Signs of this new “wind rush” are everywhere near Sweetwater — from the ubiquitous turbines, to the cover of the local phone book that features a galloping horse and a wind turbine, to the local newspaper that promotes wind turbines as part of its logo, to the corporate identity of Sweetwater town itself.
“We have people out here who have been able to save their farm or ranch because of the wind income”, says local lawyer Faith Feaster.
By Sarah Azau, blog.ewea.org/
The wind star state
The state of Texas has more installed wind energy capacity than any EU country except Germany and Spain. Chris Rose travelled to the city of Sweetwater to fi nd out more.
When Jim Wilks looks out on the horizon of his family ranch, he sees the same countryside he witnessed when he was a six-year-old boy taking part in his fi rst cattle round-up. But in addition to the mesas, the wide-open spaces and the deer Wilks, now 73, also sees the wind turbines that grace property belonging to him and his neighbours.
“I’m happy to look at them because of the cheques,” Wilks said, adding land belonging to him and four other ranchers became the region’s first wind farm in 1999. Consisting of 100×1.5 MW wind turbines, the Trent Wind Farm owned by American Electric Power was the precursor of a trend that has transformed Sweetwater — located on rolling flatlands about 300 kilometres west of Dallas — from a dying community to one facing a brighter future.
It is representative of an amazing success story that wind power has enjoyed in parts of Texas, where seemingly endless wind turbines turn wind into electricity and money. Indeed, Texas has for several years far outpaced all other American states in its amount of installed wind power. The American Wind Energy Association notes that at the end of 2009, Texas had 9,410 MW of installed capacity, followed by Iowa with 3,670 MW, California (2,794 MW), Washington (1,980 MW) and Minnesota (1,809 MW).
Texas has far more installed capacity than any of the EU27 nations except Germany, which had 25,777 MW at the end of 2009, and Spain with 19,149 MW.
Signs of this new “wind rush” are everywhere — from the ubiquitous wind turbines, to the cover of the local phone book that features a galloping horse and a turbine, to the local newspaper that promotes wind turbines as part of its logo, to the corporate identity of Sweetwater town itself.
A lawyer who keeps about 65 cows, Wilks says he can not see any negative benefits to wind power, which makes both landowners and local tax districts wealthier. Wilks remembers when the wind company first approached him with the idea of paying him money for a 25-year lease to use part of his property for wind turbines.
“I thought it would be a wonderful idea if we could lease the rocks and the wind,” he said. “I just don’t see any downside to it. It’s made
some people out here some money. “I’m sure the town is better off with wind power than without it “, he added. “We have three new hotels here we wouldn’t have without the wind and we’ve got another restaurant or two we wouldn’t have without the wind.
Wind energy’s kiss of life
Ken Becker, executive director of the Sweetwater Enterprise for Economic Development, agrees with Wilks. Becker says the fi ve counties surrounding Sweetwater, which has a population of 11,415 people, contributed 11% of the 35,159 MW of wind capacity in the US by the end of 2009. All of Texas, he said, contributed 27% of the national MW total.
“We’re fortunate as we are a diverse community but now we [also] have the wind; it’s really come in and taken hold and is doing quite well,” Becker said.
Asked why, Becker said that in 1999 the state de-regulated the power industry and opened it up to competition, there was an under-utilised transmission line running all the way to the huge population centre of Dallas-Fort Worth, there were wide open spaces, farmers and ranchers were open to leasing their land, and there were dependable levels of wind.
A catalyst for wind power was the state’s 1999 Renewable Portfolio Standard, which required energy companies to include in their portfolios the development or purchase of a certain percentage of wind power and other renewables energies. Unfortunately, said Becker, as more wind power companies began erecting wind turbines in west Texas, the under-utilised transmission line became overutilised to the point that wind power now can’t get on about 20% of the time.
However, Texas has committed to spending about $5 billion (€3.6 bn) on almost doubling its transmission capacity to 18,500 MW and the first phase of the expansion should be completed by late 2011. Most of that new transmission capacity is already earmarked for wind power.
