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A mighty wind

  • Jon Kelly
  • 22 Sep 08, 10:44 AM GMT

Think of Texas and you think of oil. I always did, anyway - Dallas has a lot to answer for. I was slightly disappointed on crossing the state border not to spot any cigar-chomping tycoons in Stetsons and cowboy boots.

What I did see, however, might come as a surprise to those who associate George W Bush's backyard with black gold. The skyline, I noticed, was dotted with wind turbines. This didn't look like JR Ewing country to me.

Contrary to its gas-guzzling reputation, however, the Lone Star State can stake a claim to be wind power capital of America. Some 3% of its electricity already is generated in this way, a figure that is certain to rise as it pushes ahead with a massive programme of expansion.

Robert and Nadene PettyWhat's even more interesting about its status as a powerhouse for green energy is that it has been pioneered not by environmentalists, but by a very Texan energy baron.

Up in Pampa, oil billionaire T Boone Pickens Jnr is spending $10bn building 2,700 wind turbines across 200,000 acres of panhandle. Pickens is a fervent Republican who funded the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign, widely credited with securing Bush's re-election during the 2004 presidential campaign.

But I wanted to visit the real boomtown for wind power in Texas: Sweetwater, a small community of 11,000 which will have over 1,500 turbines spinning around its surrounding countryside by 2009.

I went to see Robert and Nadene Petty, both 67, on the ranch bought by Robert's father in 1928. As well producing cattle, cotton and wheat, their family's 13,000 acres forms part of the Sweetwater wind farm.

They're paid to host 40 turbines on their property, as part of a deal which has helped keep many farms in West Texas in business.

Robert was no touchy-feely eco-warrior but a typical Texan Republican who told me he didn't care for Barack Obama's "liberal Democratic ideas". Pump-jacks bobbed for oil across his land underneath the windmills.

But he was proud that he was doing his bit to save the planet.

"I reckon farmers and ranchers were the first environmentalists," he said. "It's our job to preserve the land."

There had been some local opposition, Nadene admitted, when the first turbines went up in 2006. But almost everyone in the area was now behind them, she said, because they were generating so much cash.

"Plus, our cows love the windmills," she laughed. "They lie down in their shadows in a big long line."

Marina OrtegaI wandered into Sweetwater to see if I could find any opposition to the turbines. Not a single person I encountered had a word to say against them. Had I been back in Scotland, I knew, I would have encountered a very different reaction.

One reason for this might be that wind has brought more than 1,000 much-needed jobs to this area.

I met 22-year-old Marina Ortega, who was studying to be a turbine technician at Texas State Technical College in Sweetwater. She told me that she hoped she had found herself steady employment for life.

"I wanted to take this course because wind power is the future," she said.

"If you're looking for a career that will last you 20, 30 years, this looks a pretty safe bet."

It was starting to make sense to me now.

Greg WorthamBefore I left town, Sweetwater's mayor Greg Wortham - a former New York attorney who returned to Sweetwater to set up the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium - told me that Texans' natural pragmatism had convinced them that renewables were the way forward.

"People in Massachusetts and Vermont talk about green this and green that," he said.

"But when it comes to actually building wind farms, they don't want to spoil their scenery.

"We just like to get things done. Because of the oil, people understand energy around here. If I could vote for T Boone Pickens and Al Gore on the same ticket, I would."

It's not a hook-up I would anticipate any time soon. But it sounds like it would be a winner in Texas.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting Teaxns are in favour of wind power just as the state is famous for its oil rich families (bush). It seems Texans are interested in anything that produces wealth for them and theirs. I guess that attitude needs to be promoted more-making money by renting your land to host wind turbines. Texans are green (money green) the rest of America should take note and copy Texas get some green don't just talk green. We don't want to spoil the view but ruining the planet is OK.

  • Comment number 2.

    Living in West Texas, I own a 5000 acre ranch, drill oil and natural gas wells, and develop wind farms. Texas is full of hard working, practical people who depend on themselves and generally want the government to just stay out of the way.

    We generally do not believe that the global warming trend is primarily man-made, but instead is a naturally occurring cycle every few hundred years. So we are not merely idealists.

    We build wind farms because we are blessed with plenty of remote, open land with rather low population and a generous wind resource. If wind farms were not profitable, they would not be built. Because of this abundance of remote land, we can generally avoid the conflicts between wind development and urban or recreational land.

    As a landowner, my primary goal is to make my land self-supporting so I can pass it on to my children and grand-children. My land has to work to support itself, just as I do. To me, farming, ranching, oil and gas development, and wind farms are just tools to allow me to hold on to the land and support my family.

  • Comment number 3.

    I enjoyed this. Actions, not words.
    God Bless Texas!;-)

  • Comment number 4.

    I completely agree, tusconmike.
    From Missouri, where wind farms are becoming more numerous, let me add my own "God bless Texas!"
    Individual people and communities leading the way :-)

  • Comment number 5.

