More than 88,000 acres of ranchland full of mesquite trees and brush in Starr County will be transformed into what local leaders hope will be the largest wind turbine project within a single county in Texas.
Two phases of the project, dubbed Los Vientos III and IV, meaning “the wind” in Spanish and worth $410 million are underway with 247 giant white turbines capable of powering more than 185,000 homes by the end of the year.
The wind farms will be erected about 20 miles northeast of Rio Grande City on Farm-to-Market Road 490 near Pipeline Road.
Duke Energy Renewables, a subsidiary of the North Carolina-based electricity monolith Duke Energy, heads the project, with more phases expected in the future, county officials said.
The largest existing wind farm solely in one Texas county is the Sweetwater project with 585 turbines in Nolan County, which is also owned by Duke. With 634 turbines spread across four counties in the Texas panhandle, the Roscoe project run by E.ON Climate & Renewables is the state’s largest wind farm.
Developers chose Starr County because of the strong wind patterns off the Gulf of Mexico’s coast.
Rose Benavidez, the president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, said the energy boom has brought relief to landowners and farmers faced with years of drought and shrinking mineral rights.
“Every time that turbine turns, it’s like a cash register,” she said.
Benavidez said the county has seen an economic boost since construction workers rolled in, with hotel occupancy taxes up 18 percent.
Los Vientos I and II were constructed in Willacy County, which collected almost $600,000 in cash from the wind projects and another $275,000 in lieu of property taxes from Duke in 2013, The Brownsville Herald reported.
By the end of the year, Starr County should receive its first payment of $295,000 for Los Vientos III, according to its tax abatement agreement with Duke.
Each year after that, Duke is required to pay the county $1,000 per megawatt multiplied by the total operating capacity, with the total cost not to exceed more than $250,000 annually.
In total, $50 million is expected to be added to county tax rolls over the course of its 25-year agreement, officials said.
All the energy to be generated by the project has already been purchased by the City of Austin’s public utility.
Benavidez said private landowners leased property to Duke and some residents will have up to 20 turbines on their property, collecting a minimum of $10,000 per tower each year.
The county signed an agreement for a fifth part of the Los Vientos project worth another $52 million. Discussions for two more phases of wind farms are also in the works, she said.
But in a region where nature tourism is a major draw, concerns about migratory birds and bats have worried conservationists.
“This is one of the densest migratory pathways for birds in North America,” Jim Chapman, a board member for the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, said of the Valley’s four county region.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that 440,000 birds are killed by wind turbines every year in the country, but annual estimates as high as 888,000 bats and 573,000 birds are killed, according to a 2012 study by K. Shawn Smallwood published by the Wildlife Society Bulletin.
In November 2013, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to violating federal law that protects endangered species and was forced to pay $1 million in restitution for its wind farms in Wyoming. The company is currently on probation for another four years.
The next month, the Obama administration extended the legal timeframe wind turbine companies can kill migratory birds up from five to 30 years with a permit, in order to promote the industry.
Since the Starr County turbines will be built on private land, the national wildlife service is not required to be involved. Duke Energy said they’ve conducted third-party avian surveys through Energy Renewal Partners LLC and will monitor the sites.
“We strive to protect wildlife,” said Tammie McGee, spokeswoman for Duke Energy, adding that they will make every effort to minimize environmental impact.
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