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Rattlesnakes, jackalope and a clean energy revolution

Justin Rowlatt | 10:04 UK time, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

RattlesnakeSweetwater, Texas - I have been out hunting rattlesnakes and jackalope in the fields around the West Texas town of Sweetwater. I have had some success too, as you will see, but I did not come here to hunt.

Sweetwater is famous for its rattlesnakes. Every year this sleepy Texas town holds a "rattlesnake roundup". The locals collect thousands of snakes from the fields and then host a huge party.

The town will be thick with tourists for the roundup this weekend. There will be Shiner Bock on tap and the best beef and ribs on the mesquite wood barbeque but the big attraction is the snakes.

This being Texas you don't just get to see them, you get to eat them and then wear them too. Rattlesnake boots are very popular in Sweetwater.

The posters boast that the roundup is "the largest in Texas" which, I guess, also makes it the largest in the world.

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The snakes may attract the tourists but that is not where Sweetwater earns its real money. By a quirk of geography this sleepy Texas backwater has become the centre of a clean energy revolution.

That is what I came here to see because, like its rattlesnake roundup, Sweetwater's green electricity industry is certainly the largest in Texas, and soon could be the largest in the world.

Billions of dollars have been invested here and billions more are in the pipeline. But the industry here does not fit any of the environmental stereotypes.

Justin meets a rattlesnakeThis is green energy Texas-style: it is only possible thanks to the oil industry, it is serviced by big men driving gas-guzzling Humvees and many of the people who have created it do not even believe in global warming.

The town's energy revolution is wind powered at the moment, but there are plans for multi-billion dollar investments in other cutting edge sustainable energy technologies.

You get a sense of the scale of the wind industry when you drive out of town. Each giant wind turbine costs up to $3 million and there are thousands of them in majestic row upon majestic row, their blades slowly arcing around day and night. They are literally reaping the wind.

Yet according to the town's Mayor, Greg Wortham, Sweetwater does not even have particularly good wind by American standards. He describes it as "moderate".

Oil is the reason the town's huge wind industry is here. What Sweetwater has that other windier areas do not is a high capacity electric power line. It was built to bring in the electricity needed to power the pump jacks that suck the oil out of the gigantic Permian Basin fields way out here in West Texas.

Ethical Man on top of a turbineNow the electrons travel the other way. They are generated by the 2,500 wind turbines in the fields around Sweetwater and pushed 250 miles back along the line to bring clean, green power all the way to Dallas, what was once the oil capital of the world.

The turbine fields in Sweetwater have made America the world's leading producer of electricity from wind, overtaking Germany last year. A million Texan homes are now powered by clean energy.

The American Wind Energy Association estimates that only 1.5% of America's total electricity comes from wind. There is huge potential for more, but even the US Department of Energy's most optimistic forecasts predict that just 20% of the nation's electricity needs will come from wind by 2030.

So other clean energy sources are needed and, once again, Sweetwater is on the case. It is set to be the site of one of the world's first clean coal plants.

Green movement, Texas-styleTenasca, a privately owned power company, has been buying up land just outside town to build a $3.5bn, 800-megawatt coal-fired power station. The plant will be fitted with the latest carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. It will strip 85-90% of the carbon dioxide from the waste gases, allowing it to be pumped underground.

So why Sweetwater? You do not get coal around here. The coal for the plant would have to come hundreds of miles from the Power River basin in Colorado.

Again, the answer is the oil industry and those vast Permian Basin fields. CCS technology is expensive. It will cost $1bn to build the carbon capture equipment and the plant will use a quarter of the power it generates to run it.

The reason Tenaska want to build in Sweetwater is so they can sell the CO2 they collect to the oil industry which will pump it down into the oil fields to help recover more oil.

Greens will hang their heads in horror at the idea that the greenhouse gases captured by one of the world's first clean coal plants will be used to increase the output of greenhouse gas rich oil. But Tenaska's plans are a measure of just how challenging the economics of clean energy still is.

Indeed, the truth is that Sweetwater's entire green energy economy only exists thanks to state subsidies. George Bush kick-started the industry with a programme of tax breaks and grants worth up to a third of capital costs. President Obama has extended those for three more years.

David Fiorelli, the Tenaska executive behind the plant, says it will only be viable if President Obama's cap-and-trade plans are passed. He says without a price for carbon, allowing his firm to generate an income from cutting carbon emissions, this ground breaking new plant will not go ahead.

Sweetwater perfectly illustrates why President Obama's administration believes that carbon pricing is the only way that the world will begin to cut carbon. The town is not full of tree-hugging greens. It has built a world-beating green energy industry on Texan muscle and Texan ambition.

