Driving past Notrees or getting to Interstate 10 through Iraan, wind turbines can be seen stretched across the West Texas plains, their blades spinning in the wind as they collect and store kinetic energy. That energy is then sent to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) grid and distributed among 23 million Texas residents.
Greg Wortham, executive director of Texas Wind Energy Clearinghouse, said compared to natural gas and coal, wind energy makes up on average, 10 percent of the power used by the ERCOT grid, but the amount of wind farms in Texas is enormous.
“Texas is the number six nation all the nations on the planet,” Wortham said. “There’s $20 billion worth of wind energy here. You measure the price of the blades, towers and that’s what’s invested.”
ERCOT numbers show that in 2011, coal and natural gas made up about 40 percent each of the grid’s energy provided with 11.9 percent coming from nuclear energy. Wind was fourth at 8.5 percent.
However, 10 years ago wind represented just 0.83 percent of ERCOT’s energy and through the first four months of 2012, it was 11.6 percent.
The largest wind farm in Texas is the Roscoe Wind Farm, located in Roscoe, and is home to about 627 wind turbines. Wortham said along with the Capricorn Ridge Wind Farm, Sweetwater Wind Farm, Buffalo Gap Wind Farm, and Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, the five largest wind farms in the state are located in West Texas.
“You’re basically in the heart of it,” Wortham said. “You can’t go 300 miles with out seeing one (wind turbine).”
The United States produces more than 20 percent of the world’s wind power and Texas produces the most wind power in the U.S. with a nameplate capacity of 10,648 megawatts. Iowa comes in second at 4,419 megawatts and California produces 4,287, according to American Wind Energy Association numbers.
The Sherbino 2 Wind Farm that sits 30 miles east of Fort Stockton represents the most recent player in the wind energy game, which BP officially opened in February. It contains 90 total turbines, each one is capable of creating 2.5 megawatts of power at any given time.
BP’s Wind Energy Chief Development Officer Larry Folks said during the opening that Pecos County was originally selected because the location produces average annual wind speeds of about eight meters a second, or 15 mph. With higher wind speeds, the better chance the turbines have of producing at their capacity.
Wortham said lots of planning goes into where wind farms are placed and locations are also picked based on accessibility of vehicles and equipment.
“People go out there, look at the mountains and say, ‘That’s the strongest winds’ ” Wortham said. “The challenge, though, is putting them up there.”
During the summer, winds are strongest along the Gulf Coast while the Permian Basin turbines are relied upon more during the fall, Wortham said. Finding wind turbines in metropolitan areas like Houston, San Antonio and Austin are very rare.
“Central and East Texas don’t have many because of the people, population, and trees,” Wortham said. “Obviously, we don’t have a trees problem.”
Wind makes the turbine blades spin, causing the shaft that leads from the hub of the rotor to a generator which turns that energy into electricity. The electricity goes into a generator and is transferred through power lines to the state’s grid.
Robbie Searcy, media communications specialist with ERCOT, said on average, 200 homes can be powered with just one megawatt during peak hours and 500 homes during all other hours.
The electricity brought into the grid is not differentiated between energy made through other sources, and once in the grid, is dispensed to where it is needed, Searcy said.
Wind however, cannot be reliable, and ERCOT Director of Wholesale Market Operations John Dumas. He said plans are made in advance to help pick up any predicted shortfalls of the wind.
“First of all, we have a forecast everyday of what we expect the wind to produce,” Dumas said, distinguishing it as the Load Forecast Demand. “We take the Load Forecast Demand and the wind forecast and how much wind we expect, the and the amount left over is covered by general convention. That is how we serve the load. We also carry reserves that cover any error in those forecasts.”
Much like the oil industry, wind energy also has its booms and busts, with the current direction of the industry unknown.
Instructional Director of Energy Systems at Texas State Technical College Keith Plantier said in the short term, numerous costs exists to start a wind farm and it takes time before investors see a return.
The Texas State Technical College, along with the Texas Wind Energy Institute at Texas Tech University, helps develop career pathways for those looking for a career in the wind energy industry.
“The industry itself needs a long-term energy policy,” Plantier said. “There’s plenty of opportunity for wind.”
Several universities offer degrees related to wind energy studies, but Plantier said most community colleges and universities aren’t synched up in how they teach, which could discourage students from furthering their studies.
Despite the current oil boom, experts don’t expect the wind energy studies or progress to stop anytime soon.
“In the winter, the wind prevents blackouts because pipelines freeze, some of the coal piles freeze and you can’t break up the coal,” Wortham said. “Every power source has advantages and disadvantages. With the wind blowing here, it doesn’t use water, which is a big deal statewide.”
Misconceptions of wind farms are also heavy in the minds of the public, Plantier said, with many people not knowing fact from fiction.
“I think it’s our job to educate the population on the good, the bad and the ugly,” Plantier said. “It’s (wind energy) not perfect, but it plays its role.”
Wortham also said the other energy sources should embrace — not ignore — the fact wind energy is being used as much as it is and could help reduce dependency on foreign oil if all four groups would work together to provide for the county.
“Wind energy is part of that mix,” Wortham said. “It’s not a standalone product and all the companies should say ‘Let’s do the best we can to work together.’ That should be the standard.”
WIND ENERGY BY STATES IN MEGAWATTS:
Source: American Wind Energy Association for Q1 2012.
NATHANIEL MILLER, www.oaoa.com