A Windy Situation In Texas Energy

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By Matt Briscoe, Texas Take News

The neatly planned routes of county roads and state highways leading to rural Nueces county cuts through a flat, windy stretch of coastal prairie beneath a crystal Texas sky. The landscape here is changing and in more ways than one. To a trained eye, the ecological landscape can be seen changing more and more everyday. But whats more, the energy production landscape is changing even more quickly. In the boom or bust world of the South Texas oil patch, one thing that people are seeking is consistency and that is exactly what renewable energy is providing this semi-rural economy.

Like many thoroughfares near Corpus Christi, these little swaths of roadway find themselves lined with wind turbines. Each one nearly half as tall as The Tower of Americas in San Antonio,  these towering steel columns and fiberglass contraptions are a remarkable sight in an area that has become the center of the nation’s—and arguably the world’s—wind-energy industry in the last decade.

Those who farm these coastal lands understand just how harsh these nearly constant winds can be.  For both financial and economic reasons,  landowners in Texas are making a move to harness the Lone Star State’s wind. Today, that wind has become a financial wellspring and helped revitalize the state in ways that at one point, could only be imagined.  But can wind power breathe stable life into these rural Texas communities that struggle with major economic pitfalls?

Texas’s wind industry boasts more than 12,000 turbines and generates up to 23,000 megawatts of power. The state’s $40 billion private industry also employs a quarter of the nation’s wind-energy employees.

Texas has over 10,000 turbines capable of producing wind energy in operation today. At night, one can see the patches of red safety lights flashing on and off atop the state’s turbine towers. Some Texans call them eyesores. But for others, they see the red aviation safety lights as a beacon of economic hope in what were once economically dying landscapes.  These days the turbines often pump money into local schools, provide somewhat stable and good paying jobs and pump money into local businesses. One could argue that it doesn’t pump in nearly as much as the oil and gas industry–and they might be correct. But what it does do is provide a source of somewhat stable revenue for the small communities that dot the Texas landscape. That, some say means more than the boom or bust oil patch.

Wind energy is only part of the overall strategy the the state has when it comes to their energy economic package. Texas has given the fossil fuels industry nearly free reign to do as they wish when it comes to production. But wind energy, though once heavily promoted by Texas politicians, has been seen almost as the unwanted house guest. It almost seems that to the current crop of Texas politicians and policy wonks, that wind energy is simply just another source of energy to be tapped into.

Texas currently finds itself in an interesting position when it comes to wind energy.  California is mandating statewide carbon neutrality by 2045. Other states in the wind-belt like Iowa and Oklahoma, are offering up great possibility to further develop their wind resources. But the one thing that Texas has going in its favor is our combination of infrastructure, regulatory freedom, and penchant for prospecting.

Sitting alongside the oil and gas rich Eagle Ford Shale, the wind farms of South Texas offer the much needed electric that is much needed to extract, transport and process fossil fuels.

In Texas, like elsewhere the oil and gas business would boom and then bust throughout the years, killing small businesses and occasionally lively communities that depended heavily on the oil industry.

A federal production tax credit once provided economic incentive for investment in wind energy.  Former Texas governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry threw their support fully behind the wind energy push. Both Bush and Perry fought hard for what is known as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, which provided some $7 billion dollars for development and brought an additional 18,000 megawatts of transmission lines out to places like South and West Texas. With the infrastructure to send power to the state’s biggest cities, and Texas’s unique position as the only state in the U.S. with its own energy grid, wind proliferated. An ensuing series of privately operated wind farms opened up in an effort to cash in on this potentially lucrative and stable prospect.

But what is in it for the landowners? The bottom line is that wind energy does in fact pay landowners pretty well. Lessees normally make anywhere from $8,000 to $25,000 per turbine, per year, depending on the size and age of the turbine. Sometimes, there are even guaranteed payouts to landowners, that make the prospect even more attractive.

Some of the so-called wind leases in Texas pay out roughly $60 million a year, and the new generation of larger and more efficient turbines could end up paying out as much as $25,000 each. Couple that with aging turbines and required on going maintenance of  existing turbines, the wind industry is poised to also supply and maintain plenty of jobs. Some research even suggests that the market for maintenance and operations will increase from $6 billion a year today to $8.3 billion by 2027–and that is something that many rural economic development corporations are taking a serious look at.

As great as wind energy might sound, there is a Washington political play in force that seems to offer some skepticism among would be investors and potential lease owners. If current federal tax credits for wind are not fully  renewed soon, federal wind tax credits will expire in 2020, which place wind energy producers to face off with the cheaper natural gas industry.

For some, that breathes a breath of concern. But for others that I spoke with, they do not see it as such. The reasoning behind it not being much of a concern is because consumers of electricity want consistency and that is one thing that proponents say that wind offers over natural gas.

But one thing is for certain, wind energy could invite economic growth to Texas–especially in rural communities and economic wonks are certainly taking a hard look at it. But as the Texas legislature gets ready to gavel in for their biennial circus next week, just how hard they back the wind energy industry is yet to be determined–though some expert legislative watchers insist that it could likely become the topic of hot debate.

 

*Photo Credit: A wind turbine stands just behind an oil storage lot in South Texas (Matt Briscoe)

 

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