Winds of Change:
Turbines give town new energy
By TONY FREEMANTLE
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle
McCAMEY -- For more than 80 years, this has been the quintessential West
Texas oil town, its landscape defined by nodding pump jacks, its fragile
economy rising and falling with the price of the crude pooled in abundance
under a dusty crust of rock and cactus.
At its peak, shortly after the man whose name it bears drilled a hole into
the Permian Basin and struck a gusher in 1920, the town proudly bore the
nickname "Child of Black Gold" and boasted 10,000 hardy souls living in
tents and hurriedly constructed buildings.
Today, the winds of change, literally, have barreled through McCamey and the
1,800 people who have stuck with it. In the space of one year, this
hardscrabble oil-patch town has been transformed into the official Wind
Energy Capital of Texas.
Virtually every flat-topped mesa visible from the center of town bristles
with tall, graceful, state-of-the-art wind turbines. Entrepreneurs from
Austin are regular visitors, doing multimillion-dollar deals with local
landowners. Hard-hatted executives from major national utility companies pop
in for hamburgers at the Dairy Queen. Danish technicians have braved
rattlesnakes to install the turbines, and some have even found love among
A year ago, McCamey was just another little town and Texas wasn't even a
player in the national wind-power scene. Today, thanks to a combination of
federal tax breaks, state mandates, incentives and serendipity, the state is
second only to California in the amount of wind power it can generate, and
McCamey has a new, albeit modest, lease on life.
On Jan. 1, 2001, the state was capable of producing only 187 megawatts of
wind power at any given time. By year's end, that had soared to 1,100
megawatts, enough to provide power to about 412,000 average Texas homes.
That was more than half the national increase.
Nationwide, the total available wind power in 26 states now stands at about
It would probably be stretching it to call the proliferation of wind farms
in Texas a "boom," and it would definitely be premature to say the wind
power industry has come of age. But considering that only a decade ago wind
energy was not considered economically viable because it cost about 10 times
as much to produce as conventional power, the achievements of the last few
years have been remarkable, industry analysts say.
Thanks largely to a federal production tax credit that lowers the price to
produce wind power by about 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, wind energy is now
competitive with power produced by coal or natural gas, which fuels the
majority of the nation's electricity production. According to government
figures, the cost of power from wind systems has dropped from 35 cents per
kilowatt-hour in 1980 to between 4 cents and 6 cents today, without
In Texas, if the tax credit is factored in, wind power generators have been
able to deliver wind power to the grid wholesale for less than 3 cents per
So much for the good news. One of the reasons 2001 was such a banner year
for wind energy in Texas and the rest of the country is that the production
tax credit was due to expire at the end of it and developers wanted to get
their projects on the ground before then.
Tom Gray, deputy executive director of the American Wind Energy Association,
said the production tax credit is included in at least four pieces of
legislation making their way through Congress.
"It (the credit) is very important," said Gray. "We were expecting about
$1.5 billion to $2 billion in equipment to be installed this year. All that
is on hold right now."
Theoretically, at least, the potential of wind power is limitless and much
touted by environmentalists and industry promoters. The U.S. Department of
Energy cites analysts' calculations that more than 1,200 gigawatts (1.2
million megawatts) of wind power are harvestable at various places in the
country, far more than the total of 775 gigawatts generated by all sources
But in reality, because of various factors, it is expected that
wind-generated power will provide only about 6 percent of the nation's
electricity by 2020, far behind such European countries as Denmark, where 20
percent to 40 percent of the power fed to the grid comes from wind.
In the United States, a major obstacle to the development of wind power has
been, and will be for the foreseeable future, the lack of transmission lines
to carry the power from mostly remote, rural areas to major markets.
"Transmission is definitely an impediment," Gray said. "There is also the
issue of getting access to transmission systems at a reasonable price."
