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.
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.
One of St. John Neumann Catholic Church's turbines in Lubbock, circa 1993.
Courtesy of St. John Neumann Catholic Church
Father Joe James in his office at Mercy Retreat Center, in Slaton, on June 28, 2011.
Photograph by David Bowman
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 who grew up in Lubbock.
By now, even though some outsiders may still be surprised by the sight of giant wind blades swooshing gently above oil and gas country, many Texans are aware that their state has become the unlikely capital of U.S. wind power. But few of them know the tale of how we got to this point. It’s a saga populated with dreamers, schemers, hard workers, fast talkers, and talented hobbyists, almost all of whom found themselves defeated at one point or another by their own ambitions. If Texas wind power is a success story, it’s a success story built upon failure after failure after failure. And the sum of those heroic failures has turned out to be something transformative: an industry that may change the way people look at green power—and at Texas.
Jay Carter Jr. and his father talk about wind machines the way some men talk about women; it’s all about curves and shapeliness. “The more flexible the material,” says Jay Jr., “the lighter the turbine, the more attractive it is.” In the long story of Texas wind, the Carters play a critical role. Father James was not the only pioneer to end up at their doorstep. The modern era of Texas wind began in their vast, metal-roofed warehouse, on a prairie on the edge of Burkburnett. It’s appropriate that the cradle of a new energy economy was this small hamlet north of Wichita Falls, whose nickname, “Boomtown, USA!” derives from its heyday during the oil stampede a century ago.
Everyone who took part in the pioneer days of the wind movement was an engineer at heart. But the Carters were the high priests of the slide rule. Jay Sr. grew up in Burkburnett the son of an oil executive. A Texas Tech graduate, he made his name engineering lightweight composite materials that played a critical role in the country’s early rocket program. Jay Jr., too, was a wunderkind and a Tech alum. He walked away from his college football career—he had been recruited to play cornerback—to spend more time in the lab. When he was still an undergrad, Jay Jr. built his own gyrocopter, using some of his dad’s fiberglass material. Bell Helicopter quickly hired him after he graduated, in 1968. At 22, he was the youngest employee in the research and development division, which was charged with building the XV-15 tilt-rotor, an aircraft that combines aspects of a helicopter and an airplane. He was capable far beyond his years, and perhaps because he had already gone almost completely bald, his colleagues figured he had transferred from another company after years of experience.
Like most young mechanical geniuses, Jay Jr. was restless. Within a couple of years he ditched the Bell job to move to Burkburnett and rejoin his father, on a mission to build a steam-powered car. They stripped out and reengineered a 1968 canary-yellow Volkswagen squareback and in 1974, after half a dozen years of soldering and pipe fitting, showed off their invention at an Ann Arbor, Michigan, demonstration, outperforming efforts by the Detroit car manufacturers. In a cover story for Popular Science, a reporter wrote that Jay Jr. “feels that much of his success comes from shaking off ancient, hoary thinking about steam engines.” Determined to keep pushing the envelope, he turned to building a steam-powered New York City taxicab. When the model the Carters built failed to catch on, they decided to apply their knowledge of copter blades to the engineering of wind turbines.
The 1973 oil crisis had sent electricity prices soaring, and Jay Jr. had the notion that wind was “an oil well that never runs dry.” He and his father were determined to modernize turbines but keep them slimmed down: Their turbines would be smaller and lighter, easier to manufacture and ship than those of their competitors around the country, and more efficient too. They thought it would take them a year to pull it off; it took three. The prairie around their warehouse turned into a graveyard of dreams. Turbines toppled and exploded in flames; wind blades came spinning off. In one incident, a hydraulic brake wasn’t powerful enough to bring a turbine to a stop in a high wind. “It kept running and burned up the brake,” says Jay Jr. “Normally that wouldn’t be so bad, but hydraulic fluid was leaking, and it sprayed hot oil onto the brake disc, which, of course, was red-hot. It ignited the oil and slung it all around. The blades caught on fire. That whole machine literally burned up in the air.”
