Texas Electric Cooperative – Renewable Texas

August 9th, 2004  |  Published in Articles

By Soll Sussman; Staff Writer
Location of Article – Texas Electric Cooperative
Url of Article – Texas Co-Op Power
Date – August, 2004

It’s hard to decide which is more remarkable in McCamey, the new “wind energy capital of Texas”—the number of mesas already topped by hundreds of whirring wind turbines or the number of mesas yet to be developed.

If you can see this much power and potential within range of McCamey, one small West Texas town, how much wind and other forms of renewable energy could be tapped throughout the state?

Since 1998, in three counties within 20 miles of McCamey in the heart of the Permian Basin, developers have built five wind farms with approximately 800 turbines capable of producing about 860 megawatts (MW) of electricity—enough to power a quarter-million homes.

“This is our second industry in 75 years,” said Sherry Phillips, mayor of the town of 1,800 people. “It’s been oil field, period.” From the time of the oil bust in the 1980s to the recent wind boom, she said, “We nearly bled to death, is what we did.”

Now she can talk enthusiastically about how a small motel may be built in McCamey, so visitors will no longer need to stay up the road in Crane or 20 miles to the east in Rankin, and how the wind companies have pro- vided jobs for young people.

Although access to the wind farms usually is restricted, the town has talked about buying a van to drive tourists to the most impressive vistas, or locating a visitors’ center on a convenient ridge with a view.

From a distance, the wind farms are forests of toothpicks sticking up from the mesas. Closer up, they are almost otherworldly—an army of monolithic metal giants with three-pronged revolving blades. Stand immediately below one of the gargantuan towers and you can see why it’s mostly young people who have the maintenance jobs, climbing up the interior of the 200-foot columns to the tops. They work in two-person crews. The first climbs up, lets the winch down to haul up the tools, then the second one climbs up so they can work together on the computer-controlled turbine and its 97-foot blades.

Many of the 242 wind turbines on Woodward Mountain are clearly visible—bigger than a child’s pinwheel but not close enough to make out the details—from the tiled office and sun- room of Eddie Mae and Louis Woodward’s ranch home. The sound drifts over, especially at times when wind speed changes, but at this distance it’s hard to make out the swoosh of the blades over the sound of the normal West Texas wind.

“It’s not an obnoxious sound—espe- cially if you get a little royalty off of it,” said Louis Woodward, who describes his age as being in the “very low 80s.”

“I haven’t found it a disadvantage,” Eddie Mae agreed. “The livestock adjust to it—the deer and the wildlife.”

There are some public concerns, however, about wind turbines being somewhat dangerous for birds and bats. Bats seem unable to detect huge struc- tures in their flight path.

By the mid-1990s, wind developers were checking out the area looking for potential sites. “Walt Hornaday [from Cielo Wind Power] came to this area and saw the flat-top mesa and the road coming down here,” Louis said. “We got serious and negotiated for quite awhile.”

“It felt like he was one of my kids, he was here so much,” Eddie Mae said.

The Renewable Portfolio Standard, signed into law by then-Governor George W. Bush, clinched it for wind energy to become part of the West Texas landscape. Mandating that Texas add 2,880 MW of renewable energy by 2009, it was considered one of the country’s boldest steps to diversify energy sources. Nearly 20 percent of all the new wind power in the world came from Texas in 2001, and the 912 MW of wind generation capacity installed that year was more than had been installed in the entire country in any previous year.

By 2002, wind energy produced $13.2 million in tax revenue for schools and counties, while Texas landowners hosting the sites received about $2.5 million in wind royalty income.

It wasn’t good topography alone that made the McCamey area so attractive. As Hornaday tells it, it was the transmis- sion lines. In the days of the oil boom, McCamey had a refinery and a thriving population exceeding 10,000. Long after the refinery burned down and the citizens headed out, the network of electric lines remained. “They actually had a pretty good transmission infrastructure,” he said.

Getting wind power from the rural areas where it originates to the urban areas where it’s most in demand presents challenges. The issue has caused enough debate to prompt one joke that the easiest solution to Texas’ transmission problems would be to simply move Dallas to
Midland.

Limited transmission infrastructure is just one of the issues slowing wind power development since the 2001 boom year. A federal Production Tax Credit for wind, making it considerably more viable to produce, expired, and its eagerly expected renewal has been caught up in the Congressional wrangling over the national energy bill.

At Cielo’s Austin headquarters, Hornaday, 36, showed off the corner room with a Capitol view and a foosball table ready for celebration after each new project. “This room doesn’t see as much action as it used to,” he said. Despite layoffs of some Cielo staff and the delay in starting new projects, Hornaday and many others in the renewable energy industry believe that Texas’ enormous potential makes more development inevitable. Although most of the turbines in the current crop of West Texas wind farms range from 1.3 to 2 MW each, a 3 MW experimental turbine is firmly planted on King Mountain near McCamey.

“The wind power resource will never be capped,” Hornaday said. “There will always be potential.” Cielo’s survey of Carson County in the Panhandle found viable locations that could handle 20,000 MW of wind production.