Sceptics say that low carbon energy is decades away. Sweetwater shows it can be implemented now but only if the economics are right.

Quite a few sceptics also commented on my last blog to say that jackalope do not exist. Well my time in Sweetwater shows that is not true either, take a look at what we found out on the Blue Goose ranch:


Now we've put the whole jackalope debate to bed, proving once and for all that jackalope are alive and well in Texas can we please move on to a more serious issue?

Do you support some system of carbon pricing? Is cap-and-trade going to help build sustainable electricity industries around the world or is it an economic cul de sac? I want to know what you think now!


  • Comment number 1.

    Son - take off your coat and tie and stay awhile.

  • Comment number 2.

    Please can someone in the BBC inform us licence-payers of the budget assigned to this meretricious, biased rigmarole? And why is it coming out of BBC News funds?

  • Comment number 3.

    Did you actually sample any of the BBQ rattlesnake? And if so, did it taste like (organically-raised, free-ranging) chicken?

    If you get the chance, gator-on-a-stick is another peculiarly southern American phenomenon...

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm a Brit and recently a US Citizen.
    I keep the BBC Front page as my Home page as I think the BBC does a great job relative to other media.
    I find these posting particularly irksome and an embarrassment to my Britishness.
    hubertgrove #2: "meretricious, biased rigmarole" sums it up nicely.
    It's a free country so don't mind me. You will not have to hear from me again.

  • Comment number 6.

    The Powder River Basin is in Wyoming and Montana, not Colorado. The Wyoming mines supply about 40 % of the total coal mined in the U.S.

  • Comment number 7.

    Doesn't sound as if environmental revolution has come to the rattlesnakes, however. Typical rotten human behavior.

  • Comment number 8.

    You'll have to call me a skeptic, because I can’t believe that pumping carbon dioxide underground, will ever be a good idea. Even if there is enough solid ground above the oil well, to prevent the CO2 from immediately escaping to the atmosphere, nothing can stop an earthquake and nothing lasts forever. Co2 Sequestering will only make our problems worse in the future.

    “It will cost $1bn to build the carbon capture equipment and the plant will use a quarter of the power it generates to run it.”

    Surely they could buy enough solar panels or molten salt solar collectors, to produce them same amount of power. Add the cost of 20 years of coal and its shipping costs, to the building cost of the power plant and the one billion dollar carbon sequestering equipment, now the solar panels seem cheap.

    Please leave the oil and the coal in the ground.

    A cap a trade system will only work, if the cap is dramatically reduced every year. I’d only be in favour of such a system, if it actually reduces carbon dioxide emissions. And you are correct. I am horrified at the prospects of a cap and trade system making it economical to dump coal emissions on future generations.

  • Comment number 9.

    If wind and solar energy were viable concepts, they wouldn't need cap and trade to work. The more fancy the scheme needed to try and force a technology, the better off we are without it.

    The whole "anthromophic climate change" argument has become a bit of a fairy tale in the last few years. Between catastrophic cooling in the 1970s and catastrophic warming in the 1990s and, well, nothing happening in the last 10 years so the term just changes to "climate change" (convenient as any fluctuations can be used as proof of man-made change) we are, pun intended, tilting at windmills.

    The problem with wind is that it's only good, under the most favorable conditions, 20% of the time. The other 80% of the time those "green" energy users are still pulling from evil coal plants.

    My solution? Stop trying to socially engineer power sources. If there wasn't such a phobia over nuclear power, we'd have pretty much solved the whole "green vs efficient" argument right off the bat. In America, if it wasn't for those onerous regulations that don't actually solve anything, a nuclear power plant would cost $4 billion for a more reliable alternative to the excessive wind+coal method being used now. Fuel's cheaper, generation is more reliable and the waste is minimal by comparison (America has plenty of places no one, or thing, lives to bury it). We would have nearly a billion years of fuel and, best of it all, it doesn't put evil CO2 into the atmosphere.

    The way to solve this is to simply stop taxing companies, stop regulating companies and stop trying to pick and chose winners. If wind or solar were the wave of the future, they wouldn't need cap and trade or tax subsidies to survive. Why would anyone in their right mind continue to pay for hydrocarbon based fuel if someone can put up solar panels on your roof for less?

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    7 - have you ever /met/ a rattlesnake? i'm sure if they treated humans more kindly we'd be inclined to do the same.

  • Comment number 12.

    Must start by saying I'm sorry about the poor rattlesnakes, do they kill them all?

    As for LaughingTarget's comments, what exactly is "anthromophic" climate change? I assume he means anthropogenic climate change.