In 1978 the turbines finally performed as the Carters’ equations forecast they would, and Carter Wind Systems soon received its first purchase order, for the princely sum of $10,000, from an institute at West Texas State run by a tall, rangy physics professor named Vaughn Nelson. (Father Joe James put in his order not long after that.)
In the little town of Canyon, about 230 miles west of Burkburnett, Nelson had been turning himself into the brains behind Texas wind. A Kansas native who, by his own admission, had racked up one of high school basketball’s “worst coaching records in history,” Nelson had begun studying wind speeds in the early seventies with another Panhandle academic, Earl Gilmore. Working on wind gave Nelson a break from standing in a classroom talking about vectors and momentum.
When energy prices rose in the wake of the oil embargo, Nelson and Gilmore suddenly found themselves the go-to experts and were tapped to write the state’s first-ever report on wind potential. “All things considered,” they wrote in 1974, “the region of greatest wind energy potential in the United States is located mainly in the Panhandle of Texas.” If the state made a giant investment—something Nelson and Gilmore acknowledged was essentially impossible—Texas could provide “about 8 percent of the nation’s anticipated electrical power in 1980.”
Nelson, Gilmore, and another man, Robert Barieau, who had previously worked for the Helium Research Center, in Amarillo, were intent on transforming tiny Canyon into a hub of wind research. They got a boost in 1977, after a Panhandle lawmaker wrangled a line item into the state budget to start the Alternative Energy Institute at West Texas State (now West Texas A&M). The institute crunched wind data and tested prototype turbines, but the latter proved difficult on a hectic university campus, where the administration feared those swiftly turning blades were a little too close to civilization for comfort. After one turbine (not manufactured by the Carters) spun out of control and collapsed, forcing the police to shut down a nearby highway, the test site was moved.
While Nelson and his crew got busy with their experiments and Father James prepared to run his church on wind power, the Carters were working with another customer, Michael Osborne, a Pampa native who had read about the Carters and given them a call. Osborne had grown up in the fifties amid dust storms nearly as fierce as the ones that had sent Woody Guthrie racing for shelter when he lived in Pampa twenty years earlier. “I was walking home from school—I was probably in the third grade—and I looked on the horizon, to the north, and saw this line, this brown line, and I knew that I had to get home in a hurry because a great dust storm was coming,” Osborne recalls. “And I ran like crazy and made it just in time before the sixty-mile-per-hour wind and the dust came. It was just like a blizzard, but it was dust.” Osborne spent his adulthood getting away from Pampa, first to engineering school at the University of Texas, then to a gig as the adman for Austin’s legendary Armadillo World Headquarters in the early seventies, where his agency produced radio spots and posters and tried to persuade fans not to race actual armadillos.
But Osborne eventually tired of the advertising business, not to mention the darker side of the music business. “You know, I’d probably already seen at least one drug death by then, maybe two,” he says. So after reading books by the futurist Buckminster Fuller and having an epiphany while watching a comet streak feebly across the West Texas sky, he decided to reach for his roots and do his part to save the planet. “My philosophy formed very early that we would have to move away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable fuels,” he says.
So in 1981, 32-year-old Osborne drove back to Pampa and planted five turbines he’d bought from the “pretty boys” (as he calls them) at Carter Wind Systems on land belonging to his cousin, a county judge. There were two other turbines on adjoining property that belonged to a Coca-Cola distributor; Osborne had created, he told the Dallas Morning News, “the second-largest wind farm in the known universe” (the first was in New Hampshire). Osborne even had the installation videotaped and included comments from Jay Carter Jr. and Joe James, who would turn on his turbines a few months later. “I’d just as soon start making money,” a young Osborne says to the camera as men work on the turbines atop the waving grass. “I’m really sick and tired of spending it.” Osborne was trying to figure out if wind could pay for itself, and he got a little help. The oil price spikes of the seventies had brought a wave of federal incentives for alternative energy; after Osborne invested about $80,000, he received a $20,000 tax credit from the IRS.
