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Property owners, conservationists, wind energy: Tension grows in West Texas 

Credit:  Elena Bruess, San Antonio Express-News | March 7, 2023 | expressnews.com ~~

Every night, just after the sun sets over his expansive West Texas ranch, Dell Dickinson can see bright, blinking lights flashing across the night sky. Nearly 500 feet high, the red dots illuminate the once-natural skyline, frustrating the rancher enough to close his blinds.

For almost 80 years, very little development surrounded the Dickinson ranch – a 7,000-acre spread deep within Val Verde County. It had been with the family since 1942, when Dickinson’s grandfather settled the land and called it Skyline Ranch. Today Dickinson runs the property with sheep and goats. Still, when the bright, red flashes of a wind farm with 69 huge turbines showed up 18 miles from his property a half-decade ago, Dickinson said, he felt a deep loss.

To the 79-year-old, his family’s legacy was in danger of disappearing, one spinning machine at a time.

Dell Dickinson, a rancher in Val Verde County, says he is worried about another wind farm appearing on the horizon around Skyline Ranch, where he raises sheep and goats. In 2017 the Rocksprings Val Verde Wind Farm was built about 18 miles west of his property. “You can see them during the day and definitely at night; it’s a mark on this natural landscape,” he said. Photo: Sam Owens

“You can see them during the day and definitely at night. It’s a mark on this natural landscape,” he said. “This land has history and culture. That’s fading away with projects like this.”

Now, he said, it’s happening all over again. A Spain-based renewable-energy company plans to build another wind farm in Val Verde, this one on a 15,000-acre site on the other side of the county from the first wind farm. This time, however, the 46 turbines will be 700 feet tall – nearly the height of San Antonio’s Tower of the Americas – leaving ranchers, conservationists and landowners like Dickinson saying they are alarmed over the impact the farm could have on ecotourism, wildlife, views of nature and historic art.

Texas has nearly 17,000 wind turbines, at least 10,000 more than any other state. Of those, 11,000 are in the high plains region of Texas, such as the Panhandle and parts of West Texas. Wind generated about 20 percent of the electricity that Texans consumed in 2019.

Wind turbines are seen dotting the landscape along U.S. Highway 90 in West Texas in early February. Photo: Sam Owens

Wind turbines dot the landscape in Val Verde County. Photo: Sam Owens

A truck travels along U.S. 277 past wind turbines in Val Verde County north of Del Rio on Feb. 3. Photo: Sam Owens

Rocksprings Windfarm turbines are pictured along U.S. 277 in Val Verde County. Photo: Sam Owens

Katie Wilson, an archaeologist and outreach coordinator for the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center, shows images of Halo Shelter rock art, which can be found along the Lower Pecos River. The research center, which studies ancient art on rocks and cave walls, is housed in an old Border Patrol facility in Comstock. Center officials say they are concerned a new wind farm project could damage some of the ancient art sites.

The Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center is housed in an old B order Patrol facility in Comstock. Drawings and names have been carved into the doors and walls of the building where a team of archaeologists now research rock art found around the area. Center officials say they are concerned a proposed wind farm project nearby could damage some ancient art sites.

In Val Verde County, which sits at the Mexican border, there were no wind farms until 2017, when a French renewable-energy company constructed the Rock Springs Wind Farm, which is 18 miles from Dickinson’s ranch – the bright red lights keeping approaching airplanes at bay.

For many, Val Verde County is an emblem of Texas’ natural beauty. The county is home to 47,500 people, with about 73 percent in the county seat, Del Rio. Imposing canyons, pristine rivers and rolling ranchland stretch for miles through undeveloped land and small towns. The Amistad Reservoir – which is the confluence of the Devils River, the Rio Grande and the Pecos River —has been an established national recreation area for over 50 years and the Devils River State Natural Area is home to crystal-clear waters and a famed stretch of rapids that lures in rafters from all over.

Many in Val Verde, say the new wind farm would be a blight on the natural ecosystem.

For them, the area is like a smaller Big Bend National Park – a place that must be protected. They say their opposition isn’t to wind farms in general, but about where they are built.

“No one [outside the county] cares when someone puts in a wind farm here in Val Verde,” Dickinson said. “But everyone will care when it’s in their own backyard.”

Pushback from county residents

The fight over a new wind farm in Val Verde County has stretched on for nearly a decade. In 2015, ERCOT, the state’s electric grid operator, granted a billionaire Chinese industrialist named Sun Guangxin permission to build a wind farm on property purchased from ranchers. In protest, Val Verde landowners reached out to the Legislature and pushed to pass 2021’s Lone Star Infrastructure Protection Act, which prohibits entities from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from owning critical infrastructure in Texas.

