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Wind-power push raising ire

He may be spitting into the wind of public opinion, but Dale Rankin couldn’t care less.

With a half-dozen, 400-foot-tall wind turbines turning on the hills behind his home 20 miles southwest of Abilene, Rankin is less enamored with wind power than most Texans.

The six turbines are just a fraction of the 421 spread out across 47,000 acres on the Horse Hollow wind farm, billed as the largest in the world.

His distaste for wind-generated energy may have begun as a “not in my back yard” sentiment. But as he learned more about the industry, Rankin said, his attitude hardened.

With several of his neighbors, Rankin filed one of the first anti-wind-industry lawsuits in the state, arguing that wind farms are a public nuisance that do little to help the state’s energy needs.

“One of the things that really energized us is how quietly, how stealthily and surreptitiously these people worked behind the scenes,” Rankin said. “The lack of regulation, combined with the state renewable-energy mandate, is making Texas a prime spot for these wind companies. But I can tell you, nobody wants to live next to them.”

Rankin’s group’s suit flies in the face of current public policy, in which the governor and the Legislature have embraced “green” energy, with wind leading the way.

Texas has mandated that at least 5,880 megawatts of energy used in the state come from renewable-energy sources by 2009 and 5,000 more megawatts by 2015. Texas currently has about 2,600 megawatts, but that number could easily double by the end of 2007, when federal tax credits are scheduled to expire. One megawatt can power about 700 homes.

The Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which controls 75 percent of the grid in Texas, are studying sites for Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, where transmission lines could be clustered with wind farms. The cost to upgrade those transmission lines is expected to cost $10 billion and would eventually be passed on to consumers, according to ERCOT.

Tough fight ahead

Considering the incentives promoting the use of wind to generate electricity, those who oppose the proliferation of wind farms recognize that they are facing an uphill battle.

Rankin’s lawsuit, which tried unsuccessfully to stop construction and now seeks damages, may be the first of many. It is scheduled to go to trial next month in Abilene.

Another was filed two months ago in the Cooke County seat of Gainesville, where rumors are swirling that wind turbines are about to go up in the rolling countryside north of Muenster and into neighboring Montague County. Farther to the west, residents are waiting to see whether several proposed wind farms will be built in Jack County.

Opponents argue that wind farms mar the landscape because of the size of the turbines and because so many have to be clustered together on a farm. Wind farms devalue neighboring property, they say.

Also, critics say, there’s no guarantee that the turbine owners will remove the towers with their giant cement bases when they are no longer in use. The wind industry insists that its contracts with landowners include removing turbines.

And there’s the matter of money. Opponents say the wind industry is more interested in taking advantage of tax benefits before the political winds shift than it is in the energy benefits.

Houston attorney Steve Thompson, who filed the Taylor County and Cooke County lawsuits, said there is likely to be more legal action.

“It used to be they put up wind farms in areas where very few people lived,” Thompson said. “The only folks affected out in far West Texas were the people putting them on their own property. Now, as they need other places to put them, they’ve started to move into more populated areas, and they’re getting a very different reaction.”

Along the Texas Gulf Coast, wind farms are proposed for Kenedy County, and the Texas General Land Office announced its intention this year that a wind farm would be built offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. North of Corpus Christi, cotton farmers in San Patricio County are wondering whether they may be the next target.

A coalition forms

On the night before Halloween, a loose coalition of wind-industry opponents came together in a Jacksboro gymnasium. Among those present were Dan Stephenson, who manages a hunting retreat in Jack County; Joe Dial, a Montague County resident who helped organize the North Texas Wind Resistance Alliance; and Jack Hunt, the chief executive of the legendary King Ranch.

Dial said he believed wind-generated energy had few downsides before he learned that wind turbines might be coming near his town of Saint Jo in Montague County.

He and his wife used Green Mountain Energy while living in Dallas, but since learning of these wind farms, he’s changed his mind.

“I thought green was good,” said Dial, a one-time Republican appointee to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. “Boy, when I saw the facts, I changed my mind.”

In South Texas, Hunt led the opposition to a proposal to place wind turbines on the neighboring Kenedy Ranch. Last spring, Kenedy County commissioners opted not to give a county tax abatement for the turbines, but Hunt isn’t declaring victory.

He said the issue has strained relations between the King Ranch and the Kenedy Ranch, both integral parts of Texas lore that have a shared history, and the turbines could still be built without the local abatement.

The Texas General Land Office’s plan to place turbines offshore in the Gulf of Mexico also troubles him, but he is more concerned about the plan on his neighbor’s ranch.

