The first wind turbine in Willacy County went up on March 30, 2012, and since then the landscape has changed dramatically.
The county’s residents saw an immediate economic benefit leading up to that day from the flood of construction workers assembling the towering turbines on farm and ranch land.
Now, more than a year after the wind farms went online, farmers, company representatives, environmentalists and county officials weigh in on how the turbines have affected the area. Which way the wind blows for opinions on the turbines depends on who you ask.
In many cases, company representatives say, the turbines are exceeding expectations and a farmer who leases property to a wind farm says the arrangement has been beneficial. Environmentalists say the turbines are a threat to migratory birds and a businesswoman says they have hurt her crop-dusting business.
Russell Klostermann, who farms in Willacy County, says he is reaping benefits from the turbines.
“It’s easier to farm wind than anything else,” Klostermann said of the three turbines on his 160-acre grain sorghum field. “They’re connected by an underground line… and don’t take up much area at all.”
Klostermann Farms worked with E.ON Climate and Renewables, which owns the turbines on Klostermann’s property.
E.ON has built 112 turbines that make up the 203-megawatt Magic Valley project, E.ON spokesman Matt Tulis said. The name “Magic Valley” has to do with the first settlers that arrived in the Rio Grande Valley, he said. The area was called “magic” because of the fertile land. “That’s where we got the name from,” said Tulis.
The E.ON turbines produce 1.8 megawatts of energy each per hour on full speed, which is about 20 to 30 miles per hour, Tulis said. Some turbines appear idle due to regularly scheduled routine maintenance.
“The turbines are monitored 24 hours a day,” said Tulis. “We’re able to see the performance of each turbine and are in constant communication.”
“They don’t look like they’re moving that fast, but there’s definitely a certain speed we want to maintain,” Tulis said.
Klostermann says about E.ON, “They’ve been pretty good to work with. They try to be good neighbors.”
The turbines have a little road that goes up to them and use a little piece of land, he said. “We’re harvesting right around them,” he said.
E.ON has a 30-year lease with the Klostermann’s. “They meter what (each turbine) produces and we get a royalty,” he said.
“It’s beneficial to the county,” Klostermann said. The company has improved some roads and the 24-hour monitoring adds to security out in the country, he said.
“We’re part of the community,” Tulis said.
South of the Magic Valley project, Duke Energy has built 171 turbines in its Los Vientos I and Los Vientos II projects, said spokesman Milton Howard.
“They’re all in operating condition,” said John Polomny, the area plant manager. Some are shut down for maintenance though, he said. Duke is also installing a new engineering design with their turbines. “We’re retro-fitting them,” Polomny said.
“At full production, in the best conditions we produce 400 megawatts, which could power approximately 280,000 homes,” Polomny said.
Many of the turbines are outperforming, exceeding expectations, he said. On average, a turbine will have about 20 rotations per minute. “The blade tip can go about 170 miles per hour,” Polomny said.
Local environmentalists have been opposed to the wind turbines from the start, saying the threat to birds on a major migratory route is very high.
“One of the things we’re concerned about is the impact on birds,” said Christine Rakestraw, spokesperson for the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation. “They cause lots of problems… (The turbines) kill birds, period.”
Rakestraw asked, “You’re trashing our back or front yard to send power where?”
Others also are not happy.
“We definitely don’t like them. It’s cut our productivity,” said Sherri Bennack of Bennack Flying Service Inc., which does crop dusting for the area.
“The safety concern is the biggest factor,” she said. “It takes a lot more time to get the job done and be able to spray. A lot of the times we can’t even do the job because they’re right there.”
“They’ve destroyed a lot of farm land,” said Bennack. “Down the road, people are going to feel that they’ve maybe made a mistake that they’ve put them in.”
Representatives for both companies said they have not heard any complaints about the turbines.
The energy that E.ON’s turbines produce is sold to a power marketer, which then sells the energy across Texas, said Tulis.
Duke also sells its power to providers.
“We sell the power,” Howard said, and it goes to “the grid.”
“Physically, the power is consumed by the Valley, but Austin Energy and City of San Antonio purchase the power,” said Howard.
“It goes to the source that needs power,” Howard said.
“Wind turbines produce power that is monitored by ERCOT and then distributed where it is needed,” said ERCOT spokeswoman Robbie Searcy.
ERCOT is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the electric grid and manages the deregulated market for 75 percent of the state.
“We do monitor how wind performs, but the energy becomes part of the entire power grid or transmission,” Searcy said.
“If you’re close to a wind farm, a lot of (your power) could be from there.”
Willacy County is now looking at their benefits from the wind farms.
County Judge John F. Gonzales Jr. said the county will be collecting soon from Duke. Duke’s first payment will be $275,000 as part of its payment in lieu of taxes agreement, Gonzales said. The company will be paying $260,000 each year after that.
The money hasn’t been budgeted yet, said Gonzales, but he hopes to use it partially for a cash equity position on a Federal Emergency Management Agency shelter of last resort, a 10,000-square-foot building that will double as a Boys and Girls Club for Willacy County. The building is set to be built next to Raymondville High School.
“Duke’s been very good,” Gonzales said. They also donated cement for the Lyford City park.
“E.ON doesn’t pay anything and the county received no financial benefit,” Gonzales said. He said that wasn’t part of their agreement.
E.ON’s Tulis responded by saying they will “work closely with the county to make sure we’ve met all of our obligations with the agreements in place.”
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