Kate Galbraith

Is Texas Now Greener than California?

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Last year, California suffered the ultimate indignity in its quest to be the "greenest state." It was passed by red Texas -- the oil heartland -- for the title of state with the most wind-power generating capacity.

The numbers get even more depressing. Last year, California's wind capacity grew at a slower rate than any of the other top 10 wind-producing states. Texas's wind production grew at a 39 percent clip and (What's the Matter With) Kansas' grew by 38 percent; California managed relatively meager 10 percent growth. That still leaves the Golden State as the No. 2 wind producer in the country, but it is clearly in a slump.

Why has California blown its lead (so to speak)? The state was an early champion of wind farms. During the 1980s, when Texans thought only of oil and gas drilling, California started putting in windmills. By 1985, turbines had sprouted in three key areas: Altamont, east of San Francisco; Tehachapi, near Bakersfield; and San Gorgonio, in the far south. The energy crisis of the 1970s, plus regulatory initiatives in California, had galvanized action.

Ironically, California's early pioneering is part of its trouble. Regulations, well-developed through the years, make it hard for developments to get off the ground. Hal Romanowitz of Oak Creek Energy Systems, a Mojave-based wind developer focused on Tehachapi, describes California as "probably the most difficult state in the country to build in." Nancy Rader of the California Wind Energy Association notes that land is quite expensive in California -- and that while Texas provides property-tax exemptions to people with windmills on their land, California does not.

A big barrier is birds. Whereas Texan officials publicly scoff at avian travails, California developers have been cowed by lawsuits over bird deaths. The technology of 20 years ago -- using small blades that rotated very quickly -- did indeed spell the end for many birds. This January, Alameda County settled a lawsuit with Golden Gate Audubon Society and others concerning bird deaths at Altamont Pass. The wind industry is supposed to cut the number of raptor deaths there in half by the end of 2009. (Golden Gate says that up to 4,700 birds die each year in the Altamont windmills.) Development at Altamont remains basically frozen because of bird issues, though a few hundred megawatts have gone up in nearby Solano County, near the Sacramento River delta -- including several 3-MW turbines that are the largest wind structures in the country.

The wind industry says that technology has improved: turbines nowadays have longer blades, which rotate more slowly than the old types while generating more energy. That is supposedly good news for birds. Also, the California Energy Commission is soon to come out with new (voluntary) guidelines for reducing impacts on birds and bats from wind turbines, which may help clarify matters for wind developers.

But as if birds were not enough, there is the military. Turbines are commonly a few hundred feet high, not only making them a potential hazard for pilots in low-fly zones, but raising concerns about radar interference. Travis Air Force Base in Solano County recently held up a wind project at the last minute over radar issues. In Kern County, which includes Tehachapi, parts of the area were "out of play" for a few years, says Rader, because the military effectively barred anything above 200 feet. And in San Bernardino, there is "a huge amount of good wind land that is just not going to be useable because of military considerations," says Romanowitz.

But the real bottleneck may be lack of transmission capacity -- in particular in Tehachapi, home to the largest undeveloped, onshore wind resource in the state. "Basically since 1986 there has been no additional transmission capacity" in Tehachapi, with the exception of a private transmission line built some 15 years ago, says Romanowitz.

The good news is that California may be poised for a comeback. The state is certainly at the forefront of pushing renewable energy; 20 percent of California's retail electricity is supposed to come from renewables by 2010.

Transmission shortages will soon ease, wind advocates hope. "California is now on a roll to do significant new transmission, significant new generation," says Romanowitz. His company is committed to the Tehachapi region, where a project to build more than 4,000 MW of additional transmission capacity is in the works. In theory, it should start coming online in stages, starting next year. But the approval process -- notoriously protracted in California -- is still under way. Nonetheless, Rader says that 15,000 MW of new wind projects are currently planned in California -- more than six times the current capacity. She believes that wind could supply 20 percent of California's energy needs by 2020 -- up from less than 2 percent today.

That sounds like the stuff of dreams. A more realistic goal may be catching Texas, whose cowboy wind developers may stumble over transmission problems themselves.

Is Organic Fast Food a Total Whopper?

The succulent wares of Whole Foods' enormous flagship store in Austin are always tempting, but especially so during a harried lunch hour. Everything in the vast prepared-food section looks irresistible. The salad bar features a mountain of fresh, organic toppings. Pricing is mostly by weight, so one can escape with a cup of splendid, coconutty split-pea soup and a small salad for less than $6. For those who have the time, dozens of tables are available for sit-down dining.

