Move Over, Oil, There’s Money in Texas
Feb 23, 2008 - Clifford Krauss - New York Times
|Jim Albert, front, and Jerry Tuttle,
General Electric wind technicians, perch atop a turbine
in Sweetwater, Tex. The turbines stand as high as 20-story
buildings. Photo: Brian Harkin for The New York Times
SWEETWATER, Tex. — The wind turbines that recently went
up on Louis Brooks’s ranch are twice as high as the Statue
of Liberty, with blades that span as wide as the wingspan
of a jumbo jet. More important from his point of view, he
is paid $500 a month apiece to permit 78 of them on his
land, with 76 more on the way.
Power in Texas Slide Show
Louis Brooks is paid $500 a month for each turbine he permits
on his property. Brian Harkin for The New York Times
“That’s just money you’re hearing,” he said as they hummed
in a brisk breeze recently.
Texas, once the oil capital of North America, is rapidly
turning into the capital of wind power. After breakneck
growth the last three years, Texas has reached the point
that more than 3 percent of its electricity, enough to supply
power to one million homes, comes from wind turbines.
Texans are even turning tapped-out oil fields into wind
farms, and no less an oilman than Boone Pickens is getting
into alternative energy.
“I have the same feelings about wind,” Mr. Pickens said
in an interview, “as I had about the best oil field I ever
found.” He is planning to build the biggest wind farm in
the world, a $10 billion behemoth that could power a small
city by itself.
Wind turbines were once a marginal form of electrical generation.
But amid rising concern about greenhouse gases from coal-burning
power plants, wind power is booming. Installed wind capacity
in the United States grew 45 percent last year, albeit from
a small base, and a comparable increase is expected this
At growth rates like that, experts said, wind power could
eventually make an important contribution to the nation’s
electrical supply. It already supplies about 1 percent of
American electricity, powering the equivalent of 4.5 million
homes. Environmental advocates contend it could eventually
hit 20 percent, as has already happened in Denmark. Energy
consultants say that 5 to 7 percent is a more realistic
goal in this country.
The United States recently overtook Spain as the world’s
second-largest wind power market, after Germany, with $9
billion invested last year. A recent study by Emerging Energy
Research, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., projected
$65 billion in investment from 2007 to 2015.
Despite the attraction of wind as a nearly pollution-free
power source, it does have limitations. Though the gap is
closing, electricity from wind remains costlier than that
generated from fossil fuels. Moreover, wind power is intermittent
and unpredictable, and the hottest days, when electricity
is needed most, are usually not windy.
The turbines are getting bigger and their blades can kill
birds and bats. Aesthetic and wildlife issues have led to
opposition emerging around the country, particularly in
coastal areas like Cape Cod. Some opposition in Texas has
cropped up as well, including lawsuits to halt wind farms
that were thought to be eyesores or harmful to wetlands.
But the opposition has been limited, and has done little
to slow the rapid growth of wind power in Texas. Some Texans
see the sleek new turbines as a welcome change in the landscape.
“Texas has been looking at oil and gas rigs for 100 years,
and frankly, wind turbines look a little nicer,” said Jerry
Patterson, the Texas land commissioner, whose responsibilities
include leasing state lands for wind energy development.
“We’re No. 1 in wind in the United States, and that will
Texas surpassed California as the top wind farm state in
2006. In January alone, new wind farms representing $700
million of investment went into operation in Texas, supplying
power sufficient for 100,000 homes.
Supporters say Texas is ideal for wind-power development,
not just because it is windy. It also has sparsely populated
land for wind farms, fast-growing cities and a friendly
regulatory environment for developers.
“Texas could be a model for the entire nation,” said Patrick
Woodson, a senior development executive with E.On, a German
utility operating here.
The quaint windmills of old have been replaced by turbines
that stand as high as 20-story buildings, each capable of
generating electricity for small communities. Powerful turbines
are able to capture power even when the wind is relatively
weak, and they help to lower the cost per kilowatt hour.
Much of the boom in the United States is being driven by
foreign power companies with experience developing wind
projects, including Iberdrola of Spain, Energias de Portugal
and Windkraft Nord of Germany. Foreign companies own two-thirds
of the wind projects under construction in Texas.
