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County leaders mull wind project

REFUGIO – Representatives of RWE Renewables updated the Refugio County Commissioners Court on the proposed Blackjack Creek Wind Farm which would be located in portions of Refugio and Bee counties.

The wind farm would be located in land that is part of the Woodsboro Independent School District, as well as property within both the Beeville and Skidmore-Tynan school districts.

The company, which previously did business as E.ON, currently has a 220 megawatt wind park already located in Refugio County.

The Blackjack Creek Wind Farm would straddle the Refugio/Bee County line. The 240-megawatt facility, if the company moves forward with its plans, would cover 30,000 acres.

Rich Saunders, a representative of RWE, said all 100 of the turbines are successfully up at the Cranell facility, but a delay in receiving equipment also pushed back the day the facility is set to become operational.

“The substation was supposed to be ready by now, but it’s not expected to be fully operational until mid-July,” Saunders said. “The good news is that it will be a good revenue source for the county.

The company strives to spend money locally, he added.

“We keep track of local spending and try to make sure that we hire local labor and purchase materials and services at the local level,” Saunders said. “We estimate that will bring in $47 million for the local economy. That’s not just Refugio County, but a little bit wider zone. Our emphasis is to hire locally as much as possible.”

Technicians working at the facility have specific training requirements and earn between $100,000 and $120,000 per year, Saunders said. “We hope to hire them here – it’s a nice steady job.”

The wind farms are expected to provide energy for decades, Saunders said, adding that there are wind turbines that were built in California in the 1960s “that are still operable but they are nowhere near as efficient as these.”

One Refugio County employee expressed concern that of 15 full-time jobs at the local wind farm, only two were hired locally.

“The type of people we hire have to be technicians of a certain grade level with certain qualifications,” Saunders said. He added that the company is looking to dedicate scholarships to help local residents obtain the education and training necessary to fill the jobs.

Refugio County Judge Bobby Blaschke noted that there was a housing crisis after Hurricane Harvey devastated the area and damaged numerous local homes.

“Is there some mechanism within RWE to help employees purchase homes locally?” Blaschke asked.

“We don’t have a right to demand where people live,” Saunders said, but added that the company likes to hire local residents to help reduce turnover. We prefer to hire someone who wants to live here and raise a family here – that’s our goal.

“It doesn’t benefit us to bring someone in who doesn’t like the area and leaves in two years” because then someone else has to be trained.”

“We’ll study the labor in Refugio County and come up with a plan and come back and address that,” Blaschke said. “We’re getting close to turning things on (at the wind farm) and we’d certainly like to have a group of employees from Refugio County.”

Saunders said the delays in opening the wind farm were frustrating for his company.

“The delays are costing us money,” he said. “Many of the pieces of equipment have extremely long lead times (until they are received). I don’t think it’s just us that is having problems.”

Two of the main criteria in determining where to place a wind farm are the tax abatements the company receives from school districts and counties, Saunders said.

“Any incentives help us determine where to locate,” he said. “Also, once we get a phase established it’s always easier to add a second phase.”

Blaschke said having RWE operate locally is a boon to the county.

“It’s diversifying the economy, and we have local landowners who want this on their property,” he said. “It’s also a way to soften the cyclical nature of the economy in Refugio County – 66 percent of our economy is based on oil and gas (production and services). In Woodsboro, they are excited about having an agreement for the next phase.”