‘The wild west of wind’: Republicans push Texas as unlikely green energy leader

Source: By Tom Dart, The Guardian • Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The most oil-rich and fracking-friendly of states has found itself with the improbable status of being a national leader in a wind energy boom

Living in New York and Washington, Greg Wortham heard all the grand talk about green energy from liberal politicians. Then he returned to the place where he grew up, a small town that embraced wind power so warmly that within a couple of years of the first turbine turning, it had some of the biggest farms on the planet.

Yet Wortham is not from California, Oregon or New England, but a deeply conservative sector of Texas on the edge of the Permian Basin, one of the most bountiful oil and gas patches in the world.

The welcome sign that greets motorists as they arrive in Sweetwater along Interstate 20, a three-hour drive west of Dallas, is not in the shape of an oil derrick or pumpjack, though: it’s a wind turbine blade bearing the town’s motto, “Life is sweet in Texas”.

For ranchers facing ruin until major international companies planted forests of 300ft-tall turbines among their crops and cattle, the wind boom has provided regular income that has allowed them to maintain their land and keep it in the family.

For Texas, this most Republican-dominated, oil-rich and fracking-friendly of states has found itself with the improbable status of being a national leader in this growing form of renewable energy.

Texas has 11,592 turbines and an installed wind capacity of 20,321 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association: three times as much capacity as the next state, Iowa. (California is third.) For the 12-month period ending in October last year, wind provided 12.68% of Texas’s electricity production – equivalent to powering 5.7 million homes.

Greg Wortham, chief executive officer for the New Amsterdam Global Solutions, in Roscoe, Texas on 8 February 2017.
Greg Wortham, chief executive officer for the New Amsterdam Global Solutions, in Roscoe, Texas on 8 February 2017. Photograph: Katie Hayes Luke for the Guardian

Four of the eleven largest wind farms in the world are in the region around Sweetwater, a friendly, part-historic, part-decrepit town of about 11,000 people that is home to so many serpents that every spring it holds a gory rattlesnake roundup.

The county’s tax base has soared from roughly $400m in 2000 to about $3bn today, as a result of a dramatic investment in wind that began in earnest under the governorships of two stalwart Republicans, George W Bush and Rick Perry.

Texas is just one of the Republican-leaning states that dominate wind energy in the US – the top three producers by percentage of state electricity supply are Iowa, South Dakota and Kansas. Like Texas, these states all voted for Donald Trump, who has made clear his dislike of clean energy such as solar and wind. “To begin with, the whole push for renewable energy is being driven by the wrong motivation, the mistaken belief that global climate change is being caused by carbon emissions,” the president wrote in his 2015 book Crippled America. “ If you don’t buy that – and I don’t – then what we have is really just an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves.”

At a campaign rally in August, Trump added that wind energy “kills all your birds. All your birds, killed. You know, the environmentalists never talk about that”.

But while the president and many Republicans in Congress have been disdainful of renewable energy and dismissive of climate change, support for wind in conservative areas has been quietly noted. In 2015, Congress extended a tax credit for wind production until 2020. With many rural communities feeling the benefits of wind energy, it’s unlikely that Trump would find much backing if he attempted to pull away this support.

“New York City’s one of those regions that wants to be green but doesn’t want to see green,” meaning they want the benefits of green energy without having to look at unattractive wind turbines or solar panels, Wortham said. He was sipping water at a table in a lumber yard turned country music bar in a speck on the map called Roscoe, where big acts can attract crowds greater than the population of 1,300.

Dust danced in through the open door; outside, goods trains barrelled past every few minutes, horns blaring, and a stiff breeze ruffled a couple of flags on a pole outside. In the middle distance, blades swooshed clockwise in a thicket of white wind turbines, as trucks arrived to disgorge their loads at the 24-hour cotton gin.

Roscoe was formerly home to the world’s largest wind farm. It was beautifully, promisingly, sunny: the locals are eying solar panels as the next big thing.

“You don’t want to see power lines, wind turbines and solar panels,” Wortham said.

Wind energy in Sweetwater, Texas.
Wind energy in Sweetwater, Texas. Photograph: Katie Hayes Luke for the Guardian

But in west Texas, already scarred by oil and gas activity, the new infrastructure was mostly welcomed for its potential to help desperate farmers at the mercy of droughts and floods, and the boom-and-bust cycles of the oil industry. And create jobs: according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, wind turbine technician is by far the nation’s fastest-growing occupation.

“It has vast space and people who own the land see the value of using the land,” said Carsten Westergaard, a professor at the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University.

The Sweetwater region has an average wind speed of over 23mph, space, access to infrastructure and an experienced energy workforce, and is close enough to major population centres to make transmission of the electricity economically viable. One negative: the area is at its windiest at night, when electricity demand is lower.

