For struggling West Texans, giant turbines that turn wind into energy may be the way to save the ranch. But these land leases may also mean the end of beloved wide, open spaces.
By Alyson Ward
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
The thing about West Texas that you can’t ignore, that you can never forget, is the wind. On that big, flat stretch of land dotted with scrubby mesquite trees, the wind sweeps through effortlessly, unimpeded. It rakes across acres of ranchland, over cattle and rocks and red dirt, over nearly dry stock tanks and abandoned oil pump jacks. Always, always it whips at your face or pushes at your back. It fills your ears with a high-pitched, wavering whistle. There’s always another gust on the way.
And that wind brings a lot of things with it. Tumbleweeds, maybe, that scuttle along highways and prairies. Or dirt, picked up and carried through the air, turning the sky red, choking the atmosphere with dust and sand.
These days, though, the wind is blowing something else across West Texas: change. Giant turbines are going up by the hundreds, planted all over the prairie to harness that wind and turn it into clean, renewable energy.
Head west and you’ll see them. About 20 miles past Abilene on Interstate 20, they first appear on the southern horizon, lined up neatly atop a broad mesa. They cut a strange profile – dozens of steel-and-fiberglass towers, spinning gently like pinwheels against the vast sky.
The turbines look new and shiny, smooth and modern. They look graceful and high-tech. And in this dusty, wild stretch of West Texas, they look like they landed from another planet.
A few years ago, to folks in West Texas, wind energy might as well have been from another planet. It was one of those futuristic, pie-in-the-sky ideas – a nice project for some environmentalist group, but it wouldn’t have any real impact on either energy or the economy.
But then the turbines started going up. At first they were in far-flung, isolated places – Fort Davis, Van Horn, places you need a reason to visit. In 2001, though, 100 of the steel towers sprouted just off the interstate between Abilene and Sweetwater. It was called the Trent Mesa project, and it produced enough electricity to power 35,000 homes. TXU quickly stepped up with a commitment to buy that energy for the next 10 years. Wind power was starting to seem real.
Now, Texas leads the Western Hemisphere in wind energy production, generating enough to power nearly 600,000 homes. This summer, the state surpassed California to become the largest producer of wind energy in the nation.
Wind turbines are going up in pockets all over Texas, but right now, the heart of the action is about 200 miles west of Fort Worth. Taylor and Nolan counties – home to Abilene and Sweetwater, respectively, along with a dozen smaller communities – produce nearly half of the wind energy in Texas.
There, turbines are popping up nearly overnight, the way mushrooms appear in wetter climates. Already the projects cover acres and acres of ranch and county land, each turbine towering nearly 300 feet above the hard, cracked ground. Crisscross through on farm-to-market roads and you’ll see rows of turbine parts, too, spaced out neatly on the brown grass, ready for cranes and men in hard hats to assemble them.
West Texas is oil country. Cattle country. But now it’s also wind country.
Wind energy, and the money it brings to counties and to landowners, just might be what sustains West Texas when everything else falls through. West Texas has always been dry, but this year’s drought has made it even harder for ranchers to scrape together a living; without rain, the grass dies and stock tanks dry up, so ranchers have to sell off their cattle. Oil production is down, and many towns can’t rely on oil anymore. Regionwide, the economy and population have been in decline for years.
Wind power offers many things West Texas needs: new industry, employment possibilities, a dependable source of income. To some, it’s a dream come true. But it’s also a tradeoff. Because the turbines have changed more than the way things look. They’ve changed the way people use their land, how they earn a living, how they feel about their wide, flat place in the world. Wind power may help West Texas survive, even thrive. But it won’t be the same place it was.
Wind City, U.S.A.
The tiny town of Nolan is surprisingly at the heart of what’s happening all over West Texas. In Nolan – just south of Sweetwater, population approximately 50 – the wind turbines have gone up lightning-fast, blanketing residents’ ranches with long, spinning rows of steel. Just about everybody in town has turbines on their land, which means they’ve leased their property to developers and may soon be quite wealthy, once the checks start arriving every quarter. Some have sold their cattle and plan to live off the wind.