As the $14 billion organic food industry gathers steam, the concept of healthy fast food is spreading. While Whole Foods is in the vanguard, others are catching up. More and more restaurants are tapping into Americans' desire to eat quickly, and realizing that fast food can involve much healthier stuff than a Whopper and fries.

Austin, never shy about its green tendencies, is also home to drive-through salad bars and a pair of tasty restaurants called Mr. Natural, which offer wholesome Mexican food and baked goods. In other cities, organic pizza and burgers -- which are relatively easy to make -- are becoming a staple.

Some big chains are scrambling to get a share of this niche. Chipotle, a fast-expanding burrito company that went public earlier this year, boasts that about 20 percent of its beans are organic -- and "next year I imagine that percentage will be higher," says Steve Ells, the chief executive. The pork, too, is sustainably raised and hormone-free. Best of all, customers can watch their food being prepared -- the onions and peppers being chopped up, and the chicken readied on an open grill. In fact, Ells bristles at being lumped in with other, more traditional fast food -- despite the fact that much of his chain's success is due to support from McDonald's. "Just because it's fast doesn't mean it has to be a typical fast-food experience," he argues.

That philosophy is shared by plenty of start-ups. O'Naturals, a New England chain that currently has two restaurants each in Maine and Massachusetts, notes that one-third of its food is organic. There are organic roast-beef sandwiches, organic hummus, and organic greens for salads, not to mention bottled smoothies to wash everything down. Gary Hirshberg, who cofounded Stonyfield Yogurt and dreamed up O'Naturals while shuttling his children between soccer games, is now busy extending the franchise. On the West Coast, the Organic To Go chain touts everything from ham and cheese to veggie salads, with 70 percent of its ingredients typically being organic.

Several of Organic To Go's dining spots are on college campuses, many of which are offering more local and healthy fare in response to student demand. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the recently opened Piazanos "grab n' go" café peddles natural and organic food. Vanderbilt University just opened a 900-square-foot convenience store called Nectar that does organic. The Otter Bay Café at California State University at Monterey Bay offers organic salads and fruits.

Then there are ballparks. Some bold entrepreneurs, Dakota Beef Company and Delaware North Companies Sportservice, have begun selling organic bratwurst and hot dogs at baseball stadiums in San Diego, Cleveland, and even Detroit, which is currently cohosting the World Series. But executives at both companies admit to challenges.

For one thing, there's fan awareness. "You've got to really ask yourself, when sitting in a stadium drinking beer, are you going to care whether your hot dog is organic or not?" says Scott Lively of Dakota Beef. And Rolf Baumann, executive chef for Delaware North, says that often ballparks even avoid the organic label "because an organic hot dog doesn't sound too appetizing."

Despite the disinterest from sports fans, those fronting the fast-food wave say organic diners are not just yoga types. At O'Naturals, there are seniors wanting to stay fit as well as health-conscious mothers and professionals in a hurry. Chipotle caters to businesspeople at the lunch hour, as does Whole Foods. And this is no coastal trend: Jason Brown, head of Organic To Go, anticipates expanding into at least one Midwestern city by the year's end, and Chipotle is based in Denver.

So the outlook looks good. Still, challenges abound. First, there are relatively few organic growers, and supply is seasonal. Organic food can be hard to certify, and certification itself is a notoriously hot topic. Some in the restaurant industry are worried that Wal-Mart's recent entry into the organic market will disrupt supply or reduce the quality of available ingredients. Also, because organic food lacks artificial preservatives, finding the right recipe can be a challenge. Lively says Dakota Beef spent a year coming up with a tasty-enough hot dog, with the use of organic garlic and "a good organic beet juice to make it a little more red." The company says its hot dogs have a 41-day shelf life, and are made only after a customer order is received.

Besides tinkering with recipes, the process can also be slowed by high prices. At O'Naturals, the Wrangler sandwich -- organic roast beef, Swiss cheese, rosemary onions, organic lettuce, and tomato on flatbread -- costs twice as much as a Big Mac. But as farms expand their organic capacity and the supply chain gets more reliable, high prices may come down.

Perhaps the definitive word comes from the conventional fast-food chains. McDonald's has not only begun swapping milk and fruit for the soda and fries in its Happy Meals, it also now offers Newman's Own organic coffee to customers in New England and New York. With pressure on the burger chains to cut calories and add healthier options to their menus -- and boost their bottom lines with premium products -- it could be only a matter of time before the other heavy hitters start offering organic dishes of their own.

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