An up close look at West Texas wind

Did you know that Texas is considered home to the largest wind farm in the country? And as of October 2009, it has also become home to the largest in the world.  In fact, if Nolan county were its own country, it would be ranked 7th worldwide in wind production.

I learned of these impressive statistics recently, so in January I ventured to west Texas to learn more.     My destination was the town of Roscoe, located around 45 miles southwest of Abilene. It has a population of 1,300. The population of wind turbines is over 600.  There the Roscoe Wind Farm occupies over 100,000 acres that were previously used for mainly agricultural purposes. It has a generation capacity of 780 megawatts, which produces enough electricity to power 265,000 homes. Construction began in 2007, and it will continue to be built in phases.

A row of wind turbines in Roscoe, strategically facing south-southwest in an effort to "catch the most wind."

What’s driving the success of the wind farm (aside from the optimal topographical and meteorological conditions) is that local landowners in Nolan county have a collaborative force called Roscoe Wind Council .  At the helm is cotton farmer Cliff Etheredge.  As he likes to say, he went from a “cotton farmer to a tree hugger.”  His role as one of the key wind energy pioneers in Texas awarded him a TCEQ Award for Texas Environmental Excellence in 2009.  He spent years trying to convince about 400 of his fellow neighbors and townspeople that Roscoe’s future was blowing in the wind.  Thus, the Roscoe Landowners Association was established, and Cliff was one of the major players in getting a developer to start construction..  I had the opportunity to do a one-on-one interview with Cliff, and learned a multitude of information about the Roscoe Wind Project.

Cliff told me that it was easy to convince the neighbors once they heard they can expect to make between $5,000 and $15,000 per year, per turbine, in land usage royalties alone. He exclaimed how the wind industry had already brought hundreds of jobs to the area, boosted enrollment in the school, and revitalized the once failing “downtown.”  (If you drive through Roscoe and blink, you might pass it.)  “We’ve seen an attitude change in our people and our community because we’ve seen all of the benefits,” said Cliff, in his drawn out west Texas accent.

“The major indication of the benefits of the wind farm are the simple fact that out little school system, the Roscoe Plowboys, the only Plowboys in the nation, have had an ADA [average daily attendance] of about 310 for 30-40 years and just remained steady, but because of the wind farms moving in here, and bringing families with it, our school system has seen an increase of 40 students in 2 years. That’s a tremendous benefit.”

The prevailing wind 60% of the time comes from the south-southwest off of the Chihuahua Desert. Then as the west winds ride over the Rocky Mountains, they downslope then aim for the Plains. The industry standard for wind power production is 13-17 mph for least a third of the time, or 8 hours a day. Since that is best achieved at a high elevation away from the ground to avoid friction, plains and mesas of this part of Texas are ideal.

I asked Cliff about some of the adverse effects that often come to mind regarding wind turbine installation. He assured me that automobiles, housecats, and plain glass windows kill more birds and bats per year than a wind farm. According to statistics that he learned at a recent Bird/Bat Seminar in Kingsville, he informed me that per wind turbine, one bat and two birds are killed a year. “It really is a non issue,” he said.

The intermittency of all renewable energy is a concern, and the need to have other types of energy generation available to fill that void.  According to Cliff, “the fact is, we have a tremendous amount of wind going to waste.” The primary hurdle that the Roscoe Wind Project is facing now is transmission.  The demands are higher in the southeastern part of the state, but the existing lines can’t get the energy there fast enough. The technology for storing the energy isn’t quite efficient enough yet, but as Cliff told me, “whenever MIT and those guys get it figured out, we can store energy, and we can overcome that hurdle.”  Perhaps some of “those guys” are reading this blog, and can be instrumental in making that become a reality.

(Watch for my interview with Cliff Etheredge to appear in a “Go Green” segment on News 8 Austin, scheduled to air Saturday, February 20.)


1 Comment

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One response to “An up close look at West Texas wind

  1. bhgully

    Very interesting as Nolan County isn’t even as far North/West as we typically think of as far as being regions of Texas of ideal wind power generation capabilities. I also wonder if the proximity to DFW is what has allowed such profitable expansion of the technology there, or, if not, it certainly seems to suggest a huge opportunity.

    You’re first hand experiences with this really bring it to life as well. Perhaps there is some way to post the interview to be aired on the blog as well?

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