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Ready or not, wind energy coming

Offering a glimpse into the future, Ken Becker says Plainview is where Sweetwater stood 20 years ago when it comes to wind energy development.

“One of the pitfalls you need to avoid is unrealistic long term expectations when it comes to job growth,” warns Becker who serves as executive director of the Sweetwater Economic Development Corporation. “Many in our community expected that the 1,200 jobs related to the construction would last forever. They didn’t. Instead, we have about 15 percent of those people still working locally in the industry, but they have quality, high-paying positions as technicians.

“We had to learn that wind energy development was the means to an end, and once things leveled out we are still much better off than when we began.”

Becker was in Plainview on Tuesday speaking to about two dozen local governmental officials and businesses leaders in a luncheon sponsored by the Plainview-Hale County Economic Development Corp. He reviewed some of the growing pains Sweetwater went through during the past 18 years as Texas’ leading wind energy producer, and listed some of the lessons learned by the community.

“If we had planned a little better, we could obviously have been more prepared then we were,” Becker says. “Still, we are at a much better point then in the late 1990s when we had no idea what wind turbines would mean to Sweetwater and Nolan County.”

In 1999-2000, he notes, there were about 100 wind turbines in the immediate Sweetwater area, producing approximately 100 megawatts of electricity. Today, there are 1,373 turbines in Nolan County producing 2,060 MW of electricity.

Plainview is in a better position to take advantage of wind energy development then Sweetwater was 20 years ago, he notes, because planned wind farms in the area will be able to connect with both the CREZ line to feed electricity into the ERCOT grid as well as other transmission lines that will feed into the Southwest Power Pool and the Western Power Grid.

“Many of our turbines were built without purchase agreements in place,” he noted, and the electricity produced by wind turbines around Sweetwater largely remains in Texas within the ERCOT grid.

“Oncor, our primary electrical provider, tells us that a 2 percent growth per year is really considered good,” Becker says. “However, thanks to the oil industry, in West Texas we have been experiencing a growth rate of about 28 percent a year. As a result, the United States now produces more electricity from wind resources than any other nation, and Texas produces more than any other state. In 2013, that amounted to 12,214 MW.”

Turbines in the Sweetwater area account for between 6,000 and 8,000 MW of electricity, he notes.

“One of the most significant impacts that wind turbine construction has had on Nolan County involves the growth of our tax base,” Becker explains. “In 1990, the county’s tax base was about $500 million, with the majority related to property within Sweetwater.” By 2008, Nolan County’s property tax base had grown to $2.8 billion, with most of that value in rural areas. As a result, tax rates were reduced significantly. There have been some recent tax increases to help pay for maintenance to buildings and infrastructure.

Becker notes that Nolan County offered tax abatements of up to 10 years for some of the wind energy development, generally agreeing to abate 60 percent of taxes for the first five years, and 40 percent for the second five years. In contrast, neighboring Brown County declined to offer any tax abatements. “They really didn’t want any wind turbines in their county, and they don’t have any turbine there today.”

In contrast, Becker says, Garza County offered 100 percent tax abatements over 10 years for wind energy projects around Post. That’s a concession Becker does not recommend.

Nolan County had about 1,200 people working in the wind energy at its peak in 2008, with about 80 percent involved in construction. Today, there’s between 200 and 250 working in the wind energy industry who are based in Sweetwater.

“One of Plainview’s advantages over Sweetwater is the railroad,” Becker said. The majority of wind turbine components used around Sweetwater were brought in by truck because railroads were not yet prepared to handle the long blades and other massive components. Today, the industry is relying more heavily on railroads for transportation.

Some related growth areas that Plainview can expect, based on the Sweetwater model, include the location of escort services, housing, RV parks, laundry and cleaning services, hotels and motels and restaurants and catering services. “We had some smaller mom-and-pop style restaurants which would go out to the job site and cook and serve meals for the workers. Also, during the construction phase, we had three new motel properties open due to the increased demand.”