Wind Energy Takes Flight In The Heart Of Texas Oil Country

Mar 8, 2017
Originally published on March 9, 2017 9:48 am

Georgetown, Texas, is a conservative town in a conservative state. So it may come as something of a surprise that it's one of the first cities in America to be entirely powered by renewable energy.

Mayor Dale Ross, a staunch Republican who attended President Trump's inauguration, says that decision came down to a love of green energy and "green rectangles" — cash.

When Georgetown's old power contract was up in 2012, city managers looked at all their options. They realized wind and solar power are more predictable; the prices don't fluctuate like oil and gas. So, a municipality can sign a contract today and know what the bill is going to be for the next 25 years.

That's especially appealing in a place like Georgetown, where a lot of retirees live on fixed incomes.

"First and foremost it was a business decision," Ross says.

City leaders say the debate over renewables never even mentioned climate change, a wedge issue in Texas politics.

It's not just Georgetown that is defying expectations of conservatism and renewable energy. As a state, Texas is by far the No. 1 producer of wind energy in the United States; it produces more wind energy than the next three states combined. In fact, if it were its own country, Texas would be the fourth-largest largest wind-producing country in the world by the end of 2017. Ross says former Texas Gov. Rick Perry deserves the credit: "I truly believe he was a visionary."

Today, Rick Perry is the head of the U.S. Department of Energy. At his swearing-in last week, Perry described what President Trump told him when he offered him the job: "I want you to do for American energy what you did for Texas."

If that request extends to wind power — after all, Trump is seen as emphasizing fossil fuels, with his support for coal and through his Cabinet picks — the U.S. can expect a further explosion in wind energy production and in the jobs needed to support the industry.

Already, the fastest-growing job in the U.S. is wind turbine technician. Though the absolute numbers are small — 4,400 in 2014 — it's growing at more than double the pace of the next closest profession.

That explosion is apparent in Sweetwater, Texas, which sits on a vast open plain — an area that the town's former mayor, Greg Wortham, describes as the wind capitol of the world. In every direction, row after row of 300-foot-tall wind turbines dot the horizon.

The construction and maintenance of these three-armed behemoths has created a new industry in town. Heath Ince teaches in the wind program at Texas State Technical College, Sweetwater.

"A lot of people don't realize how physically demanding and even mentally challenging it can be at times," Ince says of the job maintaining machinery in an environment that is scalding hot in the summer and frigid in the winter.

And yet, the program has doubled in size since its launch, to 52 students from 25 in 2008. Demand is high — renewable energy companies are hiring Ince's students, sometimes before they even finish the program — and the salaries are good, too: Median pay in 2015 was about $50,000.

In policy circles, the debate surrounding renewable energy and fossil fuels often pits them against one another. Liberals are supposed to support solar and wind; conservatives are supposed to support oil and gas.

In Texas, the attitude is "all of the above."

"Any time there's an opportunity to put a little extra income in people's pockets, we're all for it," says Russ Petty, who owns a print shop in Sweetwater and whose relatives have been ranchers in the area for generations.

The income derived from leasing a single turbine varies. But Wortham, the former mayor, says $10,000 per turbine per year is a good estimate.

That's significant, says developer Monty Humble.

"For a land owner, a ranching family to have the opportunity to produce oil and gas or the opportunity to have a wind turbine or a solar farm, it may well mean that another generation can remain on the land," Humble says.

But just because West Texas towns like Sweetwater had the potential to produce a lot of wind energy didn't mean that energy had anywhere to go. That changed when Gov. Perry signed into law a 2005 bill to build transmission lines connecting the windy plains to population centers like Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. And Perry made every Texas citizen pay for it in their energy bills.

That's not the most conservative position in the world, says David Spence, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in energy and the environment.

"It's a full socialization of the costs," Spence says. "We don't use that word in the public discussion. But, yeah, we socialize the costs across all Texas ratepayers."

Texas has a unique advantage that enabled some of these changes. Continental America is divided into three electrical grids: East, West and Texas. Since the Texas grid is self-contained, wind energy doesn't cross state lines and isn't subject to as many federal regulations.