Guangxin sold the rights to develop the land to Greenalia, a Spanish renewable-energy company. The company announced in November that the wind farm – called the Blue Hills Wind Project – will produce 303 megawatts of power with construction beginning at the end of 2023 or the start of 2024. Greenalia works in wind energy, solar energy, biomass installations and energy storage. They have 72 projects in Spain, five in Western Sahara and 16 in Texas, including in a solar project in Atascosa County and Wharton County, and storage in Wharton and Dickens Counties. Blue Hills Wind would be the company’s first wind project.

Since plans for the Val Verde County wind farm were announced, the wind turbine count dropped from 59 to 46because of a compromise with nearby Laughlin Air Force Base. Military officials expressed concerns that the tall structures could interfere with flights.

Randy Nunns, a board member of the Devils River Conservancy in Val Verde, said he’s also been in communication with the company.

“They seem open to discussion,” said Nunns, who used to be the conservancy’s president. “They weren’t aware that the community was mostly opposed to the farm, so we’ve been working with them.”

In a written statement, Greenalia said it respects and complies with all laws and regulations in communities where it operates.

“In all our projects we listen to the local communities,” the company said. “We seek to reconcile their interests with the development of the project.”

The Devils River Conservancy, an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the Devils River, has been at the forefront of the fight against the wind farm. The group’s members say their opposition has nothing to do with using renewable energy. Nunns, a lifelong conservationist, said he’s an advocate of moving to renewable energy in Texas. He just doesn’t see why the new wind farm has to be in this pristine, natural area.

Randy Nunns, a board member of the Devils River Conservancy, walks on the rocks at Dolan Falls in Devils River State Natural Area. Photo: Sam Owens

“Not many people want to vacation in Odessa, Texas, but they want to vacation here,” he said. “People want to see nature in Big Bend, and it’s the same reason here.”

The Amistad National Recreation Area had more than 1 million visitors in 2020, according to the National Parks Service. The Devils River draws thousands of rafters every year, and the Devils River State Natural Area was among the first in the United States to receive the International Dark Sky Sanctuary designation, a public or private land that has an exceptional quality starry nights that is protected for its natural, educaitonal or scientific value.

The state natural area comprises 37,000 acres, and is on both the north and south sides of the river. Currently, only the north side is open and allows a few campers in from Friday to Mondays. At night, the only artificial light comes from the area’s headquarters.

Beau Hester, park superintendent for the natural area, said he’s worried that the proposed wind farm could detract from the experience for visitors.

“Right now we have unimpeded views,” Hester said. “You can sit here at your campsite and enjoy what nature is supposed to be, and that’s the greatest thing about being out here. There’s nothing natural about lights flashing in unison.”

Possible impact on rock art and birds

In Comstock, a small town about 30 minutes from Del Rio, archaeologists say they are concerned about how wind turbines could affect their ability to study human human history.

The Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center, housed in an old Border Patrol detention facility, is home to the research of 5,000-year-old rock art. Spread throughout Lower Pecos Canyonlands, ancient paintings tell the story of a people who lived in southern Texas long ago. Archaeologists have found about 360 rock-art paintings, including the White Shaman Mural, which is discussed at the Witte Museum in San Antonio.

“In the archaeological community, this is considered one of the best places in the Americas to study hunter-gatherers because not only do you have the rock art, but you have dry-rock shelters with the preservation of tools, bones, sandals and basketry,” said Karen Steelman, science director at the center.

Center officials say a wind farm could lead to more roads and more traffic, which will create more dust and vibrations. The vibrations from dynamiting the ground to install a wind turbine could damage the rock art at a nearby site. And if the new wind farm is on private land – like the Blue Hills Wind Project – there is no requirement to survey for or document rock art before building.

“Currently we’re working on developing a national historic landmark status for the region,” Steelman said. “The rock art can be anywhere.”

Conservationists also point to the impact wind farms can have on migration patterns for birds, bats and butterflies. Kerr Wardlaw, a sixth-generation rancher in Val Verde County, said the wind farms function almost like fences for some birds, preventing them from completing their migratory journey.

Every year, an estimated 140,000 to 500,000 birds die in the United States from crashing into wind turbines, according to the Audubon Society. While the group says it supports wind power and renewable energy, the organization advises federal, state and local planning agencies to incorporate wind energy in “low impact” areas and to consult with wildlife experts on placement. Still, more birds are killed each year by cats or by flying into buildings than from the turbines.