The early eighties were, relatively speaking, times of plenty for wind farmers. The Carters gained some small fame after they won a Montana contest, in which, Jay Jr. said, their machines survived 100-mile-per-hour winds. They did some one-off deals with farmers and ranchers in Texas, but they really got going in California, where once and future governor Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown decided that turbines were a smart alternative to nuclear plants. In 1982 the Carters’ first California wind turbine was sold directly to the state, which erected it between San Francisco and the state capital, Sacramento. “That was a well-traveled political highway,” Jay Jr. says. Other turbines went to the famed early wind farms at San Gorgonio and Tehachapi, in Southern California.
By the mid-eighties, California could boast that it generated some 90 percent of the world’s wind power. Production at the Carters’ 25,000-square-foot Burkburnett warehouse reached a peak in 1983, when more than one hundred people strove to build a turbine a day, sold as far afield as Hawaii and the arctic circle. But elsewhere—in most of Texas and the nation—interest in wind began to peter out as oil prices swiftly declined. Lines at the pump evaporated, and for one glorious spring day in 1986, an Exxon station near Austin gave away gas for free. Wind simply couldn’t compete with rock-bottom fossil fuel prices, especially after the Reagan administration slashed incentives for renewable energy. Even the Carters’ assembly line shut down in 1988. Three years later Jay Jr. began another turbine company but shut it down in 1994 after a legal battle with foreign partners over company ownership. By then the relationship between father and son had grown strained—over a matter of engineering. Jay Sr. had wanted to further simplify the design, and Jay Jr. refused. “He had his own idea about how the wind turbine ought to be built, and I didn’t agree with him,” Jay Jr. says. “We just couldn’t afford his research and development.”
Osborne eventually broke about even, and he shut down his operation too. Lightning had blown what “looked like Star Wars bullet holes” in his control boxes, and he began to question the wisdom of patching them up. For a nominal fee he sold the turbines in 1985 to Vaughn Nelson’s wind shop in Canyon, which was eager to salvage their parts—especially after researchers there accidentally destroyed two Carter turbines. One fell when a wire holding it in place went slack in strong winds and jumped off its pulley. Another collapsed after researchers detached the wires anchoring it to a truck and the ground at the same time, leaving the turbine unmoored and teetering, says Kenneth Starcher, a researcher who had been holding one of the wires. A colleague of his leaped out of the turbine’s path, dropping a brand-new Nikon camera. “My God, the thing just missed crushing him,” says Starcher. “It killed the camera. He was pissed about the camera.”
The camera wasn’t the only thing that got crushed. The early dream of the wind as a limitless, nonpolluting source of energy for Texans also seemed to have come to an end.
But Texas wind had another act in store.
After Anthony Lucas’s famous well at Spindletop struck oil, in 1901, the government of Texas couldn’t keep up with the drillers, scrupulous and unscrupulous, who had their way with the state’s most valuable resource. It was every man for himself. But free-for-alls like that are a thing of the past. The twenty-first-century energy industry is shaped by a mesh of state and federal incentives—taxes, tax breaks, pollution controls, and the like—and a big ruckus kicks up whenever someone wants to change them. During the most recent legislative session, natural gas drillers made a fuss when lawmakers considered reducing a key state tax break. (The full tax break remains in place.)
Michael Osborne, Vaughn Nelson, Joe James, and the Carters would never have gotten their experiments off the ground without the government’s help, and history repeated itself a decade or so later. By the early nineties Texas, the energy state, had become a net importer of energy. “We thought it a shame—and a motivator,” says Karl Rábago, then a Texas Public Utility commissioner. Prompted by this embarrassing state of affairs—and a prescient concern about climate change—Governor Ann Richards’s administration decided to push for renewable energy production. Richards created the Sustainable Energy Development Council (SEDC), which Rábago co-chaired, and Congress helped out by passing a national wind power tax credit.
