In West Texas, wind is the new oil, but this time around it is cleaner, renewable, and distributed, meaning that it generates revenue and opportunity for the communities in which it is installed. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on wind power in West Texas, where wind is becoming the hot industry, and in the process it is revitalizing communities that had long given up hope for their future development.
If I am not mistaken, of the top 10 largest wind projects slated for the next several years, four of them are in West Texas, where the wind is good and the land is wide open. Many of us who live in cities don’t realize how economically depressed many of the rural areas in the United States really are. With land degradation a persistent problem, and the boom and bust cycle of non-renewables an all too common tale in America’s small towns, wind is offering a real alternative in places like Sweetwater, Texas.
One of the biggest things holding the industry back at the moment is lack of skilled labor, what one wind professional called “windsmiths”, men and women (mostly men, to be truthful) who climb the 80 meter towers and perform maintenance and other servicing tasks inside the wind turbines. Because turbines like the one in the photo above are connected to sophisticated fiber optic computer networks, servicing a windmill like this requires a high level of skill and training, not to mention the physical and mental endurance to climb up and down an 80 foot tower 3 or 4 times a day in 100 degree plus weather. But for many, the hardship is well worth it, considering that windsmithing can pay up to $50/hour plus full benefits. 10 years ago in West Texas, such a pay scale was unheard of, especially for a blue collar job (some would argue that windsmithing is a green collar job).
Land owners too are benefiting from the presence of wind generated power. The wind companies will lease the land for about $500 per windmill per month from the land owner. For a landowner having 100 windmills (which is hardly unheard of), this is a sum of $600,000 a year, with little need for further capital investment or operating costs (with numbers like these, I wonder what the margins are for the megacorps who own and operate these machines). A single turbine, by the way, generates enough electricity to power up to 900 average American homes.
In the case of wind energy generated in West Texas, most of the power is put on the grid and sent to central Texas, ie Austin and San Antonio. The energy crisis is looming larger than ever; and now, with the Bush administration’s push to roll over 20% of the nation’s energy to wind by 2025 (note: I have not fact checked this), and with the prospects of future administrations being even more aggressive on this front, it is safe to say that the wind industry is still in its infancy.
But before we applaud this initiative too loudly, let’s remember that the windmills are still shipped in from manufacturing plants overseas: Denmark, Japan, Mexico.
Even in the case of distributed energy, the market remains a global one, not a local one. And, the commanding heights of the industry are still controlled by Siemens, Motorola, and General Electric. While one may or may not be philosphically opposed to corporate control of the new energy economy, the ball is in the court of small and medium sized businesses to step up and show that they too can play in this highly profitable game of renewable energy. Personally, I see no reason why distributed fabrication and local businesses can’t be just as competitive in this market as the big boys are.
The influx of resources into the economically stagnant region of West Texas has generated employment, municipal revenues, and hope for the future, but it remains to be seen how judiciously the farmers and ranchers of the area will manage this windfall of revenue and profits. As degraded and overrun by shrubs as the West Texas grasslands are, there needs to be a serious evaluation of when and how to recover the productivity of the land itself. Now that land-based revenue, and consequently capital, is less of an issue for land managers, it is better to ask the question sooner than later: What is going to be done to restore this degraded ecosystem?