Greg Wortham, mayor of Sweetwater and the executive director of the Texas Wind Energy Clearinghouse, is also an enthusiastic cheerleader for the growing wind sector.
Wortham estimated there are about 10,000 jobs in Texas related to the wind industry, including lawyers, steel workers, truck drivers and port workers. Those are well-paying jobs. “They are paying twice the taxes per capita we used to have,” Wortham said, adding recent studies indicate total employment related to the wind power sector is now equal to the aviation and computer industries in Texas.
Wind power in Texas has benefited from a stream-lined state regulatory structure that allows for reasonably fast decision making, he said, adding consistent federal policies for production incentives for renewable energies has also helped. “Wind is a future,” he said. “It’s an energy future, it’s a global future.”
Trying to transmit
Patrick Woodson, the development manager for owner E.ON Climate & Renewables, which has 11 wind farms in Texas with installed capacity of close to 1,800 MW, said one of the most pressing problems for the continued growth of wind power in Texas is increasing transmission capacity.
“The transmission situation is the most pressing problem,” he said, adding that challenge should cease in the next few years once the
transmission capacity is roughly doubled from the near 10,000 MW that exists today. “I think Texas will remain a vibrant market for wind power.”
Asked why wind power has done so well in Texas is such a short period of time, Woodson said the state has a very good regulatory market for wind, it has lots of available land, and the ranchers and farmers are already used to using their land for a variety of purposes such as oil and gas. “They have already had multiple exposures to their property.”
Woodson was also asked if there are any lessons Europe’s policy makers and the wind power sector can learn from the Texas experience. “The most compelling part of the Texas wind story is if you create an environment where the market can proceed . . . you can move very quickly.”
Tatiana Rodriguez, the 26-year-old managing editor of the daily Sweetwater Reporter, has lived in the town all her life and witnessed a lot of improvements since wind power companies began arriving. “I think it’s great,” Rodriguez said. “It’s definitely boosted the economy around here.”
Most of the local residents are in favour of wind power because it is emissions-free and it has brought a lot of business to Sweetwater, she said, adding some people now call the town the “clean energy capital of the world.”
Acknowledging Sweetwater’s boarded-up shops and decaying buildings represent a declining economy, Rodriguez said she feels the recent infusion of wind power money is helping to build the town up again. As an example, she said one local man has just started his own business repairing wind turbines, and the nearby Texas State Technical College has been offering a wind power technician course for the past three years.
John Kirgan, an antique dealer who’s also lived in Sweetwater all his life, had watched his town stall and fade until, in the past 10 years, it began to experience a new lease on life with the growing wind power sector.
“When the windmills came in, they generated a lot of money in town,” Kirgan, 65, said. “The money they made in Sweetwater has to have made a difference.” Faith Feaster is a local lawyer who helps landowners negotiate leases with wind power companies for the use of their land.
Feaster said the wind energy sector has given landowners and the community a “huge economic boost” that has been much appreciated since the oil and gas industry began drying up. She said that in 2003 Nolan County, which Sweetwater is a part of, was described as the “fastest declining community in Texas; population and economic growth.” But then the wind power companies began arriving. Feaster said landowners can expect to be paid between $6,000 and $10,000 (€4,400 to €7,300) per wind turbine per year depending on the electricity produced and transmitted. Most of the leases are for a minimum 25 years.
“We have people out here who have been able to save their farm or ranch because of the wind income,” she said. “Most of our clients are thrilled.” She said one of the clients of the law firm she works for, Westel & Carmichael, has 80 wind turbines on his property and is getting set to have an additional 80 turbines added.
A paper prepared by Feaster’s law fi rm for the 2010 Wind, Solar and Renewables Institute in February in Austin highlighted some of the recent history facing the exploding wind power sector in Texas. “The landscape of west Texas has changed signifi cantly in the past decade,” the paper noted.
“The exponential growth of the wind industry in the area has evoked vivid memories of the oil booms during the 1950s and early 1980s.” The paper added that, like in any other boom, speculation was rampant and landowners had to decide who to trust. It also said the west Texas area was attractive to wind developers because there was adequate wind capacity, close proximity to high voltage transmission lines, many wide open spaces, and it was reasonably close to a major centre of consumption, Dallas-Fort Worth.