Even so, the simple abundance of wind and an independent grid by no means guaranteed the explosion in wind energy production in Texas. Jay Root, who covered Perry's governorship as a reporter for The Texas Tribune, says Perry pushed for wind energy and "if he hadn't, we would not be where we are today."

But, Root adds, "I don't think anyone would call Rick Perry an environmentalist, including Rick Perry. ... But the guy knows how to sniff out a dollar. Here's a guy from West Texas who saw that you can make money off of the wind blowing. Like, that's a no brainer."

Of course, this Texas wind revolution was begun before the Tea Party revolution, when it was easier for Republicans to buck strict conservative principles on a case-by-case basis. So Perry, as U.S. energy secretary, faces challenges at the national level that will make it much harder for him to expand what he did in Texas.

But if he does, it would be almost as surprising as what happened in his home state when a red-state, conservative guy from oil country managed to help build one of the biggest renewable energy systems in the world.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Two facts. First, the fastest growing job in the U.S. is wind technician. Second, Texas produces more wind energy than any other state in the country. The new energy secretary, Rick Perry, was governor of that state for 14 years. In a moment, we'll hear how he helped encourage wind power in Texas.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

First, I wanted to find out what a wind technician actually does. So I went to the town of Sweetwater out on the West Texas plains, where I met Heath Ince at the base of a towering wind turbine. Or turbine, as they say it in Texas. Heath teaches in the wind program at Texas State Technical College.

So, Heath, how high are we going to climb?

HEATH INCE: About 300 feet.

SHAPIRO: And it's just a ladder right up.

INCE: Just a ladder straight up.

SHAPIRO: To recap, I've got a harness, glasses, helmet, gloves and then this thing that's going to hook on to the ladder so if I fall it'll catch me.

INCE: Right.

SHAPIRO: All right. Here I go.

My legs and arms are screaming by the time we get to the top, but the view is worth it.

Oh, no, I am staring down hundreds of feet at the Texas desert ground below. That's terrifying even for a person like me who's not really afraid of heights. But that's a lot. That is really a lot. Wow.

The plains stretch out for miles with rows of gangly wind turbines marching off to the horizon. A bright orange safety chain connects me to the metal colossus while the wind whips around my head. The thermometer reads 39 degrees.

All right, should we get back in?

INCE: A lot of people don't realize how physically demanding it can be, even how mentally challenging it can be at times.

SHAPIRO: Do you have as much supply as there is demand for people to do this kind of really demanding, grueling work?

INCE: Unfortunately, no. I mean, our graduates are being plucked - I mean, they're being hired even before they graduate. These companies are just grasping at them, trying to pull them out.

SHAPIRO: On the same day we climbed up this turbine, wind companies were on the campus of Texas State Technical College interviewing students for jobs. Jason Claxton is a 41-year-old student. He wears a camo cap with a wind turbine pin stuck through the brim.

JASON CLAXTON: Well, I'd worked for Frito-Lay for 10 years. And then they brought in robotics and sent a few people out, and I was one of those. And I got to talking with some people from the wind field and they sent me in this direction, and here I am.

SHAPIRO: Almost all the students here are men. So when Lolly Bradbury started climbing the turbines, she quickly got a nickname.

LOLLY BRADBURY: That girl.

(LAUGHTER)

BRADBURY: The most turbines I've ever climbed in one day is four. For a woman, you get muscles in places that proper women shouldn't have muscles.

SHAPIRO: What does that mean, biceps?

BRADBURY: Biceps, your forearms, your calves and your butt muscles just are hard as a rock.

SHAPIRO: In Washington, D.C., people often talk about renewable energy and fossil fuels like they're in a tug of war. Liberals support solar and wind. Conservatives support oil and gas. Here in Texas, the attitude is completely different. Energy is energy. Money is money.

RUSS PETTY: They get along real good. Maybe it's because we tell them they have to get along. But, you know, the interest that the oil folks have is down below the surface. You know, and, of course, what the wind folks are interested in is above ground.

SHAPIRO: Russ Petty owns a print shop in Sweetwater. His relatives have been ranchers out here for generations. Today, their land has pumpjacks plunging into the earth to get the oil and turbines soaring up into the sky to catch the wind.