    There's been a warming of approximately 0.7 C since 1970 which I've yet to hear any scientist classify as "Catastrophic cooling" in the 70s or "catastrophic warming" in the 90s, I'd suggest you look up the definition of catastrophic. The last decade has seen 8 of the 10 warmest years on record, so I'm not sure how that equates to "nothing happening", and personally I'm quite content to use the term global warming.

    As far as the article's concerned, I'd certainly support a system of carbon pricing, whether a carbon tax or cap n' trade, dependent on which is the most effective. There certainly needs to be some price on carbon commensurate with the damage it's causing the planet.

    Personally I'd like a mix of nuclear energy, though it's always required some form of subsidy (in the U.K. anyway), and renewables - as technology advances and economies of scale kick in they'll be competitive with fossil fuels; land based wind is nearly there already.

  • Comment number 13.


    7 - have you ever /met/ a rattlesnake? i'm sure if they treated humans more kindly we'd be inclined to do the same.

    In fact I am more than familiar with rattlesnakes; I have even been struck by one --- striking me in defence although I was unaware of his presence.

    Rattlesnakes use their venom to paralyze their prey and will only use it as a defensive tool when absolutely necessary. It requires far too much energy and time to reproduce the venom "wasted" for a defensive strike for the snake to react without just cause.

    Case in point: while leading a group of birdwatchers across a southern Canadian grassland we encountered a rattlesnake coiled up, basking in the sun adjacent to several small burrow openings. I knelt down very close in front of the snake and attempted to get a photgraph of bothe snakes head and rattle (tail end) in close focus. To achieve this closeup image with both body parts in sharp focus I leaned slowly ever closer to the snake. experience had taught me these snakes will only strike if threatened.

    Suddenly through the lens I saw a mouse dash across my field of vision at exactly the same time that the snake struck out and "nailed' the mouse. It happened so quickly I did not snap the photo and I fell backwards reacting to the strike. Still the now recoiled snake did not strike my nearby legs. Instead the snake watched the mouse now affect by the paralyzing venom, drag itself down the hole it was running towards.

    The snake considered me for a few more moments and then... followed the mouse down the hole... exposing its now unprotected length to me as it instinctively pursued its meal.

    No... rattlers are not the malicious demons popular myth describes.

    The snake that struck me was a six inch long newborn. I stepped on it in rubber boots as it lay presumably sleeping in the sun at the doorway to my farm quonset.

    My children, friends and I often encountered rattlesnakes on our farm. They would rattle to warn us, and leave us alone if we were equally polite. I continue to encounter these wonderful creatures on hiking and canoe trips... as many as five or more per day... without being struck, and my family and I have actually swum with them in a favourite swimming hole where they merely observe us with curiousity.

  • Comment number 14.

    Being the ethical man don't you think thatsomething like rattlesnake roundups are cruel and an outdated form of entertain,ment? Afterall most americans are overfed and undernourished and do not need to kill the snakes .Also at what point would events like these lead to a threatened or extinct species.lastthe snakes arepart of the ecosystem and area necessary component of it .You by not mentioning thatcan also say you are a hypocrite

  • Comment number 15.

    It's a common journalism practice to create controversy in order to atract an audience. Ethical man cannot educate anyone, if no one is paying attention.

    The true hyoocrites are those that insist that renewable enrgy must be cost competative, while they are happy to give polluters a free ride, and those that are in favour of nuclear power, but are unwilling to work in a uranium mine.

  • Comment number 16.

    I understand that science needs funding, but it's really not a good time to be spending money on nonexistent things like Jackalopes and man made or any other kind of global warming. Come back to Texas and see us some time. It's usually much warmer. We've been experiencing unseasonably low temperatures...

  • Comment number 17.

    Actually, now is the perfect time to spend money, the economy could really use the boost, but we need to ensure that something of lasting value is produced.

    What could be more valuable than an almost free energy source?

    If global warming doesn’t exist, then please tell me why there was less ice in the Arctic at the end of last summer, than ever before recorded.

  • Comment number 18.

    Hey everyone. After you post your comment join us in the facebook link posted at the bottom of the "Jackalope hunting on the
    great frontier" article.

    Just be sure to use your mouse and copy what you wrote before you post your message as you might just lose it in the security check if you dont.

    Looking forward to your opinions.

  • Comment number 19.

    My cousins who live in nearby Snyder kept a herd of Jackalopes that grazed around their oil wells.

    Theirs were larger animals than the one shown in the photo.

    Stick around. You may see an adult jackalope. They stand about 6 feet tall.


  • Comment number 20.

    There must be a large number of specie of jackalope. In Lac La Biche. Alberta, Canada, I saw a well preserved specimen. This specimen was about the size of a large chihuahua.

    Interesting to hear the specie is so international.



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