The county’s highways and back roads – which used to be quiet, nearly deserted – are filled with a steady stream of construction-company pickups, equipment trucks and flatbed trailers filled with massive turbine pieces. The construction has brought a bunch of noise and commotion, but it’s also brought jobs, money and enough people to support a cafe in a town that hasn’t had a local business in years. Nolan is a wind town now.
Of course, it’s still not much more than a wide spot in the road. The only visible proof of Nolan’s existence is a cluster of houses and old buildings on Farm Road 126. The Nolan-Divide school closed more than 20 years ago, when enrollment fell so much that the district was consolidated with nearby Blackwell. Now it’s used as a community center, and the old football field nearby is overgrown with weeds and cactus. Across the street are the post office and the new cafe; two churches, Baptist and United Methodist, are situated just past the curve in the highway. And of the handful of houses along that stretch of Farm Road 126, four belong to members of the Ussery family, who own a ranch just a couple of miles west – a ranch with 28 spinning turbines.
Mary Ussery is the matriarch of the family. Nolan’s not big enough for city government, but people introduce Mary as the mayor.
Mary’s mother lived in West Texas all her life, but she never did get used to the wind.
“She just hated for that wind to blow,” says Mary, who’s 71. “She’d say, ‘This wind, this wind! If we could just sell this wind, we’d be millionaires.'”
She died in 1983. It would have made her happy, Mary thinks, to see the turbines churning on the Ussery Ranch. They’ve finally figured out a way to sell that wind.
The man who could see the wind
On a blindingly bright July morning, there’s a line of American-made pickups and SUVs in front of the Trent School, about 25 miles west of Abilene on I-20. Inside, a crowd of about 200 is gathering for the second West Texas Wind Energy Trade Fair and Conference. It’s mostly men, seated around cafeteria tables in jeans and boots, their hats politely tucked under their chairs. Trent High School cheerleaders point the way to juice and coffee, holding out trays of Little Debbie sweet rolls.
This is not your typical environmentalist-and-vegetarian sort of crowd. This is a bunch of ranchers, country folks, people who’ve lived all their lives in conservative West Texas towns. They know cattle and oil better than anybody. But they’re chattering excitedly about clean energy, megawatts and anemometer readings.
Greg Wortham, executive director of the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium, fires up a PowerPoint presentation and throws some hard numbers at the group. By the end of this year, he tells them, Nolan County alone will nearly lead the nation in wind energy production. It’ll be second only to the entire state of Texas.
“It’s happening no other place in the world like it’s happening here,” Wortham says.
And it’s moving fast. At the beginning of 2005, neighboring Taylor County had one wind turbine. Now it has more than 350. The number changes every day.
Behind the school, the turbines of the Trent Mesa project spin on a ridge in the distance. They’ve been there for nearly five years. But area residents are just starting to discuss and understand what happens when a bunch of new-age windmills changes everything about the place where you live.
You wouldn’t think anything much could be hidden on the open plains of West Texas. After all, a truck on a dirt road kicks up a cloud of dust you can see for miles. But when the wind projects started, it was like they were hiding in plain sight. It took years for people to fully realize what they had.
Wortham might have been the first to see it – and at the time, he didn’t even live in Texas. He’d devoted his career to energy, the environment and rural development. And that put him in the perfect place to understand what wind power could mean for West Texas, even though he was living in New York City.
Wortham has three academic degrees, including one in law. He’s been involved in earth-friendly energy experiments and has helped shape federal energy policy. But the cadence of his words and the flatness of his I’s give away the fact that he’s a graduate of Sweetwater High, Class of ’79.
For six years in New York, Wortham was a top executive for the first urban electricity co-op in the country. He kept hearing the governor of New York talk about the state’s big wind projects, and something didn’t make sense. At the time, New York was producing only about 40 megawatts of wind energy. Forty megawatts? Heck, a single ranch in West Texas could produce that amount, Wortham knew.