PETTY: Any time that there's an opportunity to, you know, put a little extra income in people's pockets we're all for it.

SHAPIRO: It's more than a little extra income, says Greg Wortham. He's Sweetwater's former mayor.

GREG WORTHAM: If you want to get a totally round number, $10,000 a turbine a year.

SHAPIRO: That's a good chunk of money if you've got a dozen or a few dozen turbines on your property.

WORTHAM: Sure.

SHAPIRO: And you don't even have to give up what you were doing with the land before. You can still graze them all.

WORTHAM: Right. The Farm Bureau says about 3 percent of the land is used up.

SHAPIRO: Did the discussion about wind energy ever talk about climate change?

WORTHAM: No, because that would defeat the whole purpose. In other words, if you walk around saying, I'm green, I'm green, look at me, you just lost. Just do it. Don't make some trumpeting noise about it. In other words, you will create the divisions.

SHAPIRO: Texas produces more wind energy than the next three states combined, more than almost any country in the world. And the state's conservative bent might have something to do with that. Monty Humble is a developer who's built wind farms in the state.

MONTY HUMBLE: It's part of the notion that private property is the landowner's to do with as the landowner sees fit. For a landowner or a ranching family to have the opportunity to produce oil and gas or the opportunity to have a wind turbine or a solar farm, it may well mean that another generation can remain on the land, which is important.

SHAPIRO: Texas also has an advantage because of the way America's energy grid was built. Basically, the Texas grid is self-contained, so energy doesn't have to cross state lines. Kate Galbraith wrote a book called "The Great Texas Wind Rush." Now she's with the San Francisco Chronicle.

KATE GALBRAITH: One time I was on a bus with a bunch of Texans in West Texas who were learning about Texas energy, and the leader of the bus said, there are three grids in the lower 48 - east, west and Texas. And this bus just erupted in cheers. It was really funny. Texans are very nationalistic, and having their own energy grid makes them really happy.

SHAPIRO: It also makes it a lot simpler to build energy infrastructure here. Wind power is growing in other states, too, but not as big or fast as Texas. It seems like the new energy secretary might try to close that gap. At his swearing-in last week, Rick Perry described what Donald Trump told him when he offered him the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK PERRY: He said, Perry, I want you to do for American energy what you did for Texas.

SHAPIRO: We asked Perry for an interview and got no response. He was Texas governor for 14 years, starting in 2000. Jay Root covered him as a reporter for The Texas Tribune.

JAY ROOT: He did really push wind energy at a time when if he hadn't, it wouldn't - we wouldn't be where we are today.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think he believed in wind so strongly?

ROOT: I don't think anyone, including Rick Perry, would call Rick Perry an environmentalist. But the guy knows how to sniff out a dollar. And so here's a guy from West Texas who saw that you can make money off of the wind blowing. Like, that's a no-brainer.

SHAPIRO: Jay Root wrote a book about Rick Perry's ill-fated run for president. It's called "Oops! A Diary From The 2012 Campaign Trail."

ROOT: Let's be honest. You know, Rick Perry does not have the best reputation when it comes to either speaking ability - people questioned his intellect, certainly his memory. But I think he's a competent manager. And I think that he's got a lot of common sense, a lot of West Texas common sense.

SHAPIRO: When Perry became governor, turbines were already starting to catch the wind in West Texas. But a lot of them weren't spinning because the energy had nowhere to go. Governor Perry signed a law to build transmission lines connecting the plains to the cities, and he made every Texas citizen pay for it in their energy bills. That's not the most conservative position in the world, says law professor David Spence of the University of Texas, Austin.

DAVID SPENCE: It's a full socialization of the costs. We don't use that word in the public discussion. But yeah, we socialized the costs across all Texas ratepayers.

SHAPIRO: This was before the Tea Party revolution, when it was easier for Republicans to buck strict conservative principles on a case-by-case basis. So Rick Perry faces challenges at the national level that will make it much harder for him to expand what he did in Texas. But if he does, it would be almost as surprising as what happened in his home state, that a red-state conservative guy from oil country managed to help build one of the biggest renewable energy systems in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA SONG, "CAN'T KEEP CHECKING MY PHONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.