Rattlesnakes, jackalope and a clean energy revolution
Sweetwater, 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.
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.
This 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.
Now 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.
Tenasca, 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!