The mystique of West Texas is born of wide-open spaces, vast horizons and windswept vistas – and a lone rider loping over a mesa to round up the herd. Nothing dislodges that beloved image more completely than today’s mesa topped with a platoon of sky-high wind turbines, their 200-foot blades rotating like extraterrestrial pinwheels.
The wind farm is becoming as much a part of Texas as the cattle ranch. This year Texas surpassed California to become the No. 1 state in total wind power installations. Wind power capacity increased 38 percent in 2006. This $10 billion surge in the construction of wind turbines is spurred by 2005 legislation to create zones for transmission lines that capture and deliver the zero-emission power and are necessary to attract wind energy developers. Unfortunately for the Texas mystique, some of the most favorable sites are atop scenic ridgelines.
The benefits of renewable wind power are undeniable. Yet some, such as the Dallas-area ranchers who filed suit to protest the visual blight, want to keep it out of their neighborhood. And not nearly enough is known about the disruption of habitat and birds’ fatal collision with the structures.
Opponents of wind power have little recourse. Unlike California and other states, Texas has virtually no regulation on the location, siting, environmental impact or visual effect of these massive structures. The Public Utility Commission will regulate location of the transmission zones with an eye to cost-effective delivery of electricity. It seeks no control over where the turbines are located – a decision investors are free to make with any landowner willing to sign a lease.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is working with a group of wind industry executives and environmental groups to develop voluntary guidelines that take wildlife habitat and bird migration patterns into account in siting the turbines. The operative word here is voluntary.
There is very little federal regulation of wind energy, except on federal land or projects undertaken with federal funding. Any oversight is left primarily to local or state entities.
A 2005 GAO report recommends the federal government step into the regulatory vacuum to address scientific concerns about wildlife impact. It suggests that the Fish and Wildlife Service develop consistent guidelines for local and state regulators. Since two-thirds of the migratory birds in the United States and Canada pass through Texas, such guidelines would be beneficial – if our state had regulation.
Texas has the fastest-growing wind industry in the nation. More needs to be learned about the cumulative impact of a rapidly expanding phenomenon. Developing guidelines and assigning a state agency to oversee these projects need not be the same thing as discouraging their development.
Every energy source has its price, whether it be noxious emissions, radioactive waste or scenic blight. Regulating wind power sites to mitigate danger to wildlife and to preserve treasured scenery should be a given as Texas charts its energy future.
The Houston Chronicle
9 February 2007