Another obstacle to wind-generated power is that it isn't constant -- the
turbines generate electricity only when the wind is blowing. Research is
being conducted by various institutions into ways of converting and storing
the power generated by wind turbines so that it can be released to the grid
Also, said Walter Hornaday, president of Austin-based Cielo Wind Power, a
major player in the development of wind energy in Texas, there is great
disparity in programs devised by individual states to promote or mandate the
use of renewable energy.
"There are a patchwork of state incentives," Hornaday said. "Some states
have them, but some don't."
In Texas, the wind power rush had an additional incentive -- legislation
enacted in 1999 that requires power generators and utilities to include a
percentage of renewable energy (not necessarily all from wind) in their
portfolios of energy resources. The requirements were modest, amounting to
about 3 percent of the total power consumption of the state.
The Texas plan required the addition of 2,000 megawatts of renewable power
to the grid by 2009. Nearly 1,000 megawatts of that was added in one year
alone. Despite strong initial objections to the law, it is now being highly
praised as the best state plan in the country.
"What's not to like about it?" asked Russel Smith, executive president of
the Texas Renewable Industries Association. "No one else (in the nation) has
put that much wind generation on line in one year, and few in the world
Through a subsidiary, Houston's Reliant Energy is one of the major
purchasers of wind power generated at the King Mountain Wind Ranch near
McCamey, said Jeff Ferguson, director of special projects for Reliant
Energy's Wholesale Group.
"The Texas (law) is an example of lawmakers' responding to public awareness
and preferences," Ferguson said. "The Public Utility Commission has been
doing a good job of responding to that, and we need to do a good job of
listening to our customers."
With nearly 280 megawatts of output, the $300 million King Mountain Wind
Ranch, located on a 3,141-foot mesa to the northeast of McCamey, is the
largest wind farm in the world in terms of the power it generates, said Guy
Hammond, project manager for FPL Energy, the owner of the complex.
Built in less than 11 months, the King Mountain ranch sports 214
top-of-the-line, Danish-made Bonus wind turbines costing a little less than
$1 million each and each capable of generating 1.3 megawatts of power.
"The big advantage of these wind farms is that within a very short period of
time, you can be generating electricity," Hammond said. "With all the
permits you need, it can take a long, long time to get a coal plant up and
running. With these generators, there are no drawbacks. They go up fairly
quickly, and you don't have to wait around to do an environmental impact
They also provide a good, clean source of revenue for the local landowners
on whose land they are erected.
Longtime McCamey rancher Louis Woodward has a lot of land and owns a
mountain named after his family. He also has some gas wells that pay him
royalties, and it was his experience with the oil and gas people that caused
his skepticism in 1998 when some entrepreneurs from Austin approached him
with a deal to put some turbines on Woodward Mountain.
"I've dealt with oil companies all these years," Woodward said. "When I was
young, they walked all over me. I'm older and wiser now. It took us a long
time to work things out, but I can live with what I got."
What that is, exactly, Hornaday is not at liberty to say because of a
confidentiality agreement. But public records on a deal between the
University of Texas, which owns 1,000 acres on Woodward Mountain, and FPL
Energy offer some clues.
Under the deal, UT was paid an installation bonus of $179,000, or about $180
per acre. The university also will receive a total minimum royalty of about
$1.6 million over the full term of the 20-year lease, a sum that could
increase under certain conditions.
While the wind power boomlet in West Texas undoubtedly is a good thing for
the ranchers who are facing a persistent drought and decreasing oil and gas
royalties, whether it will be a long-term shot in the arm for small towns
like McCamey is not that certain. FPL Energy has an office in town and
employs 30 people, but according to Mayor Sherry Phillips, the predictions
of prosperity by the developers are somewhat overblown.
"They think it's doing us more good than it is," Phillips said. "We don't
have a lot of things here that they could use, and so they did a lot of
outside contract work. But it's progress. We have a lot of wind, and our
mesas are what makes it special, so why not?"
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