“In the years between 2002 and 2006 Sweetwater evolved from being known as the home of the world’s largest rattlesnake roundup to being the wind energy capital of the world with two of the world’s largest wind farms,” the paper said.
Welcome to Roscoe, the biggest wind farm of them all
First time visitors to the fl at farmland, rolling hills and rocky terrain surrounding this sleepy 120-year-old town can be forgiven for thinking that not much is here besides blistering sun, cattle and snakes. And yet Roscoe, with a population of just 1,378 people at the beginning of this decade, boasts an astonishing international record — the largest onshore wind farm in the world. “We’re proud we have the title for now,” said Patrick Woodson, the development manager for owner E.ON Climate & Renewables.
Forming the Roscoe wind complex, a 781.5 MW facility that E.ON estimates is worth about $1.5 billion (€1.09 bn), are a total of 627 turbines sprawling over a 32 by 13 kilometre chunk of semi-arid land that also produces wheat and cotton. The amount of emissions-free electricity created by the complex — located about 60 kilometres southwest of Abilene — is said to be capable of powering 235,000 average American homes and displacing approximately 520,300 tonnes of C02 emissions per year.
Woodson said E.ON — described as the world’s largest investor-owned utility — bought the complex assembled over four different sites from developer Airtricity towards the end of 2007. He said about 1,400 workers were employed during construction, which began in the spring of 2007 and ended in July 2009. E.ON currently has about 15 full-time employees on site while another 45 maintenance workers represent the three companies that manufactured wind turbines used at the complex.
Wind speed, voltage, current and other aspects of the generation process at the wind farm complex can be monitored both onsite and at E.ON’s control centre 365 kilometres southeast in Austin, Texas. The North American headquarters for E.ON, which has 10 other wind farms in Texas and one each in New York and Pennsylvania, is in Chicago. It is a subsidiary of E.ON of Dusseldorf, Germany.
Each of the four wind farms in the Roscoe complex have a substation and they all connect at E.ON’s Kiowa substation. From there, the power is transferred onto the state’s ONCOR transmission line at the adjacent Tonkawa substation. The four facilities include the Roscoe wind farm, which has 209 1 MW Mitsubishi wind turbines, the Champion wind farm, which has 55 Siemens machines of 2.3 MW each, the Pyron wind farm, which uses 166 GE 1.5 MW wind turbines, and the Inadale wind farm, which has 197 Mitsubishi 1 MW machines.
Woodson said all wind farms in west Texas have access to the state grid only 15% to 20% of the time because of inadequate transmission capacity. He added, however, that this should change once a doubling of state transmission capacity in the windy area is completed by the end of 2013.
Robin Ham, E.ON’s site supervisor for the Champion and Pyron wind farms, worked in the oil and gas industry before he became interested in the wind power sector about a decade ago. Ham, who has a science degree, said wind power initially interested him because of its ability to help lower US dependence on foreign oil and because it can also mitigate climate change caused by burning fossil fuels.
“I was thinking this will be something that’s going to be the future,” Ham said, adding both his son and son-in-law now also work in the wind power sector. “I think it’s going to be a good future for wind power.”
A primer on Texas
• Texas is known as the Lone Star State and its capital is Austin.
• With close to 25 million people, Texas borders Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Mexico.
• Texas is the second largest state in the US — it covers 678,054 km2, making it slightly larger than France — and its elevation ranges from sea level at the Gulf of Mexico to 2,667 metres at Guadalupe Peak.
• An independent nation from 1836 to 1845, Texas is a leader in cattle, agricultural products, petrochemicals, energy, computers and electronics, aerospace, and biomedical sciences.
• In terms of wind energy, Texas remained the leading US state with more than 9,400 MW of total installed capacity at the end of 2009.
• During 2009, work was completed on the world’s largest wind farm near Roscoe, Texas, with an installed capacity of 781.5 megawatts (MW), generating enough electricity to power more than 230,000 homes.
By Chris Rose,www.ewea.org/fileadmin/emag/winddirections/2010-11/