But wind was so new and risky that somebody would have to promise to buy the power before a developer would invest millions in building a wind farm. Perhaps not surprisingly, that somebody turned out to work in Austin, which has always prided itself on its green ambitions. In the early nineties the Lower Colorado River Authority was run by Mark Rose, whose father, a brigadier general, had headed an energy conservation task force under Governor Dolph Briscoe during the seventies. Rose, a strong believer in alternative energy, connected with a buzzy California firm called Kenetech, then one of the largest wind power companies in the world. Kenetech was intent on finding markets outside California, and it had hired an Austin-based firm, Good Company Associates, to help develop sites in Texas. Good Company’s owner, Bob King, had grown up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, just fifteen miles from NASA’s space pad. He counted rocket scientists among his childhood neighbors and caught the engineering bug early; he was building solar-powered gadgets before he reached his teens. Years later he advocated for renewable energy in Texas as a staffer for agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower and a member, along with Rose, Rábago, and Osborne, of the SEDC.
In 1995 Kenetech, with help from King, put up Texas’s first big wind farm, on a treeless ridge in the Delaware Mountains of Culberson County, a place so remote that for the opening ceremony, three counties had to be scoured to find enough nice linen for tablecloths. When all 112 turbines went up, it was the country’s largest wind farm outside California, and it could provide 35 megawatts of energy—insignificant in the scheme of things but enough to power 10,000 or more homes. Rose paid roughly double what the LCRA usually paid for electricity and was glad to do it. “I literally said to my board, ‘These are spiritual megawatts. Don’t ask me to justify them,’ ” recalls Rose.
The Delaware Mountains site was the windiest anyone could find (save for the area around nearby Guadalupe Peak, which was off-limits because it was in a national park). “It was a great site,” says King. “I mean, if you got out of the car with the car facing the wrong direction, it’d rip the door off on a good day.” Not to mention the turbines themselves. A few months after the site opened, a monster winter storm blew through, with winds of up to 163 miles per hour. Two towers fell, and dozens more suffered damage. “One of the things we learned,” King recalls with a chuckle, “was you don’t necessarily want the windiest place.”
At the time, though, King was past caring. The wind farm got rebuilt, but Kenetech had filed for bankruptcy thanks to various problems, including a regulatory move that caused its California wind expansion plans to implode. It felt like Enron before Enron, but without the shenanigans. “The stock went to zero. I think I sold it before it got to fourteen cents, but I didn’t make much money,” King says.
That might have been yet another death knell for the Texas wind rush. But it was not lost on the windmen that the state government had helped Kenetech’s project get around several regulatory hurdles. Nor was it lost on Texas educators that this was a new source of income: A check for nearly $30,000 landed in the Permanent School Fund in 1996. It wasn’t oil money, but it was a start.
And so in the late nineties, a scattering of landmen and self-styled windcatters fanned out across the Texas mesas, looking for county officials who would grant them tax abatements and landowners who were willing to take a chance on a new kind of enterprise. Some landowners who felt they had been screwed by oil companies said yes; maybe wind would treat them better. Others were just glad to find someone offering money for land that had no oil. And a few wind farms, even bigger than what Kenetech had built, went up. One entrepreneur who led the way was a soft-spoken young man from Brenham named Walter Hornaday, who had used an inheritance from an uncle to found a company called Texas Wind Power in 1991 while he attended engineering graduate school at UT. At first the company dismantled broken-down turbines and used the parts to fix others. Hornaday got his start trying to take apart a machine on a lonely stretch of highway near Belmont. “I underestimated how difficult it was to work forty feet up in the air, hanging by a safety harness, in the wind,” he remembers now. “And I had a crane paid by the hour waiting while I got my act together.”
