Texas, once the undisputed and seemingly infallible powerhouse of the United States’ energy sector and the world’s shale markets, is struggling to stay afloat. While the COVID-19 pandemic was disastrous for oil markets around the world, nowhere was harder hit than the Permian Basin. On April 20th the world watched as the final nail was driven into the shale revolution’s coffin when the West Texas Intermediate crude benchmark did not just plunge into negative territory, it blew way past rock bottom and ended the day at nearly $40 below zero. The results have been devastating. Across Texas, whole communities are dying, drying up and blowing away like so many tumbleweeds as their economy falls out from underneath them. Oil prices need to be around $40 for the shale sector to just break even, but Texas needs a lot more than that. Bringing shut-in wells back online is an expensive process, and the oil demand just hasn’t rebounded in order to support the reopening of all those shuttered sites.
While it may be too soon to write Texas out of the energy history books, their future almost certainly does not include a second shale revolution. In fact, if Texas has any hopes of staying relevant in the energy game, they’re probably going to have to let go of fossil fuels altogether. Back in August, Oilprice reported that shale execs had better jump on the ESG investing trend if they know what’s good for them.
While Texas has a lot of pride in their contribution to the country’s economy and to the world’s energy supply, naming one of their sacred cows–the Houston Oilers–after the black gold, it’s time to cut the cord.
Some forward-thinkers are already trying to bring Texas into the clean energy era. Many of the now-shuttered or stagnant petrochemical plants, for example, could be perfect to convert into hydrogen-based energy storage, a sector that’s set to explode as renewable energy continues to go gangbusters. Another promising route forward is through solar power itself. Texas is already slated to become home to the United States’ largest solar farm. The Samson Solar Energy Center, which is currently under construction in Northeastern Texas, will be a mammoth 1,310-megawatt solar farm when it’s completed in 2023, with the capacity to produce enough energy to power almost 300,000 homes in the United States. The project represents a considerable $1.6 billion in capital investment–a massive injection of cash into an economy that’s been very hard hit by the pandemic-fuelled recession–and the boons to the Texan economy don’t stop there. The massive clean energy project will employ as many as 600 desperately needed jobs in a sector that’s been plagued by firings and furloughs since the beginning of this very long year. “Additionally,” reports Electrek, “the project will bring more than $250 million in landowner payments and support local communities through nearly $200 million in property tax payments over the life of the project.”
While Samson is by far the biggest solar project on Texas’ slate, it’s certainly not the only one. Just this week the Erath solar project in Erath County, Texas broke ground to the southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth. Even so, Texas has a lot of ground to cover if it wants to be a major solar energy hub. While the state is already one of the top domestic producers of wind energy, it’s actually losing ground in the rankings for solar energy. While last year it was the third biggest solar producing state, this year it has backslid into fourth place.
The Texan government itself has a large role to play in helping the Texan solar sector flourish at a time that the state desperately needs innovation and–above all–jobs. At present Texan utilities are still imposing extra charges on green energy, but it would certainly be in the state’s economic interest to let go of its dogmatic loyalty to shale and incentivise energy sector growth of any kind rather than impede certain parts of it. But Texas is not alone in its hesitance to embrace a greener energy future. “When we look at the fact that only 1.35% of the state’s electricity comes from solar — and it’s a leader in the US — it’s a serious reality check,” Electrek points out.
But even this could be good news for Texas. As a state accustomed to leading the pack when it comes to energy production, it won’t be that hard to emerge as king of the hill for U.S. solar. The workforce is there. Much of the infrastructure is there. All we need now is an attitude adjustment.