    Haven driven through Sweetwater about 10 times each year for the last 7 years, the town has changed. It still impresses me the number of wind turbines that go up there and in the area. It makes sense though, the land is somewhat flat to the north, and the wind blows almost non-stop. A road on the south side of town (153 maybe?) gives you a nice view of them and the sheer amount that there are.

    Odd to see BBC reporting from a town like Sweetwater though.

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm really glad you chose somewhere that, while rural, defies that ridiculous old-fashioned stereotype to some degree. It's true that it may be for money, but in the long run, there's no point in taking an action unless somebody gains somehow, and helping a small town survive with energy income and plenty of jobs seems as good a cause as any.

    Much as I love the Dallas area, I do have to point out that it doesn't really have as much scenery to ruin as Vermont and Massachusetts do.

  • Comment number 7.

    That's what I love about capitalism. The Texans have learned risk management.
    On one side, the risk of ruining the scenery is offset on the other by the power and jobs produced.
    Now follow Justin's link to the Scottish reaction. In the good old UK, you'll have people protesting the environmental damage and whining about how much the view just won't look the same, as they drive down to pick up their dole checks all the while complaining that Americans are ruining the planet.

    Actions vs. words.

  • Comment number 8.

    There are plenty of wind farms up in new england. Look in to it

  • Comment number 9.

    When I lived in New England, I supported the Wind Farms. I believe quite a few have been built.

    The dilemma for some was the stretch of off-shore windmills near Cape Cod. Many residents of New England depend upon summer revenue from the resorts along the scenic coasts. There was some concern that the windmills might have an adverse affect upon area revenue.

    Last I heard, the mills were going to be moved so far offshore that only the Yacht Clubs would be bothered by them.

    Glad to hear the mills are cropping up in Texas.

  • Comment number 10.

    Here on Long Island just east of New York City, the wind blows steadily along our shore. Just off our shore a few miles would be an ideal place to set up a wind turbine farm. Unfortunately, some residents worry about their views out over the Atlantic being spoiled, so they get all steamed up whenever offshore wind turbines are suggested. Too bad they haven't visited Denmark to see how elegant the tall wind turbines strung across Copenhagen harbor look.

  • Comment number 11.

    To#Tucsonmike

    A very double AMEN to that! And we need to be using OUR beautiful sunshine. I have been saying this for forty years! GO SOLANA! We also have some wind. Where are our wind turbines? Arizona, wake up!

    To#4Tiptopilsamick and #10Gadfly

    Yes! I think those turbines are beautiful and we should stop waiting for the government and just DO IT ourselves.

  • Comment number 12.

    To#2Redtopcowboy

    Your view is very practical and I respect that. We farm also but in a much smaller way. I understand that the land has to work as hard as you do. But in my view, our lands are also a somewhat sacred trust. We need to protect and preserve them for future generations. Whatever we do now will have an effect for many years. Wind and solar are non-polluting and renewable resources that should be encouraged over seeking ever more gas and oil that will soon run out. I salute Texas for leading the way!

  • Comment number 13.

    I live in the UK, where every wind farm proposed is objected to. This is supposedly on the grounds that they are ugly. But I find wind farms a pleasure to see, whether they are on the farmland of Cornwall, near where my father lives, or in the centre of towns, such the ones at Green Park in Reading, or in industrial sites such as Avon Docks near Bristol. We should be building more of these wind farms, and not whining about an almost non-existent adverse impact. I am not saying that we should cover the entire country with wind farms - but it does seem strange to me that there are entire counties that have turbines at all.

  • Comment number 14.

    aquarizonagal:

    I'm glad you brought up the beauty of them. There is a huge windfarm driving from Eastern Missouri to Des Moines, Iowa. We take this route quite a bit and every single time I find myself just staring at them in fascination.
    Compared to fossil fuels, wind and solar power are like having free gifts dropped into our laps (minus start up costs, of course) but I can't help looking at the slow turning grace of a windmill and not be amazed that the power of the wind is free and clean. Now we just have to keep pushing, like Texas, and take the lead for our own states :-)

  • Comment number 15.

    about #14:
    I should clarify. Bad choice of words on my part.
    In saying that the wind is free and clean, I meant to imply that, unlike fossil fuel sites, the wind can't be owned, not by anyone. The wind is simply a beautiful, clean constant presence.

  • Comment number 16.

    A lot of the windpower in Texas is owned by Haliburton. While Haliburton continues to be essentially a criminal operation functioning with the support of the Bush regime, they do know how to make money. Dick Cheney, the rogue VP of the USA is a big investor in Texan windpower.

  • Comment number 17.

    To#16Baruchzed

    The term "criminal operation" could currently be applied to many of our banking and investment companies, as well.

    Investors will go where ever they can smell money. Your information about Cheney and Haliburton does not surprise me. They probably know better than we do that they have milked the 'oil cow' dry.

  • Comment number 18.

    What the article neglects to mention is that northern and northwestern Texas is one of the best places in the world for wind power -- ground zero for a broad region of the American and Canadian plains with strong potential for huge amounts of wind power. The wind blows almost constantly at a moderate speed -- by contrast, much of the British Isles are either gale force or stop, either too fast or too slow for effective wind generation. The real NIMBY test in the UK, especially in England and Wales, will be tidal power -- England and Wales have arguably the world's greatest resource in that department.