When the company, newly renamed Cielo (Spanish for “sky”), built its first big wind farm, about an hour south of Odessa, Hornaday made sure the European-made turbines he used could withstand lightning. And he made sure somebody carried a shotgun to kill the rattlesnakes that would slither into the foundation holes they dug. Hornaday worked to get in ahead of the other big wind developers who were sniffing around, such as Zond, a California wind company that Enron bought in 1997 and rebranded Enron Wind. (Five years later, the company’s wind assets were among the first pieces of Enron sold off after its collapse.)
But the policy push—which is what really sparked the wind rush—was just beginning. And it centered on an improbable figure: Governor George W. Bush, a man steeped in oil who’d spent a youthful summer roustabouting on a Louisiana offshore rig, turned himself into a landman in Midland, and then, in 1979, set up an oil and gas exploration business of his own. Bush had felt the harshness of the West Texas winds; Midland, after all, was called Windmill Town before oil was found there, because almost every home had one to draw water. He may also have felt the tug of national ambitions when, one day in 1996, he said some unexpected words to Public Utility Commission chairman Pat Wood as Wood headed out the door of the governor’s office. “Oh, Pat, by the way, we like wind,” Bush said. Wood was dumbfounded. “I said, ‘We what?’ ” he recounts. “Go get smart on wind,” Bush replied.
Bush soon had another reason for liking wind: One of his chief contributors, Sam Wyly, a wealthy Dallas investor who later helped pay for the Swift Boat ads attacking Senator John Kerry, was becoming a renewable advocate, with some skin in the game. Wyly’s improbable entry into the world of alternative energy was inspired by his daughter Christiana. One spring afternoon in 1992, the eleven-year-old was running around a football field at the elite Berkeley Hall School high above Los Angeles and cast an eye down at the brown haze that sat atop the city. She was suffocated with terror. “I had this feeling of powerlessness, of breathing in dirty air, and I could do nothing to stop it,” she says.
As it turned out, she could do something about it: talk to her daddy, who saw a business opportunity in his daughter’s fear. In 1997 Wyly bought a $30 million stake in Green Mountain Energy Resources, a subsidiary of a sleepy Vermont utility that hoped to break into deregulated electricity markets as a renewable energy competitor. Green Mountain’s own research suggested that a fifth of Americans were worried about pollution and would pay a small premium for an environmentally friendly electricity product: With U.S. households spending $100 billion annually on electricity, the market appeared lucrative. After shortening the name to Green Mountain Energy, Wyly, who along with his investment group was now the company’s principal owner, said, “We’re combining three elements that can’t fail: the Vermont environmental ethic, Texas capital, and old-fashioned American entrepreneurs’ frontier spirit.” In 2000, determined to make Green Mountain a bigger player, Wyly moved its headquarters to Austin.
So Wyly sought Bush’s ear with two priorities: deregulating the electricity market, which would break the hold of the major utilities, and making Texas energy greener, by combating the haze from automobiles and power plants that lingered over Dallas and Houston. Deregulating electricity meant lining up a kind of Rubik’s Cube of interests, from investor-owned utilities and organized labor to environmental groups and large businesses that were the chief electricity consumers. In 1999 Wood, Bush’s right-hand man on utilities, teamed up with two lawmakers, Steve Wolens, a Democratic state representative from Dallas, and David Sibley, a Republican state senator from Waco. Through late-night sessions that Wood remembers as “like crashing for the final exam with your study group for three months,” he, Wolens, and Sibley crafted a bill that boldly deregulated Texas’s electricity markets and required some cleanup of the old coal plants that had been bothering environmentalists. It also contained a “renewable portfolio standard,” which required that electricity providers collectively install 2,000 megawatts of additional renewable energy capacity by 2009. (Renewable energy was understood to be wind because wind was cheaper than solar power or geothermal power, especially when a federal tax credit for wind production was factored in, and Texas was essentially maxed out on hydropower.) “There were a lot of moving parts and a lot of whiny people,” says Sibley. But when it came to the wind piece, a minuscule price for the utilities to pay for freer access to potential markets, there was not much whining.