“Texas is incredibly important for bird migration; we are a natural funnel,” said Laura Zebehazy, program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Habitat Assessment Program. “Especially as these wind turbines get taller and taller, there’s a greater risk of having a direct impact on birds that are flying back and forth. There’s a risk with any kind of infrastructure in avian habitat.”

Kerr Wardlaw, a sixth-generation rancher, is among those opposed to plans for a new wind farm in Val Verde County. Photo: Sam Owens

Any development, from oil and gas to ranching to housing to renewable energy, has a cumulative impact on wildlife. Six energy companies cut through Val Verde County with oil pipelines, but many residents are used to this presence – especially since pipelines are underground and unseen.

Wardlaw said oil and gas has long been connected to the ranching industry. While he leased his land to oil and gas years ago, he said he doesn’t want his fellow ranchers selling their land for use in wind farms, which can pay $3,00 to $4,000 per turbine.

“I think there is a tendency to hold renewable-energy companies to a higher standard than other energy-extraction types because they are being couched in green energy,” Zebehazy said. “But it’s really about finding that balance between the new energy and the nature around it.”

‘I understand both sides’

When the French company developed the Rock Springs Wind Farm’s 15,000 acres of land, 10 landowners agreed to allowed the wind turbines on their land, each being paid a few thousand dollars per wind turbine. At the Blue Hills Wind Project, no landowner will be paid directly since Greenalia bought it from China-based GH America. Landowners did, however, profit when GH America bought the ranches originally.

Beau Nettleton, county commissioner in Val Verde County, said that the issue is a “twofold problem for the county.” There are landowners with the right to do with their property as they choose – and there are people who don’t want to see the turbines.

In the state Legislature’s last session, Nettleton had requested authority to allow counties like Val Verde the ability to regulate wind energy and the placement of wind energy, but the bill – which was introduced by Rep. Eddie Morales of District 74 – didn’t pass.

Nettleton’s own ranch will be right next to the new wind farm, if it is built.

“I understand both sides and unfortunately, what’s happened is that green energy is moving so fast that no one knows how to control how it works and where the placement needs to be,” Nettleton said. “I understand that people don’t want to look at them, but what about the landowners who want to make money off their ranches?”

Carey King, assistant director at the Energy Institute at University of Texas at Austin, said the situation can be frustrating for some residents who live near wind farms. A community member who is not personally benefiting from turbines on their land might feel like they have all the potential negative consequences of a wind farm and only the indirect benefits from the energy pumped into the Texas grid and county tax revenue.

In a 2020 analysis of renewable energy in Texas, UT Austin research scientist Joshua Rhodes estimated that the utility-scale wind and solar projects in Texas will generate between $4.7 billion and $5.7 billion in tax revenue to local communities in their lifetime.

A county in Texas could receive between $16.8 million and $20.3 million in the lifetime of a 100-megawatt wind project, according to the report. This amount of generation could power about 18,000 home on average.

The Rock Springs Wind Farm generates about $400,000 to $600,000 in revenue for Val Verde County each year, according to Nettleton.

“It’d be great to purchase the rights or the easements from landowners who are not opposed to developing wind projects so that we don’t have them in areas we like,” Nettleton said. “Then we can promote wind in areas we don’t have any issue with.”

From 2015 to early 2023, there have been 370 rejections or restrictions to wind energy projects across the United States, according to a renewable-rejection database. Despite having the most wind farms in the United States, there have been only two rejections in Texas.

King said part of that is because Texas is made up mostly of large swaths of private lands, which makes it easier for the extraction of natural resources or the construction of renewable-energy projects.

“There’s a generally low regulatory environment in Texas, so if you want to build something on your land, you usually can,” King said.

Still, the Devils River Conservancy started a campaign aimed at stopping the construction called “Don’t Blow It, Texas.” The group has stickers with a red line crossed through a wind farm, which Nunns hands out throughout the county. On their website, residents can sign a petition or be redirected to contact their representative.

Nunns said he’d like to see the land be used for non-energy use, such as for hunting or livestock. Already, there are 157,000 acres of conservation easement in Val Verde County.

“There just aren’t wild places like this out there,” Nunns said. “We need development by design, not just anywhere. And this place is not it.”

Source:  Elena Bruess, San Antonio Express-News | March 7, 2023 | expressnews.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this article resides with the author or publisher indicated. As part of its noncommercial educational effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Send requests to excerpt, general inquiries, and comments via e-mail.

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