A short-term threat to the growth of wind power is the
looming expiration of federal clean-energy tax credits,
which Congress has allowed to lapse several times over the
years. Advocates have called for extending those credits
and eventually enacting a national renewable-power standard
that would oblige states to expand their use of clean power
A longer-term problem is potential bottlenecks in getting
wind power from the places best equipped to produce it to
the populous areas that need electricity. The part of the
United States with the highest wind potential is a corridor
stretching north from Texas through the middle of the country,
including sparsely populated states like Montana and the
Dakotas. Power is needed most in the dense cities of the
coasts, but building new transmission lines over such long
distances is certain to be expensive and controversial.
“We need a national vision for transmission like we have
with the national highway system,” said Robert Gramlich,
policy director for the American Wind Energy Association.
“We have to get over the hump of having a patchwork of electric
Texas is better equipped to deal with the transmission
problems that snarl wind energy in other states because
a single agency operates the electrical grid and manages
the deregulated utility market in most of the state.
Last July, the Texas Public Utility Commission approved
transmission lines across the state capable of delivering
as much as 25,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2012, presuming
the boom continues. That would be five times the wind power
generated in the state today, and it would drive future
Shell and the TXU Corporation are planning to build a 3,000-megawatt
wind farm north of here in the Texas Panhandle, leapfrogging
two FPL Energy Texas wind farms to become the biggest in
Not to be outdone, Mr. Pickens is planning his own 150,000-acre
Panhandle wind farm of 4,000 megawatts that would be even
larger and cost him $10 billion.
“I like wind because it’s renewable and it’s clean and
you know you are not going to be dealing with a production
decline curve,” Mr. Pickens said. “Decline curves finally
wore me out in the oil business.”
At the end of 2007, Texas ranked No. 1 in the nation with
installed wind power of 4,356 megawatts (and 1,238 under
construction), far outdistancing California’s 2,439 megawatts
(and 165 under construction). Minnesota and Iowa came in
third and fourth with almost 1,300 megawatts each (and 46
and 116 under construction, respectively).
Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Oregon, states with smaller
populations than Texas, all get 5 to 8 percent of their
power from wind farms, according to estimates by the American
Wind Energy Association.
It has dawned on many Texans in recent years that wind
power, whatever its other pros and cons, represents a potent
new strategy for rural economic development.
Since the wind boom began a few years ago, the total value
of property here in Nolan County has doubled, and the county
judge, Tim Fambrough, estimated it would increase an additional
25 percent this year. County property taxes are going down,
home values are going up and the county has extra funds
to remodel the courthouse and improve road maintenance.
“Wind reminds us of the old oil and gas booms,” Mr. Fambrough
Teenagers who used to flee small towns like Sweetwater
after high school are sticking around to take technical
courses in local junior colleges and then work on wind farms.
Marginal ranches and cotton farms are worth more with wind
turbines on them.
“I mean, even the worst days for wind don’t compare to
the busts in the oil business,” said Bobby Clark, a General
Electric wind technician who gave up hauling chemicals in
the oil fields southwest of here to live and work in Sweetwater.
“I saw my daddy go from rags to riches and back in the oil
business, and I sleep better.”
Wind companies are remodeling abandoned buildings, and
new stores, hotels and restaurants have opened around this
old railroad town.
Dandy’s Western Wear, the local cowboy attire shop, cannot
keep enough python skin and cowhide boots in stock because
of all the Danes and Germans who have come to town to invest
and work in the wind fields, then take home Texas souvenirs.
“Wind has invigorated our business like you wouldn’t believe,”
said Marty Foust, Dandy’s owner, who recently put in new
carpeting and air-conditioning. “When you watch the news
you can get depressed about the economy, but we don’t get
depressed. We’re now in our own bubble.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following
Correction: February 29, 2008 Because of an editing error,
a front-page article on Saturday about the growing use of
wind power in Texas referred imprecisely to the amount of
money that Louis Brooks is paid for allowing 78 wind turbines
on his ranch on the outskirts of Sweetwater, Tex. It is
$500 a month for each, not $500 for all of them. The article
also misstated the length of blades for new wind turbines
that stand as high as 20-story buildings. The blades span
about 200 feet; they are not “longer than a football field,”
which is 300 feet.