How the Wind Became Woke
"The world is experiencing an energy revolution. Over the past 15 years or so, huge technological progress has, in many cases, made it cheaper to generate electricity from solar and wind power than by burning fossil fuels. The Inflation Reduction Act — which is, despite its name, mainly a climate bill — aims to accelerate the transition to renewables and also to electrify as much of the economy as possible; this effort, if it works quickly enough and is emulated by other countries, could help us avert climate catastrophe.
Even before the I.R.A. started to take effect, however, America was experiencing a renewable energy boom. And the boom has been led by a surprising place. Here’s a map showing renewable electricity generation other than hydroelectric by state (darker means more generation):
Yes, Texas is in the lead. To be fair, California has more solar power, and a lot of geothermal electricity, too. But Texas dominates in wind power. And overall California is, even progressives have to admit, a state where NIMBYism sometimes seems to slide into BANANA territory — as in “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone.” That’s why housing is so scarce and expensive, and red tape has snarled green energy, too. Texas, whatever its flaws (which are many), is a place where things can get built, and that has included a lot of wind turbines.
You might think, then, that Texas politicians would be celebrating the renewables boom, which is both good for the state’s economy and an advertisement for the state’s laissez-faire policies.
But no. Republicans in the Texas legislature have turned hard against renewable energy, with a raft of proposed measures that would subsidize fossil fuels, impose restrictions that might block many renewable energy projects and maybe even shut down many existing facilities. The worst of these measures don’t seem to have made it into the latest legislation, but even so, that legislation strongly favors fossil fuels over an industry that arguably reflects Texas’s energy future.
So what’s going on here? Why do Texas Republicans now see the wind as an enemy? You might think that the answer is greed, and that’s surely part of it. But the bigger picture, I’d argue, is that renewable energy has become a victim of the anti-woke mind virus.
First, about greed. Yes, Texas is a state where what big business wants, big business gets. And the fossil fuel industry has a long history of doing what it can to block climate action, not just by lobbying against green energy policies but also by promoting climate denialism.
Yet there are several reasons to doubt whether Texas’s turn against renewables is a simple story of corporate greed. For one thing, renewable energy in Texas is already a big business itself, having attracted billions in investment and employing thousands of workers, which should act as a counterweight to fossil fuel interests.
Furthermore, a lot of Texas investment in green energy is actually coming from companies with roots in fossil fuels. So even some oil and gas companies have a financial stake in allowing the renewable boom to continue.
Finally, oil and gas are traded on world markets. The prices producers receive, and hence their profits, are determined more by global events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than by where Texas gets its electricity (although this obviously matters for the owners of power plants).
So I don’t think Texas’s rejection of its own energy success is entirely, or even mainly, about greed. Instead, renewables have been caught up in the culture wars. In a way, it’s a lot like Ron DeSantis’s confrontation with Disney, which looks just crazy from a policy point of view — why undermine tourism, one of the pillars of Florida’s economy? But these days it’s often important not to follow the money.
Right-wingers like Elon Musk and Ron DeSantis have become fond of citing the alleged power of the “woke mind virus” to explain why major corporations are tolerant of and even cater to social liberalism. They need to invoke this mysterious contagion to avoid accepting the obvious explanation: Most Americans have become relatively liberal on social matters — look at the transformation of attitudes on same-sex marriage — and corporations have been adjusting to their customer base.
But while talk of the woke mind virus manages to be both sinister and silly, I’d argue that there really is what we might call an anti-woke mind virus — a contagion that spreads not across people but across issues.
Here’s how it works. A significant faction of Americans, which increasingly dominates the Republican Party, hates anything it considers woke — which in this faction’s eyes means both any acknowledgment of social injustice and any suggestion that people should make sacrifices, or even accept mild inconvenience, in the name of the public good. So there’s rage against the idea that racism was and still is an evil for which society should make some amends; there’s also rage against the idea that people should, say, wear masks during a pandemic to protect others, or cut down on activities that harm the environment.
This rage is somewhat understandable, if not forgivable. But the weird thing is the way that it infects attitudes on issues that don’t actually involve wokeism but are seen as woke-adjacent.
The now-classic example is the way hostility to mask mandates, which were mainly about protecting others, turned into highly partisan opposition to Covid vaccination, which is mainly about protecting yourself. Logically, this carry-over makes no sense; but it happened anyway.
The same thing, I’d argue, applies to energy policy. At this point, investing in renewable energy is simply a good business proposition; Texas Republicans have had to abandon their own free-market, anti-regulation ideology in the effort to strangle wind and solar power. But renewable energy is something environmentalists favor; it’s being promoted by the Biden administration. So in the minds of Texas right-wingers the wind has become woke, and wind power has become something to be fought even if it hurts business and costs the state both money and jobs.
If all this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. But that’s Texas — and, I fear, much of America — in 2023.