In the 19th century, meat and hides brought wealth to the owners of the vast South Texas ranches that covered most of what would later become Kenedy County.
Midway through the 20th century, the discovery of oil and gas on these coastal flatlands south of Corpus Christi dramatically changed the economic model. And now, in a new century, it’s changing again.
In the next several years, foreign companies plan to invest more than $1 billion in two large wind energy farms on a remote portion of the 400,000-acre Kenedy Ranch bordering the Laguna Madre.
“We’ll build 157 turbines along about 10 miles of coastline. We’re starting construction in early 2008, and we’ll be generating by 2009,” said John Calaway, chief development officer for Babcock & Brown Ltd., an Australian company.
An adjacent project by PPM Energy, now owned by the Spanish giant Iberdrola, is on a similar timetable, with a plan to operate 84 turbines. A second phase could double PPM’s output.
“We’ve been talking about 400 megawatts, and we hope to do more,” said Jan Johnson, a spokesperson for PPM in Portland, Ore.
If all goes as planned – despite objections from some environmentalists and others worried about the area’s ecotourism industry – miles of 400-foot tall, three-bladed Mitsubishi turbines will be generating power sufficient for about 180,000 Texas homes within two years.
They also will provide royalties to the two nonprofit organizations that own the Kenedy Ranch and have seen a recent decline in oil and gas income.
“It will generate a couple of million (dollars) a year for charity,” said Marc Cisneros, chief executive officer of the Kenedy Memorial Foundation, which controls the northern half of the ranch.
One of the largest philanthropic entities in South Texas, the foundation gives away about $12 million a year, primarily to causes associated with the Catholic Church, he said.
“We looked at this as a way to continue increasing our charitable giving in the poorest, least educated region in all of the United States,” Cisneros said.
The foundation decided to go forward after becoming convinced the wind project will not have harmful environmental consequences, he said.
Trustees for the John G. Kenedy Charitable Trust, which controls the portion of the ranch where PPM will be operating, issued a statement saying the wind project is consistent with the ranch’s mission and is environmentally sound.
The wind projects are noteworthy for Texas for several reasons, said Mike Sloan of the Wind Coalition, a trade association based in Austin.
“The primary significance is that it is opening up a major new area of the state to wind development. Currently there are no wind farms operating east of Abilene,” he said.
The initial projected total output of 600 megawatts from both projects will be a big boost to the state’s wind-generated electricity, currently at 3,500 megawatts. And unlike other wind farms, the Kenedy Ranch turbines will generate electricity during peak load periods in the late afternoon.
Finally, Sloan said, no other wind project in Texas has prompted such extensive voluntary studies of the potential impact on wildlife.
But because wind farms on private property are subject to little state or federal regulation, the Kenedy projects are going forward without much public input or government oversight.
Recent legislative efforts on both the state and federal level to impose greater control over wind farms were unsuccessful.
In lightly populated Kenedy County, local officials, who in late 2005 resisted overtures to give tax subsidies to the wind farms, say they are now completely out of the loop.
“If they want to build it on private property, we have no say on it,” said County Judge J.A. Garcia. “Some of our public officials are probably against it, but I have no ax to grind either way. I’m with what the majority of the county wants to do.”
At the very least, the two projects – if successful – will dramatically boost the $488 million tax base of a county that is home to only about 400 people.
And although critics of the two projects are few, they are not insignificant.
Chief among them is Jack Hunt, CEO of the adjacent King Ranch, which historically enjoyed harmonious relations with its smaller Kenedy neighbor.
The relationship dates to 1850, when future ranch titans Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King became partners in a Rio Grande steamship company. Later, they owned a large ranch together.
Eventually, each acquired the huge adjacent spreads that now bear their family names. But lately, the wind farms have driven a sharp wedge between families.
“It’s really fractured a long, productive historical relationship. It’s caused a tremendous amount of friction,” Hunt said.
His aggressive campaigning against the wind farms has earned him the ire of the project backers.
“We’ve had a lot of trouble with Mr. Hunt. He’s been just about the most difficult person to deal with rationally. He’s a guy who seems to stop at nothing,” complained Calaway of Babcock & Brown.
Hunt’s objections range from purely aesthetic to potential dangers for migratory birds posed by large spinning turbine blades to what he sees as a questionable energy policy.
“You have an intermittent source of power that only operates at a small percentage of capacity, so you will need backup capacity to provide power when the wind doesn’t blow, so the cost is high,” he said.
And, Hunt said, hundreds of large turbines near the Laguna Madre will do nothing to enhance the region’s visual charm or protect its biological diversity.
“Ecotourism, hunting and wildlife are major economic interests of the ranch, and we’re concerned that no one understands the impact,” he said.
And although most environmental groups have stayed on the sidelines, not wanting to oppose a source of “green power,” the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation, based in Port Mansfield, has jumped into the ring.
“Locating a very large-scale wind farm in the migration route of so many documented threatened and endangered species is just stupid and arrogant,” said fishing guide Walt Kittelberger, a foundation leader.
“There are many blighted landscapes around America that could be used instead. Why screw up a million-dollar view needlessly?” he asked.
But project backers say many of the environmental objections being raised by Hunt and others are scare tactics based on exaggerations or faulty science.
“We’re totally aware that the whole Texas coast is a very sensitive bird migratory area. We really have done a thorough job of studying the avian issues and making the appropriate changes,” said Johnson of PPM, who says the company consulted with a host of private, state and federal environmental agencies.
A long-term study of migratory bird patterns, utilizing constant radar scans, has showed that very few birds will be endangered by the turbines, said Babcock & Brown’s Calaway.
“The finding is that there is far less bird traffic through there, and at higher altitudes than people feared. That’s science,” he said of the radar-based data.
And, he said, in the big picture, no energy comes without unavoidable costs.
“America is at war in the Middle East. Oil is at $65 a barrel. We’re importing 60 percent of our oil. Global warming is a genuine issue,” Calaway said.
“And here we’re trying to create energy to support 100,000 homes, and that’s a lot more valuable than a few incidental takes of birds. There’s always a price.”
By John MacCormack
17 June 2007
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