Texas Tech University Press

A New Book About a Little-Known West Texas Power Plant is Important but Dense

“The West Texas Power Plant that Saved the World” makes a thoughtful but tedious case that we can harness capitalism to stem climate change.

by

In 2014, in far-flung West Texas, a group of energy developers floored industry insiders: They began operation of a sprawling solar farm in the heart of the Permian Basin, one of the world’s most productive oil fields. Named the Barilla Solar Project, the facility had the capacity to generate 30 megawatts of power—enough to supply nearly 5,000 homes—from thousands of solar panels arranged in symmetrical, gleaming lines. According to Andy Bowman, author of The West Texas Power Plant that Saved the World, the Barilla solar plant represents one of the most important chapters in the story of renewable energy—both here and abroad.

The Barilla plant is indeed an impressive sight. I first saw it last year when I was in Pecos County reporting on abandoned oil wells that had contaminated local water sources and poisoned the air with methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The irony was nearly palpable: In this arid desert, where the relics of the Texas’ petroleum industry were polluting the landscape, renewable energy had gained a foothold. Like Bowman, I had wondered what the development meant for the future of energy generation in the Lone Star State. If the title of Bowman’s book is to be believed, the answer lies with the Barilla plant, which can save the world from the impending threat of climate change, driven by the vagaries of capitalism.

Bowman shows glimpses of terrific writing. Immediately he draws the reader in with a boyhood story of his early life in Galveston: On the night of a hurricane, he and a friend went to explore. “Powerful sheets of rain bore down across the neighborhood, brightened occasionally like daylight by lightning spidering across the sky,” he writes. Bowman also tells of the hurricane that blasted Galveston in 1900, which is still regarded as the deadliest natural disaster to ever hit the United States, and then of the seawall that was to be the city’s saving grace. Even in the book’s early pages, it’s clear that Bowman has a unique talent for relating past events in a compelling, relatable and colorful way.

He does not, however, have the same talent for analysis of climate change, energy generation in Texas, or the tenets of capitalism; ideas upon which this book hinges. Power Plant quickly devolves into a tedious slog of numbers, statistics and academic language that culminate in a snooze fest.

Bowman’s thesis—and thesis is the most apt term for it, unfortunately—is that capitalism causes climate change, but that it may also be our saving grace. We have leaned on fossil fuels to transport goods, to power our homes and businesses cheaply, and to fill corporate bank accounts since the Industrial Age. Meanwhile, renewable power options such as solar and wind historically have been less competitive on the free market, so their construction was hampered despite the environmental good they stood to deliver. The Barilla project is unique in that it harnessed the free market to become reality. According to Bowman, Barilla shows that renewables can be competitive in the nation’s capitalist structure. It’s an intriguing idea, but the premise doesn’t carry the entire book.

Bowman assumes that free market capitalism will continue to be the framework for the construction of new energy projects. There are alternatives to this, such as government policy and subsidies, that could incentivize renewables over fossil fuels. But Bowman opines that these actions alone will be inadequate. I think a fair number of readers may take issue with the premise itself: Why predicate the future of power generation on a philosophy that has driven so much destruction? Instead of looking purely at a renewable power plant’s investment value, why not look at the environmental or social value it could realize? And are we simply stuck inside this economic system?

But don’t think for a second that Bowman had an easy task in writing this. It is incredibly hard to relate the gravity of climate change to readers without sinking them into what Bowman calls “pessimistic hopelessness.” Numbers and figures must be employed to discuss such a complex subject matter, but a good story needs a good character, or more than one, preferably. The only character in this book, aside from the writer himself, is a power plant. The end result is a piece that feels more like a textbook than an enthralling summer read.

To be clear, this is not a bad book. Bowman, who spent his career planning and building renewable energy projects across the country, brings a deep knowledge of the subject matter. The depth of his research is admirable. One of the best parts of the book is the foreword written by Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech who is the state’s foremost climate scientist. She has the rare ability to write about climate change in a holistic, compelling way that appropriately relates the magnitude of the problem without sledgehammering readers into a state of despair. Another section that shines is penned by Bowman, which imagines a near future in which the world has finally acted on climate change in a meaningful way. Passenger planes recharge their electric batteries before landing on the tarmac; buildings are sprayed with “solar paint” that provides electricity; in Cleveland, of all places, the 125-story Apple iPower Tower looms above the city, and the Tesla Tube station provides ample public transportation. It’s worth noting, however, that while Bowman sees this future as hopeful, others may view a world that’s fallen deeper into the hands of Big Tech as downright dystopian.

Despite the issues with Power Plant, the book is important: Climate change reporting will only become more crucial as time goes on. Texans are disproportionately subjected to the volatile weather that accompanies climate change. Just this year, nearly the entire state was plunged into an icy darkness as a brutal polar vortex swept the state. The state’s freewheeling, largely unregulated power generation industry that Bowman painstakingly details exacerbated the problem. It’s up for readers to decide whether they agree with Bowman that a free-market approach will actually fix anything. And regardless of which conclusion they arrive at, they may not enjoy the journey it takes to get there.