A Mighty Wind

Giant turbines topped by aerodynamic blades account for a rising share of the state’s electrical grid—and may change the way people look at green energy (and Texas). But getting here wasn’t easy. Just ask the dreamers who started it all.
Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center
The Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, just outside Sweetwater, one of the largest wind farms in the world.

One cool Lubbock afternoon in 1979, Father Joe James made a kite. He nailed together a small wooden cross, glued paper across it, and on the long tail of twine tied streamers every five feet. Then he walked out of St. John Neumann Catholic Church, the energy-saving, below-ground house of worship he had designed, climbed up a modest slope, and launched the contraption above the church’s school and football field. Staring up at the fluttering streamers, he could gauge which way the wind was blowing and where it blew hardest.

This sort of project was not uncommon for James, a perpetual tinkerer convinced that simplicity was next to godliness. For a long time he had dreamed about creating wind-generated electricity to power his church in this perpetually windy corner of the state. Over the next few years, he bought five wind turbines from Jay Carter and Jay Carter Jr., a Wichita Falls–area father and son team of mechanical engineers. The turbines were taller than anything else around, and James planted four of them, each sixty feet tall, beside the football field’s end zones. The turbines were wired directly into the church and the church school, and in the evenings, when the lights were out and the air-conditioning was turned off, excess power could be fed to the city’s electric grid. The last turbine went in next to the church; it was called Big Bird, because it stood eighty feet tall. Anyone driving around Lubbock in the early eighties could see Big Bird from a mile off—and probably wondered what in God’s name it was.

James wasn’t the first Texan to try to harness the wind. Since the mid- to late 1800’s, rural Texans had been ordering windmills out of catalogs, and it was these iconic, creaky contraptions—first wooden and then steel—that sped the settlement of the Great Plains by pumping water up from the aquifers, enabling ranchers to keep cattle and the railroads to make steam. By the early twentieth century, companies were selling “wind chargers,” which farmers could erect if they wanted electricity in their homes—and they did, because kerosene was inconvenient and couldn’t power the radio. But rural electrification in the late thirties and forties killed the wind chargers; once the utilities extended wires into the countryside, farmers could get plenty of electricity whether it was windy or not.

James saw things differently. Why should he pay for electricity when it could be harnessed from the skies? His quixotic experiment ran for nearly a decade, supplying much of the energy needed to run his church and Sunday school. But in the late eighties, he became ensnared in a theological controversy after his parishioners reported receiving messages from the Virgin Mary. Floods of visitors arrived, claims of miracles proliferated, and a dubious Lubbock bishop eased James out. Several years later, the teetering turbines were winched down for the final time. “The priest who followed me couldn’t give a flip about them,” James says. “He said he couldn’t get anyone to repair them or cobble them together. If you want to do something badly enough, you will. If you don’t want to, the way is filled with excuses.”

Three decades after he first planted them in the ground, James’s turbines are long gone, and the way the church operates—keeping the lights on in the middle of the day—“just kills my soul,” he says. “They’re paying through the nose for utilities now. They have no vision at all.” Now all that remains of the turbines are five 8-foot-deep cement anchors, sunk like gravestones around the grounds of the church.

But something far bigger—the real miracle, perhaps—has sprung up in the intervening years. Today, Texas leads the nation in wind energy production, with more turbines than all but five countries. Sweetwater, a town of 11,000 people outside Abilene, has become the new Spindletop: Drive past it on the interstate and up rises a forest of giant wind turbines, more than three times the height of Big Bird. These modern, European-style whirligigs may lack the romance of the oil gusher, but they actually work pretty well. James’s five machines didn’t produce enough electricity to fully power a few buildings; each of today’s turbines provides enough electricity for several hundred homes. Nearly 8 percent of the power on Texas’s electric grid now comes from the wind (reaching as high as 26 percent at moments during winter nights, when the wind is strongest and electricity use is lowest). That’s an enormous number, dwarfing the national average of 2 percent.

A wind power cottage industry has sprung up in Texas. Houston, eager for all things energy-related, has become something of a wind power capital, thanks to developers like EDP Renewables, Pattern Energy, and Iberdrola Renewables, as well as BP and Shell. A couple of turbine blade repair companies have opened offices in the Texas hinterlands, and universities have gotten into the game too: Texas Tech now has a center dedicated to wind science and engineering, including a wind tunnel with a tornado vortex simulator, and Texas State Technical College, in Sweetwater, has a degree program in wind energy technology. Texas still doesn’t have much manufacturing—a sore point for the industry, which blames state officials’ unwillingness to dole out incentives—though Vestas, a giant Danish turbine maker, opened a research and development office in Houston a few years ago.

This success is no accident. There’s a hell of a lot of wind in Texas, especially in the Panhandle. Joe James knew it—as a boy, he rode out the end of the Dust Bowl in Dalhart—and so does everyone in West Texas who has tied sheets to his wrists, gotten on a bicycle, and “sailed” across the empty land. There’s also little fussing about giant wind towers marring the views here, because derricks and pump jacks have scarred the landscape for generations. And Texans aren’t much for regulations. “In Texas, you can put anything you want on your own private land, and nobody can say a thing about it,” says Randy Sowell, a wind industry veteran

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