In fact, the Trent Mesa project alone was producing four times as much wind energy as the entire state of New York. But New York and other states with smaller projects were getting all the publicity, all the funding, all the business opportunities. Why wasn’t Texas getting its share?
“I just kept watching,” Wortham says, “and I thought, ‘Why is no one [in West Texas] talking about wind?'”
Wortham moved back to Sweetwater. He opened up an office and founded the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium. He set up a Web site, printed brochures, started organizing conferences and trade fairs. He had two goals: Educate West Texans about the wind industry, and educate the wind industry about West Texas.
The folks who lived in the shadow of those turbines, it seems, were too close to clearly see their potential.
“At the beginning,” Wortham says, “it was a novelty. It was – ‘Oh, that’s the Sierra Club. We’re the oil people.’ It was – ‘That’s interesting, but, by golly, we’ve got oil to think about.'”
These days, West Texans are realizing that wind energy is undeniably the oil boom of the 21st century. If the region plays its cards right – and does enough marketing – local industry can get a solid share of the money to be made from wind.
“Really, it’s only been in the last year that it’s transitioned into heavy industry,” Wortham says. “Now everybody sees it as a comprehensive industry. It’s not just something out on a ranch. It’s welders in Brownwood and industrial workers in Coleman and carbon fiber workers in Abilene.”
Or, at least, it will be if West Texans can organize themselves fast enough.
“Somebody’s going to be the Midland of wind,” Wortham says, remembering how Midland became a hub of industry during the oil boom. “And it may be Midland, but it also may be Minneapolis or Minot. It may be someplace totally different if West Texas doesn’t seize this while we’re at the center of it.”
Banking on the breeze
At the conference in Trent, about a dozen booths are set up in the gym. There are energy companies. Consulting companies. And some counties that have set up big displays, hoping to drum up interest from developers. Mitchell County is giving away kites. In Runnels County, about 50 miles south of Abilene, seven groups of landowners have banded together with their neighbors to form project areas ready for development. With project areas ranging from 15,000 to 90,000 acres, they’re keeping their fingers crossed that some developer or energy company will want to make a deal.
Nancy Strickland is handing out flyers that say “Runnels County: Ready for Wind Energy.” She lives in San Angelo but owns land outside Ballinger. She’s behind this wind thing 100 percent.
“I’ve heard some people in San Angelo say they’re ugly,” she says. “Well, oil wells used to be ugly, too.”
The turbines do require some adjustment, though. In other parts of the country, people have tried to shoo them away. Proposals to place wind turbines in scenic locations – near Cape Cod, for example, and on the south shore of Long Island – have been slowed by protests from residents who don’t want the places they love marred by unsightly turbines. Even in Texas there’s organized resistance; a group called North Texas Wind Resistance, for example, has set up a Web site to discourage a project proposed for the Muenster/Saint Jo area northwest of Denton.
Send them someplace that’s already ugly, the protesters say – somewhere like West Texas.
There’s been some of the same resistance in West Texas. It’s a land that inhabitants tend to love fiercely, not because it’s beautiful but because it’s theirs. But secretly, they think it is beautiful: the endless space, the uninterrupted sky, the openness that stretches out forever in any direction. Wind turbines are not necessarily a part of that.
In West Texas, most communities and landowners have welcomed the turbines with a little ambivalence. They’ve made compromises. They still wonder if, in 10 years, they’ll regret letting the turbines in.
“They’ve made hard decisions here,” Wortham says, “the ranchers and the farmers and the counties. It makes sense for us to do this. But it wasn’t just some sort of ‘Aw, shucks, yeah, just put ’em up.’ It took a lot of hard thought the last four or five years – hard thought and really talking to each other.”
Side dish of success
The turbines are the most obvious sign that wind energy has come through a town. But there are some changes closer to the ground, too. In Trent, the school is brand-new, full of fresh carpet and shiny blue tile; it was paid for with money from the Trent Mesa wind project. At Texas State Technical College, a new associate’s degree will be offered this fall: Wind Energy Technician. It might inspire local kids to stick around, get a job that uses their degree in their own hometowns.