In south Texas, though, the wind blows strongly in the afternoon, around the time when demand peaks. Wind power is set to flourish along the Gulf Coast – though since it is more densely populated, with more tourists and wildlife, objections have been stronger along aesthetic, conservation and quality-of-life grounds.

After leasing their land to an energy company with the means to build a wind farm – an average one might cost $350-500m for 125 turbines – a rancher in Sweetwater can expect to receive about $10,000 per turbine per year; potentially twice that figure for a newer, more powerful machine.

Louis Brooks claims that the cows on his ranch do not mind the wind turbines, saying that they often sleep in the shade of the turbines in the summer.
Louis Brooks claims that the cows on his ranch do not mind the wind turbines, saying that they often sleep in the shade of the turbines in the summer. Photograph: Katie Hayes Luke for the Guardian

“The margin of profitability per acre before the wind turbines was minimal – minimal,” said Johnny Ussery, a 61-year-old rancher whose family traditionally farmed wheat, cattle and cotton. “I’ve talked to many people about it and I truly believe the only way to hang on to the land was to be able to make it profitable.”

Carl Childers, a Roscoe rancher, property developer and retired teacher, has family roots going back more than a hundred years. He has six turbines in his cotton fields and said he has just signed a contract for a battery storage facility on his property. “It was a marriage of love eventually,” he said. “This is a little bit of a guaranteed bonus to help pay the taxes and necessary things.”

Wortham’s eclectic career has encompassed public relations for the now-defunct Houston Oilers American football team and a stint as mayor of Sweetwater. Now he helps energy clients develop business plans.

“Wind came at exactly the right time and it fit the mentality of a lot of the folks that wanted green but in our own mind we’re not a green region,” he said. “A lot of people were environmentalists or they wouldn’t have held land, been stewards of land for a hundred years in the family. So they all cared but they didn’t know how to activate that.”

But in a corrosively partisan political climate, the benefits of clean energy have to be framed carefully. As Perry’s national ambitions grew – he was a Republican presidential hopeful for the 2012 and 2016 elections – he seemed less and less keen to trumpet Texas’s results in a policy area more associated with Democrats.

“You don’t stand up around here and say, ‘yee haw, I’m green!’” said Wortham. “If you’re for environmental you talk about energy security, national security, good business. What we all know and can sort of secret handshake to each other, the ‘we save the earth’ kind of stuff – we can’t say that out loud because it defeats the whole thing.”

The state spent about $7bn on transmission projects under an initiative known as CREZ.

Another key factor in the growth of Texas’ wind industry is that this most independent-minded of states, unlike any other of the lower 48, has its own electric grid, minimising federal influence.

Rod Wetsel, an energy lawyer in Sweetwater, Texas.
Rod Wetsel, an energy lawyer in Sweetwater, Texas. Photograph: Katie Hayes Luke for the Guardian

“Texas is still the wild west of wind, sort of like the old prospecting days,” said Rod Wetsel, a Sweetwater attorney whose great-great grandparents settled in the town in the 1880s. “You can come out here, stick your stake in the ground, go get the leases from the land owners, you have no permitting – there’s no regulatory agency that controls wind, other than the public utility commission, which really just controls the grid system.”

Wetsel is a trim 64-year-old who wears a bow tie and a wristband with the slogan “go green”. His office’s shelves are adorned with high school football memorabilia and a silver model turbine. Ornate saddles stand on each side of his desk, though his usual mode of transport is his BMW.

He advised a local rancher on one of the earliest wind deals, in 1999, and reinvented himself as a wind specialist as demand soared. Now he also teaches wind law at the University of Texas in Austin, where several green energy companies are headquartered.

“Wind is where oil and gas was in Texas in about 1914, 1920. No laws have really yet been created, there’s no regulation, there’s no governmental agencies, it’s just the wild frontier,” Wetsel said. “All of a sudden, Sweetwater’s the wind capital of the world.”

Louis Brooks and his family hold in excess of 18,000 acres – an area larger than Manhattan. The son of a world champion rodeo cowboy, Brooks steered his pick-up truck across his gently undulating land one day last week, sporting a “California Chrome” cap – the name of the now-retired, Kentucky Derby-winning racehorse in which he owns a small stake.

To make ends meet, he has tried cattle, wheat, even a horse insurance business. He was a late convert to turbines; 78 of them now dot his property. “I’m not a big person for change. I’m kind of old-fashioned in a lot of ways,” he said. “I don’t say I love them but I like them a lot. It’s just been a godsend. We’ve been able to take better care of our country.”

Cattle grazed on a mesa a couple of hundred metres away as the wind picked up, creating a soft whistle amid the thrum, thrum, thrum of the rotating blades. “I never thought that wind would pay more than oil,” he said. “That noise they make – it’s kind of like a cash register.”