The 2,000-megawatt goal, far from being random, would feed perfectly into good old Texas boosterism. At the time, fewer than 2,000 megawatts of wind were installed across the United States. “We wanted to be able to say that this would double the amount of wind generation in the country,” says Jim Marston, of the Environmental Defense Fund, who was closely involved in the negotiations.
And so, on June 18, 1999, six days after declaring he was a candidate for president, Governor Bush signed Senate Bill 7 into law, propelling the Texas wind industry past California and every other state in the country. Factories in Europe suddenly found themselves cranking out wind turbines and shipping them to West Texas as fast as they could. Country roads are now cracked and worn from the treads of big trucks hauling enormous steel towers and blades to their new homes. Federal production incentives are still in place, and the state is helping to build transmission lines. But mandates are no longer necessary, since Texas has blown right past them and now has more than 10,000 megawatts of wind—five times the ten-year goal set in 1999.
Texas’s top-dog status in wind is relished by politicians from the current governor on down, who whoop about the state as a trendsetter for the national “green” movement even while agitating for fewer regulations on fossil fuel drilling. “Texas is for us now sort of an inspiration, weird as that may seem,” says V. John White, a leading California renewables advocate, a tinge of envy in his voice.
The old-timers, when they fly to speak at wind industry conferences where they once scrapped for money, shake their heads and marvel at how everything has changed. Plenty of them remain in the game. Vaughn Nelson retired last year from the Alternative Energy Institute, but the AEI is still crunching numbers and testing turbines in Canyon and another site, in Bushland. (It recently had to move its Canyon facility once more after creating trouble yet again. “We put up a turbine that was a real crappy turbine,” says AEI assistant director Kenneth Starcher—the same fellow who watched a collapsing turbine destroy his friend’s Nikon a few decades ago—“and it slung some aluminum sheet metal into the university president’s front yard.”) Walter Hornaday continues to build ever-larger wind farms, including several in the Panhandle; one Texas project he worked on recently was so ambitious that it caught the eye of New York senator Chuck Schumer, who denounced the planned use of federal stimulus money to buy Chinese turbines. Michael Osborne works on renewable energy for Austin Energy, Bob King still heads Good Company Associates, and Pat Wood is involved in energy development. The LCRA’s Mark Rose promotes smart-grid initiatives from the helm of a Bastrop-based electric co-op called Bluebonnet. Sam Wyly made a mint with Green Mountain Energy—which critics said was not as green as it purported to be—before it was purchased by NRG Energy (which also owns Houston-based electricity giant Reliant Energy) for $350 million in September 2010. Bush, widely vilified by the environmental movement during his presidency, keynoted the American Wind Energy conference in Dallas last year, drawing standing ovations.
As for the old Carter warehouse in Burkburnett, it looks like a sepulchre. A couple of flaky wind blades lie out back of the building. Inside, a fifty-foot-long blade mold is covered in dust; supported by a network of crosshatched legs, it could be mistaken in half-darkness for a dinosaur spine. Jay Carter and Jay Carter Jr. still have their differences, but a new company, Carter Wind Energy, is now led by Jay Jr.’s chubby-faced 37-year-old son, Matt Carter, who swept the blade shop floors in junior high and spent college summers on turbine maintenance crews. The company, he says, is on the verge of signing a deal with a Fortune 500 business interested in licensing its technology for a 160-turbine field to be spread over eight thousand acres, with a capacity of 80 megawatts. (The assembly line, though, will not be dusted off and oiled; the new turbines will likely be built out of state, perhaps overseas.) “We just believed in the idea of wind,” says Matt, a Texas Tech engineering graduate like his father. The family business, he adds, “came down to perseverance.”
Yet for all its success, the swift growth of Texas wind has exposed the industry’s limitations. It’s clear that no matter how many turbines go up in West Texas, they won’t oust coal, nuclear, or natural gas, at least not in our lifetimes. True, wind energy requires no water, an increasingly precious resource. Its fuel is free, and today’s turbines will last far longer than their Joe James–era predecessors. But unlike fossil fuel plants, which can operate around the clock, wind can be counted on only intermittently, and there is still no cost-effective method for storing large amounts of electricity. When the electric grid needs power the most—in the late-summer afternoons when air-conditioners are on full blast—the West Texas breezes often come to a near standstill.
