MASON – They first started appearing in West Texas, where the wind howls through oil rigs. Then it was the Panhandle, and small towns along I-20, like Sweetwater, where cattle farms have given way to giant, white spinning blades.
Now the wind turbines are getting closer. Too close, in the minds of many of the 4,000-some people who live in and around Mason, in the northern reaches of the Texas Hill Country.
An Italian-owned energy company, Enel Green Power North America, has leased thousands of acres of land atop a ridge that looms above Mason’s rocky outcroppings mixed with cactus and live oak. So far, it’s all preliminary, a company spokeswoman says. No details to report. But locals, and more important local politicians, are not waiting idly.
Sitting on a front porch at his cattle ranch, Ron Crocker points off to the ridge line in the distance. Fifteen miles west of the town’s carefully preserved square, at night the ridge becomes a conduit for southerly winds before they dissipate into the surrounding valley.
“We don’t know for sure, but we’re hearing 30 to 35 wind turbines,” Crocker, 68, said. “There’s talk they’re going to be 520 feet tall.”
Wind energy has turned into an economic boom, with thousands of turbines going up across the plains and along coastlines all across the United States.
That’s good news for the earth’s atmosphere, which scientific research shows is warming dangerously because of carbon dioxide and other emissions. But for those who have to live in the turbines’ shadow, the impact on their landscape and local wildlife can be too high a cost.
Out in the country
Developers seek out the steadiest and strongest conditions, sometimes venturing into some of the country’s most scenic and wild areas. A decade ago in Cape Cod, the Kennedys and a member of the Koch family battled with wind developers. Since then, opposition has popped up here and there, from California’s Mojave Desert to the rolling dairy farms of western Wisconsin.
Now that fight has moved to the Hill Country of Texas, a state that has more wind turbines than anywhere in the country.
Mason, for most of its history, was a cattle town. But these days life is more about weekend visitors from Austin and Dallas looking for a taste of country life and the mobs of hunters that fill the town’s inns and bed and breakfasts come deer season.
An oasis of rolling hills in Texas, visitors fish beneath rocky crags and keep watch for an endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler. But that peace has been disturbed by the prospect of wind turbines and the fears for the future of their Hill Country idyl.
Opponents write furious letters in the Mason County News about the industrial malaise wind farms would bring. Then at a local antique store that does brisk business selling the topaz that just bursts forth from the ground here, owner Warren Grote reads the letters and wonders what’s happening to Texas and why people are trying to tell others what to do.
It struck Nikki Sills just how contentious the issue was getting when two women she knew walked into the local chamber of commerce last week arguing about the wind turbines. Relatively new to town and not wanting to get in the middle, Sills, who heads the chamber, did what people do when they’re uncomfortable.
“I just sat there typing,” she said. “Eventually I had to say I have to close up to go to lunch. People around here just like things the way they are.”
Danger for bats?
Last year more than 2,500 wind turbines were installed across the United States.
They largely go up in rural areas, offering construction work and, for those who own the land, a steady influx of cash. According to the industry group Windustry, a property owner can expect to earn somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000 per turbine per year.
“Wind has its detractors, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” said said Susan Sloan, a vice president with the American Wind Energy Association. “Texas has more wind development than any other state, and it’s been widely welcomed by the communities, not to mention the school districts and counties that collect the tax revenue.”
The project in Mason is complicated by a local colony of Mexican free-tailed bats, which swells to more than 3 million in the summer. At sunset, visitors and film crews from around the world will descend on their cave to watch a swirling pageant-like exit into the night sky that can take hours.
Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have shown bats have a tendency to fly into wind turbines. Researchers aren’t sure why, but they estimate tens to hundreds of thousands die each year.
One evening at the entrance to the Mason cave, Vicki Ritter, whose shirt reads “Bat Cave Steward,” rattled off about the nostril-burning aroma of the bat’s guano and the names she has given the local snakes and birds that share space with the bats. But she went quiet when asked about the turbines, referring questions to The Nature Conservancy, which owns the land.
For environmental groups, who advocate for both wildlife preservation and clean energy, the subject of bat and bird kills around wind farms requires careful footwork. A spokesman for the wildlife group said in an email that the group was remaining neutral for now, awaiting further study.
“However, the preliminary research we’ve seen indicates that while a small percentage of bats will enter the vicinity of the wind farm during their nightly flight, it does not appear that the wind farm will have a significant impact on the colony,” she wrote.
This isn’t the first time Mason has found its interests at odds with the state’s electricity needs.
In 2010, the Lower Colorado River Authority proposed siting a high-voltage power line through the same hills Enel has chosen for its wind farm – part of the state’s $7 billion project to connect wind farms in western Texas with population centers around Dallas and Houston. Locals eventually fought it off, getting the state to shift the line south along Interstate 10.
This time, there is no government body to appeal. The leased land is private, and under the law landowners are free to build wind turbines if they so desire, said Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden.
But local politicians have other methods. Behind the scenes, a representative for Enel has been feeling out local politicians about a tax abatement for the wind farm, Bearden said.
“We pretty much came to the consensus we’re not giving an abatement. It may prevent them from coming in, but I don’t know,” he said. “I respect people’s private property rights, but I also respect the property rights of their neighboring landowners who have invested a lot of money and don’t want to see the wind turbines on the horizon.”
Even as the fate of the project remains uncertain, tension lingers. Around Mason’s historic square, where people come from far and wide to try the buttermilk pie, wind turbines muddy conversations about celebrity spotting at a local artist’s home – it was Hilary Swank! The landowners who have signed on with Enel have found themselves castigated, Siles said.
Crocker, who started buying up ranch land in Mason two decade ago, makes no apologies for leading the charge against his neighbors. He says his family’s been in Mason since the 1800s; he spent childhood vacations there. At the tail end of a lifetime working cattle on ranches everywhere from Australia to Arizona – he worked for the film star John Wayne for a while – he decided to return.
Driving around the ranch recently, Crocker checked water tanks and tried to scare off the wild hogs ripping up his pastures. Peering out through a pair of aviator sunglasses, he said, “It’s good country.”