And then, of course, there’s the Nolan cafe.
At 20 minutes past noon on a Thursday, every single seat is full in the little restaurant. Since it opened, the cafe has become a gathering place in Nolan, the sort of place where you’ll run into everybody in town. And it opened because of the turbines.
Until eight months ago, if folks in Nolan wanted anything to eat, they had to drive into Sweetwater or Abilene. There still aren’t any grocery stores for 20 miles. But now, at the cafe, there’s a lunchtime rush every day – and at the hodgepodge of tables inside, Nolan residents are far outnumbered by sweaty, sunbaked men wearing orange shirts. These wind turbine construction workers come every day to the only place for miles that’ll serve them chicken-fried steak and cheeseburgers, sweet tea and homemade peach cobbler. For a couple of hours every midday, they fill the tiny cafe to overflowing.
Jeff Egger grew up in Nolan, went to college in Abilene and then moved to Oklahoma City to work in the restaurant biz. He never planned on opening a cafe in his hometown.
“Dad wanted to buy [the old cafe] a few years ago,” says Jeff, 42. “I said, ‘No, it won’t make any money.'”
But last summer, Jeff came home and saw how fast the wind turbines were going up. He saw the crews – dozens of them, putting up turbine after turbine in the middle of Nolan County – and realized all those guys had to eat somewhere. He told his dad to go ahead and buy the place. And Jeff moved back home to run the Nolan Cafe.
“I was glad to get him back,” says his dad, Windell, who’s 79. “I needed help on the ranch.”
The tiny cafe is a pleasant, messy jumble inside. Its four tables take up nearly all the space, so moving around usually requires crawling over a couple of diners.
Windell and his wife, Mary Jo, have five turbines of their own, spread out across their ranch a few miles southeast of the cafe.
“It’s God’s way of taking care of us in our old age,” says Mary Jo. The wind turbine windfall has given them a cushion, something to pass on as a legacy. And the cafe has given them a place to go every day, a place where they can meet and catch up with friends.
“I don’t sit at home all day and worry about everything,” Mary Jo says.
“You do sit at home a lot,” teases the man she married more than 61 years ago. She smiles.
“Well, if I do, I’m crocheting.”
Who knows how long the cafe will last? Jeff talks about expanding the place, turning it into a destination, with more tables, a patio and live music. With so many wind projects in the area, it will be years before the construction workers disappear.
The family vote
Nearly every day, you can find at least one of the Usserys in the cafe: Mary; her daughter, Rebecca Ussery Gunn; her son, Johnny Ussery Jr.; and two more generations of Usserys, some of whom live on this same small stretch of Farm Road 126.
A hundred years ago, the Ussery family’s ancestors owned just about all the land that would become Nolan. Johnny and Rebecca’s great-grandfather owned all the eye could see, but he thought everybody should own some land. So he parceled his out in bits and pieces, selling land and giving it in exchange for work.
Mary’s husband, Johnny, passed away in 1989, and since then, she and her two children, Johnny Ussery Jr. and Rebecca Ussery Gunn, have shared ownership of the remaining 2,100 acres.
They can point out the old picket pens that were built on the land a century ago. Rebecca can show you the exact mesquite tree her son Jeremy was near when he lost part of a finger in a hunting accident a decade ago. The land is theirs, through and through.
Or, at least, it used to be. The arrival of the turbines has altered everything about the Ussery Ranch – the way it looks, the way it’s used, the way the family spends time on it. The Usserys think the turbines are a blessing from God. But they know this family land will never be the same.
When the companies started approaching the Usserys last summer, they felt the changes coming, and they knew they needed to do some talking. So Mary, Johnny and Rebecca headed out to the place they were most comfortable. The three of them went out into the cactus, into the brown grass and mesquite trees, and they talked about the future of their land.
“We talked about it,” Johnny says. “We asked, ‘How’s this going to affect the thing that we love the most?'”