And putting up turbines is getting harder. Many people who live near them are digging in over noise, obstruction of views, and the vast amount of land required by the farms (far more than needed to run an equivalent coal plant). The military has complained that wind machines interfere with radar. Birders fear that the spinning blades slaughter too many creatures—one of several reasons that it’s hard to put turbines in the Gulf of Mexico, as state officials like land commissioner Jerry Patterson have long dreamed about.
Complaints about the turbines are nothing, however, compared with those about transmission wires. Because wind tends to be strongest in remote places—that’s one reason no one lives atop West Texas mesas, after all—hundreds of miles of high-voltage lines, strung across giant towers, are required to carry the power to the big cities that need it, and people don’t want those wires in their backyard. So many turbines have gone up in West Texas, and so few wires have been strung, that some of the machines must be shut down during the windiest times.
The state has embarked on a $5 billion project to build thousands of miles of transmission lines—something it can easily do because Texas, unlike any other state in the Lower 48, has its own electric grid. However, these plans sparked a big battle, as landowners in the Hill Country and other scenic spots are upset about the prospect of massive power lines crossing their property, which can ultimately be seized by eminent domain unless the landowners agree to the utilities’ terms. The battle, though, is pretty much over; the routes are now essentially set, and landowners along their path are settling in for a lifetime of staring at high-voltage lines.
And then there’s economics. The fall in natural gas prices over the past few years has hurt the wind industry. The classic case in point is the oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens. In 2008 Pickens journeyed to Pampa—the very same town where Michael Osborne had erected Texas’s first wind farm—to propose building 2,700 turbines in the flatlands, generating enough electricity, Pickens said, to power 1.3 million homes. A few hundred people showed up at the M.K. Brown Memorial Civic Auditorium to hear Pickens’s pitch.
“How many of you have heard me say Pampa will be the wind capital of the world?” asked Pickens. “You like that, don’t you?”
One attendee asked Pickens about the noise that turbines make.
“I’ve been a quail hunter since I was twelve, so my hearing isn’t worth a hoot,” Pickens told her. “If you’re getting royalties from it, it might have a real pleasant sound.”
But three years later, the turbines have made no sound at all, and Pickens has gone back to promoting the business that made him a billionaire—fossil fuels. Recent discoveries and technological advances have made natural gas plentiful, and the bulging supply has driven down prices, making it harder for wind to compete. Pickens hasn’t erected a single turbine in Texas. His leases on the Panhandle land expired in 2009 and 2010.
Pickens may be the highest-profile failure in the history of Texas wind farming, but others are still forging ahead, or at least dreaming up grand plans. In June the Austin-based Baryonyx Corporation proposed erecting two hundred wind turbines off the Texas Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. If the project ever gets built—so far, Texas offshore wind farms have been long on ambition and short on execution—it could produce enough electricity to power 750,000 homes.
Overall, the business has slowed down from the big boom days several years ago. But another boom seems likely, especially as turbine prices drop and the high-voltage transmission lines paid for by Texas ratepayers reach the blustery Panhandle, where Michael Osborne and Vaughn Nelson got their start but which has, ironically, been one of the least-developed areas for wind farming due to its remoteness. “Powered by Texas wind” is now a calling card for many businesses in the state, and locales as distant as California may want a piece of Panhandle power. The dreamers of today see far more big turbines on the High Plains and across West Texas—perhaps coupled with the next frontier, solar panels, which can produce energy in the daytime when the winds die down.
“What we’re doing right now will look just like, you know, hay in the barn for the horses,” says Osborne. “It will be kind of quaint.”
Never Miss a Story
Sign up for Texas Monthly's State of Texas newsletter to get stories like this delivered to your inbox daily.