West Texas is cowboy country. Here, scratching out a living is often dictated by what a cow can fetch, or what a barrel of oil brings.
Dry, dusty towns are dotted with reminders of hard times: vacant motels; rusted cars parked at drive-in theaters that have long stood silent – theaters where crowds once flocked to see films that reflected their lives, like “Giant.”
Set in West Texas, “Giant” told the real-life story of cattle barons refusing to change with the times.
That resistance to change and the desire to preserve a way of life, still remains. But today, the cause of concern is different – with rusted and retired pump jacks standing as witnesses of booms and busts gone by, a new “giant” looms on the horizon: wind turbines. They’re sprouting as fast as Texas wildflowers.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and windmills are no exception. One windmill is taller than the Statue of Liberty. Its huge turbine is longer than an 18-wheeler, and each one can generate enough power for more than 500 homes.
From the air you can see them on almost every mesa, stretching for miles.
“You can look back over here, and keep seein’ ’em, another run and another run and another run,” rancher Raymond McDaniel, who has more than 50 wind turbines on his land, told CBS News correspondent Hari Sreenivasan.
For most ranchers in these parts, McDaniel says it was a struggle just to break even in the cattle business.
“There was no water, there was no grass, there was no market,” he said. “So everything went downhill pretty good.”
But the money they receive from leasing land to power companies and their turbines, he says, has given ranchers some breathing room – money to better tend to their land and their cattle.
But not everyone is happy about the use of wind. In some cases, it is setting neighbor against neighbor.
“I’m offended that my neighbor would sell himself for money and not care what it did to me,” Dale Rankin said. “I’m all for people making money. I’m all for people making a profit, having an income, but I think you need to be considerate of your neighbors when you’re in that pursuit.”
Greg Wortham is one of a new breed of prospectors pursuing wind-energy riches. He cashed in his retirement savings to start the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium and is trying to rally local support for renewable energy. He says the turbines are multiplying.
“West Texas is the 4th largest nation in wind energy today,” Wortham said. “There’s Germany, Spain, India, and West Texas.”
And he’s no carpet-bagger: Wortham grew up in Sweetwater, Texas and walked its streets back when it was an oil and gas town. “You could always tell you were home even if you were sleepin’ in the car on the way home because you begin to smell oil, which was a beautiful smell,” he said.
After high school he headed off to college and the big city where he worked as an energy attorney in New York and Washington, D.C. Now he’s back, living in a renovated house just off Main Street, and he was recently elected mayor.
“I didn’t come back here to be mayor, that wasn’t the plan, but part of it is having been in N.Y. on Sept. 11th and realizing that you have one country, one hometown, and one lifetime to do something,” he said.
For him, that something is helping to spark a wind energy gold rush – so far more than $6 billion has been invested in 120 West Texas counties.
“We hear nationally that people are being laid off by tens of thousands. Well, they need to come here. We hear nationally that housing starts are down. Well, West Texas needs hundreds of new, very high quality homes,” he said.
To meet hiring demands, the community college has added courses in wind technology. Students are shifting gears to train for careers in wind-farming because the pay is two to three times above the local average.
The industry has given the entire region a second wind – generating new businesses and new construction. Schools are scoring as well. Tiny Trent, Texas has only 60 students in its high school, what used to be one of the poorest schools in the state. It is now state of the art.
“We’ve got two computer labs – one for the elementary and one for high school,” Trent school superintendent Greg Priddy said. “We’re getting projectors for every class room.”
Priddy says none of this would have been possible without a healthy new tax base fueled by the turbines on the mesa behind the school.
But opponents like Dale Rankin worry all that income may be short-lived. He wonders what might happen if tax subsidies the companies rely on, come to an end.
“They’ll shut ’em off and walk away, and we’ll be left with thousands and thousands of these monsters littering the landscape,” he said.
But that’s not the way ranchers like Raymond McDaniel see it. When he looks at all the windmills he has one simple thought:
“A changing world,” he said. “Changing world.”
2 December 2007
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