They tried to imagine what their ancestors would have chosen to do.
“These were the biggest changes that were ever going to happen to this ranch,” Johnny says. They wanted to do right by the family members who came before them, who worked hard for this land, who never would have imagined that these pastures might be filled with 300-foot towers or that they might be leased to a company 1,000 miles away.
The three of them stood out in the wind and thought it over. Then they went home and called a Ussery family meeting. Rebecca and Johnny each have two adult children, and they wanted them to take part in the decision. After all, someday the ranch will be theirs.
They agreed it should be done. But they weren’t all thrilled about it.
“My daughter just cried and cried,” Rebecca says. Crystal, 25, is married with two daughters of her own; they live about 75 miles away in Fluvanna. She grew up on that ranch, and she never dreamed it wouldn’t always stay the way it was.
“I just want everything to be the same for the kids like it was with us,” Crystal says. She can’t talk about the ranch without getting emotional. She remembers camping and picnics; she remembers when she was a little girl, riding across this land in the back of her granddad’s pickup when he drove out to feed the cows.
There aren’t any cows anymore; the Usserys decided to sell their cattle during the frenzy of turbine-building. And there are new, unfamiliar roads built to accommodate construction – the Usserys sometimes have trouble finding their way around on their own land.
Before the construction started last year, the Usserys hired an aerial photographer to take pictures of the ranch.
“We wanted the grandkids to know what the ranch looked like before the wind turbines arrived,” Johnny says. “I knew they would never have the chance to see it in the same way.”
The turbines were up and online by the end of June. That’s when Crystal came down to the ranch to spend some time alone. Everything was different. There were no wide open spaces; there was no unbroken horizon. The turbines were everywhere. It made her cry. But then, after a while, she made peace with the 28 towers.
“She told me, ‘I had a good long cry, but now it’s OK,'” says Rebecca, her mother. “She said, ‘It’s good and it’s for the best and it’s going to help the family.’ ” She knew it, even if she didn’t quite feel it.
The Usserys have given up the ranch they knew. But they’ve gotten some things in return.
“We take a great deal of pride,” Johnny Ussery says. “This is pollution-free energy. We feel like we’re being a part of something that’s really helping the environment. The money’s great – don’t misunderstand me – but we feel like we’re doing a small part, a very small part, in helping provide a clean source of energy.”
The money, though, is going to change their lives. Landowners sign confidentiality agreements with the wind project developers, so the Usserys can’t say how much they’ll earn from their 28 turbines. Wortham estimates that many landowners are paid up to $10,000 a year per turbine, depending on the agreement signed and the size and output of the turbines.
Life isn’t going to be the same. Already, Johnny’s bought a motorcycle and a motor home. Rebecca hopes her husband can retire early. And Mary went into Sweetwater not long ago to look at a new Cadillac. She doesn’t want one; she feels more comfortable in her Dodge Dakota double-cab. Instead, she plans to build a new house. It won’t be a home on the ranch – with turbines and transmission lines, it’s far too complicated to build anything on the Ussery land. So Mary will build her new house next to her old one, right in town.
The turbines have changed the ranch. But they also might have saved it.
“I have always wondered,” Johnny says, “how am I going to make this ranch economically viable so my children would want to hang onto it?”
Until now, the Usserys have kept the ranch going by working the land, offering guided hunts for quail and turkey, raising cattle and hoping there’ll be enough rain. Their kids, though, can rely on a steady income from an energy company that will pay them, year after year, for putting up with those 28 towering turbines.
It’ll be different. But it’ll be steady and solid, a sure thing, because the wind isn’t going to stop blowing.
You can count on it.
“Somebody’s going to be the Midland of wind. And it may be Midland, but it also may be Minneapolis or Minot. It may be someplace totally different if West Texas doesn’t seize this while we’re at the center of it.”
“I’ve heard some people in San Angelo say they’re ugly. Well, oil wells used to be ugly, too.”
Alyson Ward, 817-390-7988 email@example.com
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