Winds of fortune sweep West Texas

Source: Simone Sebastian • Houston Chronicle • Posted: Tuesday, March 6, 2012

BP's latest wind farm, 30 miles east of Fort Stockton, has 60 turbines and is called Sherbino 2. West Texas is a leading area for green energy production. Photo: Michael Paulsen / © 2012 Houston Chronicle

BP’s latest wind farm, 30 miles east of Fort Stockton, has 60 turbines and is called Sherbino 2. West Texas is a leading area for green energy production.

Photo: Michael Paulsen / © 2012 Houston Chronicle

PECOS COUNTY – Every workday before sunrise, 10 BP workers gather on a West Texas sheep farm for morning calisthenics.

They need loose limbs to manage BP’s 22,000 acres in the oil-rich Permian Basin, where temperatures can soar beyond 110 degrees. The oil giant leases the land from struggling farmers to expand its reach in the energy world.

But you won’t find any oil wells or drilling rigs here.

BP and other energy companies are funneling millions into building and operating wind farms in West Texas, helping to transform oil country into one of the nation’s leading hubs for green energy production.

Skylines dominated by nodding pump jacks are increasingly spotted with spinning turbines. Economies tied to the ebb and flow of commodity prices are finding stability in supplying the power grid.

“We’ve been through lots of booms and busts with the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas areas deplete over time,” said Doug May, economic development director for Pecos County in West Texas. “The wind resource here is sustainable. We look at these wind farms as a long-term investment in the future of Pecos County.”

Recent energy analyses have forecast that renewable fuels – including wind, solar and biofuels – will be the world’s fastest growing energy source in coming decades. BP’s own outlook predicts that the country’s renewable energy production will surge 252 percent over the next 20 years.

Wind will lead the pack, forecasts indicate. Wind farms have proliferated across the U.S. over the last decade. Now they generate about 3 percent of the nation’s electricity and about 7 percent of the state’s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Association.

A mix of sources

That’s an incentive for corporations built in the oil patch to launch businesses invested in wind farms, said John Graham, president of BP’s wind energy division.

“If you look at the energy growth and what the world needs, renewables are the fastest-growing piece of that,” Graham said. “If you want to be exposed to a growing part of the energy mix, then renewables make sense for a company like ours.”

Since it launched in 2005, BP’s wind division has built an average of three turbines a week. Texas has become home to one of every three.

In addition to BP, West Texas has attracted wind farms built by NextEra Energy Resources and American Electric Power.

AEP was among the pioneers of West Texas wind farms. The Columbus, Ohio-based power company built a 100-turbine site in Trent in 2001 and also that year acquired a second 107- turbine farm in Iraan.

“West Texas was very suitable for large-scale wind farms – wide open spaces and plenty of land,” AEP spokesman Pat Hemlepp said. “There were fewer siting headaches than other places in the country.”

‘Texas has good wind’

In addition to the land resources, West Texas has become a favorite location for wind energy producers for the same reason it did for fossil fuels – an attractive regulatory environment and a plenty of fuel. Texas now generates about 10 gigawatts of wind energy, more than all but five countries in the world, said Peter Kelley, spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association.

“It fundamentally comes down to where’s the energy,” Graham said. “Texas has good wind,”

BP spent a total of $1 billion building its four Texas wind farms. Its most recent one, called Sherbino 2, became fully operational in December. Its 60 turbines operate on an area about half the size of Washington, D.C., 30 miles east of Fort Stockton.

They rise taller than a Boeing 747 standing on its tail. Each weighs more than 10 large elephants. And the rotors’ diameters sweep the length of a football field.

Sherbino 2 generates about 150 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 45,000 homes, according to BP.

The company leases the acreage from 19 landowners, including DA Harral, who was trying to rebuild his family’s sheep and cattle ranch after fires killed much of its livestock and damaged his parents’ home.

Harral says the wind business is helping not only his family business, but the entire Pecos County economy.

In addition to providing income to ranchers who lease their land, the wind farms pay county taxes or fees based on their value, providing a more diversified revenue stream for a community largely bound to petroleum.

“It’s ironic that the oil industry that built the Texas economy is coming back and investing in the renewable industry,” Harral said. “Sooner or later, the oil and gas reserves will dwindle down. The chance that we are having to switch from an oil tax base to renewables is a blessing.”

Financial obstacles

But transmission and financial challenges are threatening to stifle the Texas wind boom. West Texas wind farms are at the end of the state’s main grid, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. The Public Utility Commission of Texas has been working on plans to build a more robust network of power lines to bring more wind-generated power to major cities.

But those lines are still two years and nearly $7 billion away.

Meanwhile, the federal tax credit that gives wind power generators 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of energy produced is slated to expire at year’s end without legislative approval for a renewal.

“If Congress chooses not to renew, there is no hope for the wind industry next year,” Graham said of the tax credit. “Without it, U.S. wind projects aren’t viable.

BP has joined the pack of wind executives fighting to keep the production tax credit for renewable energy. Graham said he has traveled to Washington five times since October.

The fledgling wind industry isn’t the only loser, Kelley said. He noted that a quarter of the nation’s wind energy is generated in Texas. Building the power lines and maintaining the financial incentives are necessary to keep the state’s wind boom going.

“You could double the amount of wind coming out of West Texas. That’s a lot of economic development that could be lost,” he said. “It has really changed the economies of a lot of communities out there.”