In sun-seared West Texas, oil and gas producers have driven the regional economy since the mid-1920s. Now there's a new player in town--electricity-generating wind turbines. The turbines are sprouting by the hundreds on the low mesas that dot the desert landscape.
Wind turbines came to the small West Texas town of McCamey with the millennium. Construction began in 2000, and the first machines came on line in 2001. Florida Power and Light (FPL) now runs 688 area turbines.
"There are three things you're going to have to find," says Neil James, production manager for the FPL wind operations around McCamey. "That's the wind, the transmission lines and the land. The McCamey area is very abundant in those three things."
McCamey, population 1,600, has always been blessed with petroleum resources, but the oil business boom-and-bust cycles have taken their toll. Oil production in Upton County dropped almost 25 percent from 1972 (when it was 12.5 million barrels) to 1999 (9.4 million barrels).
Wind power has restored McCamey's economy. It now bills itself as the "Wind Energy Capital of Texas." "It was dying there for a little bit," admits Alicia Sanchez, who heads McCamey's economic development office. "Now taxes have increased 30 percent from 2004 to 2007. All we can see is positive." Texans apparently agree. An FPL-commissioned study released earlier this year said 93 percent support further development of wind energy in the state.
Federal tax credits, coupled with a Texas mandate requiring that a percentage of electricity come from green power producers, have spurred development. Rick Doehn manages rights of way and surface lands leasing for the state's Permanent University Fund, which supports the University of Texas and other Texas institutions, and also owns 2.1 mil-lion acres, chiefly in West Texas. Doehn says wind turbine leases and oil and gas leases often involve the same land. "The electric companies didn't see any problems with oil rigs," he says. "They're towers, but they're only up for a month or two, unless it's a very deep well."
Texas' other historic industry, ranching, loves the turbines. Rancher Ernest Woodward said he can't imagine any harm coming to his livestock from nearby turbines. "Windmills are very clean," Woodward said. "There's nothing that's harmful to the environment that I know of." Bird kills, he says, are not a problem because West Texas fowl have little problem avoiding the slow-moving (20...