One cold evening in February 2008, the gusty wind in West Texas dropped to a breeze. At the time, Texas generated more electricity from wind than almost any other state did. But that evening, the wind speed fell much lower than forecasts had predicted, just as the chill had residents cranking up their heat. The people responsible for most of the state’s electrical system recognized that they risked a dangerous—or at least embarrassing—outage. Declaring an emergency, they switched off the power to several big industrial customers. After 90 minutes, backup generators kicked in, and the power was restored. A spokeswoman for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas subsequently explained, “The wind died out. That happens.”
Well, sure, some critics agreed—but that was just the problem with relying on it. The same, more or less, was true of sunlight. Weather didn’t follow orders, and its patterns could be unpredictable. With the state planning to dramatically expand its use of wind power, one journalist wrote: “This problem is only going to get bigger for Texas.”
Eight years on, the problem is getting bigger for the United States. Last August, President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, whereby power plants are expected to reduce their carbon-dioxide emissions by 32 percent from their 2005 level, within 15 years—a target that’s all but impossible to hit without moving from coal to cleaner energy sources. The Supreme Court has stayed Obama’s plan until lower courts can rule on several legal challenges, but energy experts assume the plan—or something like it—will eventually take effect. In the future, environmental concerns and resulting regulations may necessitate bigger reductions; Bill Gates argues that, in order to really address the global-warming crisis, emissions must fall by 100 percent before too long.