The Lubbock Avalanche Journal – Chasing after the wind

March 19th, 2001  |  Published in Articles

By Sebastian Kitchen
Location of Article – The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Original Article URL – Chasing after the wind
Date – Monday, March 19, 2001

In the dusty reaches of West Texas, the blustery winds are more often a source of irritation than affection. But electric companies say harnessing this powerful force of nature will give the South Plains new energy options.

The trademark West Texas winds could spin Lubbock into the wind power market by the end of the year.

With the rising cost of natural gas, wind energy is becoming more attractive and realistic to power companies everywhere, including West Texas.

Customers of Southwestern Public Service soon could be powered by a 4,000-acre wind ranch populated by 80 wind-turbine generators, each standing 226 feet tall with a combined production of 80 megawatts of energy. The ranch will generate enough power to suit the needs of more than 26,000 homes.

SPS has an agreement to purchase energy produced at wind farms in the region, including White Deer and Texico, N.M.

Lubbock Power & Light has a target of constructing a wind generation project in Lubbock within the next 18 months.

”Right now, with gas prices as high as they are, economics of those sources look really good,” LP&L President Paul Thompson said last week. ”This winter, you could have generated energy cheaper with wind than gas.”

Other energy producers are in the process of building wind power facilities in West Texas, including one in Iraan, which is located 78 miles south of Midland.

Bill Crenshaw, an SPS spokesman, said plans are in the works for a second ranch in New Mexico, close to either Clovis or Carlsbad. Xcel Energy, which owns SPS, expects to be using 500 megawatts of wind generation by the end of the year, he said.

If the Llano Estacado Wind Ranch at White Deer is completed by the end of the year, wind energy will be available to customers connected to the SPS system. The wind ranch will be the largest in a region north of the Permian Basin reaching into Wyoming.

Although wind power is not necessarily cheaper than other energy sources, including natural gas and coal, it is less expensive when you factor in environmental and social costs, said Ken Starcher, assistant director of the Alternative Energy Institute at West Texas A&M.

According to polls in SPS’ service area, customers are interested in renewable energy even if the price is a little higher, Starcher said.

”There is no wasted water, no greenhouse gases and no pollutants,” he said.

When compared to natural gas- and coal-fired plants, the initial cost of a wind ranch is significantly higher for each megawatt of energy produced, Starcher said.

However, the initial cost of the wind ranch contains the source of the power ­ the wind ­ and every ”other imaginable cost,” Starcher said. With the other plants, the natural gas and coal have to be restocked constantly.

”Wind power is sustainable ­ as long as the sun shines, wind power will be available,” Starcher said.

Also, when natural gas prices rise above a certain level, wind energy is cheaper to produce, Starcher said.

Although more environmentally friendly than its counterparts, it is unlikely that wind power ever will be the sole source of region’s power, Starcher said.

”Wind has a downside,” Starcher said. ”It is intermittent. It doesn’t blow all the time.

”Statistically, it is not as reliable as a conventional power plant. You cannot turn it on and off. You have to wait for wind to blow before energy is saved.”

He suggests ”stretching resources” and depending on conventional energy sources when the wind is not blowing.

”Wind power is never going to stand on its own,” Starcher said. ”It can certainly be considered in the energy mix ­ little bit from coal, wind, natural gases. It is conservation. If you don’t use it (fossil fuel), you don’t have to pay for it.”

Federal and state energy bills have helped push the use of alternative energy.

Texas Senate Bill 7, passed in 1999, mandates that the state have 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2009. The federal government’s Wind Powering America initiative is attempting to propel wind energy to 5 percent of the country’s electricity production by 2020.

Wind turbines have generated energy in Lubbock before. Tall white turbines once turned near 19th Street, just inside Loop 289.

St. John Neumann Catholic Church used the turbines for power. The power of those turbines, 25 kilowatts each, was diminutive compared to those of the large generators now used on the wind ranches, said Coy Harris, executive director of the American Wind Power Center in Lubbock.

”I thought that might be the start of more of those going up for individuals,” Harris said. ”It didn’t work out. It was too expensive.

”The whole industry has gone toward wind turbines that are big. The cost to install per kilowatt dropped.”

Harris said he expects to see wind turbines in Lubbock County in the next five to 10 years.

”It is really dependent on fossil fuel prices,” he said. ”It is really hard to predict what those might be. If the cost of natural gas continues to remain high ­ I certainly think you will see wind farms around Lubbock in the next five years.”

Wind farms could be an alternative source of revenue for area farmers and ranchers, Harris said. They can contract with developers to build wind turbines on their land while they continue to farm and ranch.

”In Colorado, ranchers expect to make big bucks off wind,” Harris said. ”They are still able to ranch. They might find oil, but they have got wind. Instead of selling oil rights, they would sell wind rights. They can replace oil wells with a wind ranch.”

Estimates vary, but experts say Texas could double, triple or even quadruple its current electricity production ”if you cover all the available land conservatively” with wind turbines, Starcher said.

Sebastian Kitchen can be contacted at 766-8716