Like his father and grandfather before him, Johnny Ussery has always been a cattleman, tending 100 head – and a few small oil wells – on his parched, 2,500-acre ranch in the West Texas flatlands. Last January, however, Ussery decided to “change with the times.”
Breaking family tradition, he sold his herd and joined an enterprise that didn’t even exist in Texas until 1995: wind energy.
“It took a lot of soul-searching,” Ussery said of the decision to place 28 gigantic, three-blade windmills on his pancake-flat piece of earth. On the upside, he said, unlike cows, the turbines are low-maintenance: “You don’t have to worry about whether it rains or not.”
Across sparely settled, middle-of-nowhere Nolan County, Ussery is among dozens of ranchers joining an energy boom that has helped Texas surge past California as the new leader in wind power. Long known for its oil and gas riches, Texas now produces enough environmentally friendly wind power to light 600,000 homes, and more wind farms are on the way.
That’s in sharp contrast with Massachusetts, where developers have struggled to complete the controversial Cape Wind project, which would put a 130-turbine wind farm off the coast of Nantucket. The project has been before Congress several times over the years – with Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, leading the fight against it.
Kennedy, a recreational sailor whose family has a vacation compound in Hyannis, has said that he supports wind energy as a clean, renewable energy source, but he calls the Cape Wind project unique and worrying.
He has said publicly that putting huge, 417-foot turbines so close to Nantucket “threatens the livelihoods of Massachusetts fishermen” who work on those waters, and that the wind farm could create navigation and safety risks for shipping. But a legislative deal struck earlier this year may move Cape Wind forward.
It is now before more than a dozen federal and state agencies for review and permits. The Coast Guard, under compromise legislation passed in June, is also studying whether the farm will create navigation issues.
Though Texas is racing ahead with its plans to harvest wind energy – including plans for two offshore turbine farms in the Gulf of Mexico – Massachusetts has moved more cautiously, for several reasons, according to one environmentalist.
“There is a cultural difference here,” said Seth Kaplan, a Massachusetts-based senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. The “flinty New England protectiveness of the countryside” contrasts with Texans’ “cavalier attitude” toward their landscape, Kaplan said, noting that West Texas is more sparsely populated than the densely settled Northeast.
Unlike opponents of the controversial Cape Wind project, Texans “are not upset about looking at turbines,” said Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose office oversees state lands and mineral rights. “We certainly don’t have Ted Kennedy,” he said, referring to the senator’s reputation as an environmentalist. “We don’t have those mind-sets here.”
The center of Texas’s wind farm boom lies in Sweetwater, the seat of Nolan County. The land is not much to look at, with dried grasses, cedar trees, and occasionally cotton or cattle. But it is blessed with plenty of open space and near-constant breezes, and there are excellent transmission lines to Dallas already in place.
The first wind turbines went up near Sweetwater five years ago. Projects are now being planned and approved so fast that turbines and blades lie along farm roads, waiting to be erected.
Greg Wortham, executive director of the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium, estimates that there are 700 turbines near Sweetwater already. So many are going up, “it’s not even an accurate count anymore,” he said.
Eager to boost a promising industry, Texas lawmakers last year doubled the state’s production quota for renewable energy to 5,880 megawatts, or roughly 5 percent of its electricity consumption by 2015. Texas is expected to reach that goal early.
“Ultimately I think maybe a minimum of 10 percent of electric power consumption in Texas can come from wind,” said Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner. Patterson is aggressively pushing wind, noting that oil and gas are a “diminishing resource.”
The focus is mostly on West Texas and the high, windy plains of the Panhandle. But in the past year the state has also signed two leases for offshore wind projects in the Gulf of Mexico and is, according to Patterson, at the “inquiry stage” for more.
Though both projects are still in the planning stages, a meteorological research tower to gauge the wind strength could go up soon at the site off Galveston, and Patterson recently announced that the Lone Star State will bid for a new turbine testing facility of the National Renewable Energy Lab.
Patterson said the goal of Texas is “not just to be the number one producer of wind power in the United States, but number one in all facets of wind,” including equipment manufacturing and maintenance.
Despite the enthusiasm, significant hurdles remain – including finding ways to efficiently transmit the power from the turbines into homes and businesses. Nolan County has enough room on its power lines, but the situation is drastically different farther west.
Some of the turbines in the Gulf Coast will lie in the migration paths of birds heading south for the winter, according to Cecilia Riley, executive director of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. Environmentalists are demanding more research on whether the giant windmills will affect the migratory patterns of those birds, and they want developers and the state to come up with more data and a system to monitor their impact.
Patterson, however, dismissed such concerns. “We kill far more birds with high-rise buildings than we do or we ever will with wind power,” he said, referring to birds that crash into structures .
Opposition to wind farms in Texas has been mild. In Sweetwater, locals perceive the new industry as an economic boon.
“I’ve heard some people saying they ruin the looks of the countryside,” said Jessie Gerard, a retired library worker. “They don’t bother me to see them.”
By Kate Galbraith, Globe Correspondent | September 25, 2006
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