    And it is also sloppy to compare wind power NIMBYism in the more scenic parts of Britain to much of what has happened in New England, where the best situations are mostly coastal rather than inland, and where the biggest controversies have involved sites that may block shipping channels.

  • Comment number 19.

    I'm from central TX and I find the idea of wind farming great where it can be utilized, however the problem some people have with it where I live, mainly power companies is that there is so little wind when we need the power the most. Often times the turbines will be spinning in the morning breeze, but by the time we hit the middle of the day the wind is no where to be found, and we have no ay to store all that enrgey. So while I think that it is a neat idea I also don't think that it is totally aplicable every where.

    Solar panels I think would be more reasonable for a large portion of urban America, and Europe for that matter. It would not be that hard to put them on the roofs of houses right over the shingles and allow houses and apartments to become more self sufficent. However they still need to be developed more so that they are more efficent.

    I think that Texas has begun to look at it's self more as the center for energy than oil because many buissness people are relizing that oil will not be around for ever, and they don't want to lose every thing when the oil fields begin to dry up around the world.

    I certaintly aprove power production as a means of saving rural america, it is certaintly better than the idea of privitized jails that we instigated.

    P.S. sorry if this is a bit of a stream of conscious I was just really excited to see that MY home state was being mentioned in a more positive light than it usally is.

    P.S.S. Though I don't allays agree with my republican counterparts (I'm a left leaning libertarian) I'm glad to see that we can agree on somthing.

  • Comment number 20.

    To#19Austex

    Hello Texas!

    I am in Arizona and I read your post with interest. Can there not be a way to store the wind power that is generated so that it can be used as needed? I am not scientific so I am unsure of this.

    Also, I very much agree about solar power. I have read that most of Arizona has approximately 340 days sunshine per year. We could use this energy and we could provide power for more than just our own state. My understanding is that solar energy can be stored but I could be wrong about this.

    I salute your pride in your state. I love my state also. I have visited Texas many times and enjoy that. Good luck with your wind energy projects

  • Comment number 21.

    Thank you , thank you, thank you for presenting my beloved home state in a good light and not regurgitating the same old negative stereotype :)

    Although I think you should have went to my home Houston instead of Dallas ;)

    Cheers!

  • Comment number 22.

    The problem isn't energy generation it's energy consumption. Compared to the rest of us in the other 47 states (Not willing to vouch for Alaska) Texans use an enormous amount of energy per person.

    In Texas they use 11.5 Quads of energy every year. In California a more populous state they only use 8 Quads of energy. They might use more Green energy than my state of N.C. but they are also less energy conscious and efficient.

  • Comment number 23.

    To#22Risforme

    Could the energy consumption in Texas be a result of agriculture and maybe, especially, ranching?

    I am just asking because it is such a large state with a lot of these businesses. Ranching can require a lot of energy consumption. Agribiz is also a high consumer of energy.

  • Comment number 24.

    Part of it is the huge manufacturing industry in Texas, Aluminum is very energy inefficient.

    The state's 23.5 million residents use nearly 3,000 more kilowatt-hours of electricity every year than the average American and a higher percentage of them drive large, gas-guzzling vehicles. Of the 20 million registered vehicles in Texas, one in four is a pickup truck.

    Now we all are energy wasters, but Texans don't even seem conscious of it the way they waste energy.

  • Comment number 25.

    "Interesting Texans are in favour of wind power just as the state is famous for its oil rich families (bush). It seems Texans are interested in anything that produces wealth for them and theirs."

    And? Do you suggest we should only develop economically unviable forms of power? The only way that alternative energy production will catch on is if they make money. The texans are spot on.

  • Comment number 26.

    Very good article! If you noticed on your drive in I-40, the official 'Welcome Center' for New Mexico, is powered by a turbine.

    These things work, and we don't lack for wind. My golf club is perched on a hill facing northwest, and the high rough full of lost balls testifies to the prevalence and strength of the wind there. We could install one just south of the first tee, and power the club.
    Hmmm...

    Now, if someone will please inform the Kennedy family, up in Hyannisport, who litigate against wind farms(champions of the environment that they are!), that the sight of windmills won't ruin their precious vistas to the ocean...Green is for 'The Little People' in Liberalworld.

    And, if we lift the inheritance tax, so allowing farmers to bequeath their life's work to their children, the prairie will blossom with both food and energy.

    But then, that would be a blow for Freedom, the one thing the Democrat leadership despises most.

  • Comment number 27.

    We are getting into wind power in Minnesota as well. The problem we are facing is getting the transmission lines built. There is always someone with an objection, whether it be land owners or environmentalists.

    Wind is not the only alternative form of energy that Texas is trying.

    Methane is also being given a try. :)

    Hmmm...Jon, I don't know if those tags will work here, but I thought I would give it a shot. Have you thought of putting in a preview option?

    Here's the link by itself to copy and paste if they don't work.

    http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/09/11/sewage.energy.ap/index.html

 

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