restrictions.
[A view of the curving Colorado River from our plane on the way out of Austin.]
As someone who follows water issues in the west, hardly a week passes without a new article or study detailing the crisis currently facing the Colorado River, which begs the question, can Texas survive “forever” and adapt to the new normal of water scarcity in the west? How will climate change continue to exacerbate the problem? Will Texas continue to demonstrate leadership in renewable energy deployment, or will the natural gas boom stem progress?
If only we could figure out a way to harness the energy of football players to charge the lights on Friday night…