“I’m far more worried about onshore turbines than offshore,” Hunt said. “They will be subject to vigorous review by various federal agencies. Anything built onshore will not. There’s absolutely no oversight, no permitting process to anything built in Texas. Once they make an agreement with a landowner, there is nothing to stop them from putting up those turbines.”

Hunt is also a board member of the Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Last month, that board asked the governor and the state Legislature to place a moratorium on wind farms to “evaluate the cumulative effects of industrial wind projects.”

The organization’s leadership said a panel of experts should be created, and a report should be completed within six months so that any “conclusions would inform preconstruction planning.”

Matt Brockman, the Cattle Raisers’ executive vice president, stressed that the organization isn’t taking a stand on the issue.

“Obviously, all of our members are interested in diversifying revenue sources,” Brockman said. “It certainly has got their interest as a diversified source of income. Some members are also concerned about the implications on wildlife habitat and the ability to explore oil and gas production.”

For the landowners, there’s no denying the attraction of a wind-farm lease: They can earn as much as $10,000 per turbine per year.

Kathy Walt, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, declined to comment on the association’s request, saying the governor’s office hasn’t seen a copy of it.

A nuisance?

Just north of Muenster in the rolling countryside near the Red River, residents are convinced that FPL Energy, the largest operator of wind farms in Texas and the United States, is preparing to build another operation in Cooke County and possibly Montague County.

Several families filed suit, arguing that they wouldn’t have bought land if they had known that a wind farm was planned. And they contend that the turbines are being built not to produce energy, but to reap the benefits of federal, state and local tax breaks.

But FPL spokesman Steve Stengel said state and local officials overwhelmingly support wind energy. Stengel said the company will vigorously defend the lawsuits.

“We couldn’t do what we do without landowner and public support,” Stengel said. “Our view is, and our history is, there are many more people that like wind turbines and understand the real and tangible value that wind energy brings to the state.”

As to complaints that negotiations are conducted in secret, Stengel said: “We view our land-lease agreements as legally binding contracts. We’re in a very competitive business, and we see this information as proprietary.”

Hunt, the King Ranch CEO, said the wind business is conducted differently from the oil and gas business.

“If they want to buy your mineral rights, you can go down the coffee shop or cotton gin and talk it over with your neighbor,” Hunt said. “With wind, they make you sign a confidentiality agreement before they tell you the details of the deal. That prevents you from talking to your neighbor and pits neighbor against neighbor. It divides the community.”

ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission are studying the best ways to implement the $10 billion in improvements to transmission lines to get more wind energy on the grid.

ERCOT has identified four areas for Competitive Renewable Energy Zones based on a combination of reliable wind and existing transmission lines. These include two areas where there are already a number of wind turbines – Abilene and McCamey – as well as the Texas Panhandle and a portion of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Most public comments filed with the PUC indicate support for the wind industry, with many cities and counties, particularly in the Panhandle and East Texas, urging officials to create one of the four energy zones near them.

Bill Bojorquez, ERCOT’s director of system planning, said final recommendations for the zones won’t be made until the end of the year. The PUC will make public some of its rules and guidelines on Friday.

Limited capacity

Currently, there is limited capacity to add wind-generated energy to the grid. Transmission lines running through Jack and Archer counties toward Wichita Falls have some capacity, and there could be more expansion in the Abilene and Sweetwater area, Bojorquez said. In Cooke and Montague counties, capacity is extremely limited.

Bojorquez cautions that wind energy must be supplemented by more traditional forms of energy, like natural gas and coal. When the energy is needed the most during the summer, wind will be generating at less than 3 percent of its capacity.

“You cannot plan your grid around it,” Bojorquez said. “During historic summer peaks, you can only count on wind to generate 2.6 percent of its capacity. Wind energy does mean you will use fewer amounts of coal and oil, but it doesn’t mean you will replace any power plants. You will still the need the same number because wind is variable.”

Stengel did not dispute ERCOT’s figures but said wind farms offset about 1.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide gas in 2005.

In Rankin’s lawsuit, his attorney contends that FPL Energy is getting $250 million in federal and state tax credits as well the local county abatements for the Horse Hollow wind farm.

Stengel would not comment directly about the suit’s allegation but said the company has invested more than $1 billion in Texas during the last year.

If the trends continue, Hunt, the King Ranch CEO, predicts that the grass-roots opposition will multiply. And lawsuits will likely follow.

“Ten years from now, we’re going to be really sorry we didn’t have any regulations or permitting process in this state,” Hunt said. “The courts are going to be bogged down with people suing a lot of other people because their ranches aren’t worth what they think they are.”

By Bill Hanna, Star-Telegram Staff Writer
817-390-7698 billhanna@star-telegram.com