The ribbon of asphalt leading to the 69 Ranch in Sweetwater, Texas, cuts through a flat, windy stretch of scrubland that unrolls under a blue sky. It’s part of the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains, named for the stakes early Spanish settlers planted to orient themselves amid a seemingly endless horizon. It’s so flat, the local saying goes, you can watch your dog run away for days.
Like many thoroughfares near this small West Texas city, Ranch Road 608 is also lined with wind turbines. Each as tall as the Statue of Liberty, these towering steel columns and fiberglass blades are an unremarkable sight in an area that has become the epicenter of the nation’s—and arguably the world’s—wind-energy industry in the last decade.
I pull up to the sprawling ranch house to meet 82-year-old Kathy Dickson, who, along with her late husband, Temple, became one of the first area landowners to host turbines on their property in 2000.
Committed naturalists, the Dicksons planted their homestead with native flora and have invited students to explore the local ecosystem. And the couple felt that turbines, and renewable power in general, offered a better financial and environmental deal in a state pockmarked with the detritus of oil drilling.
During a tour of her garden, past flowers, cacti, and cattails growing out of a freshwater spring, Dickson wouldn’t tell me the size of her property or the number of turbines on it—as she explains, that’s a rude question in West Texas. She loves how the turbines look like the future, and how her granddaughter, Chloe, likes to jump over the shadows cast by the spinning blades.
“Invest and take care of the land, and it’ll take care of you,” Dickson said.
In a region where farmers have struggled with 30-mile-per-hour winds that blow away topsoil, the move to harness West Texas’s wind is as much a small human triumph over nature as it is progressive energy policy. Today, that wind has become a financial wellspring and helped revitalize Sweetwater. But can wind power breathe life into a community staring down the economic forces, like declining manufacturing and job consolidation, that have battered much of rural America?
In 1925, an anonymous novelist published The Wind, about a woman driven to murder by the relentless wind of Sweetwater. When the author was revealed to be native Texan Dorothy Scarborough, town leaders demanded she come visit for a debate. It was canceled due to a windstorm.
Texas’s wind industry boasts more than 12,000 turbines and generates up to 23,000 megawatts of power—more than all but five other countries. The state’s $40 billion private industry also employs a quarter of the nation’s wind-energy employees.
Sweetwater is the seat of Nolan Country, which boasts more than 1,300 turbines. In 2010, roughly a quarter of U.S. wind installations stood within 75 miles of the town, population 11,000. The clusters of red safety lights blinking atop the area’s turbine towers have been nicknamed the nation’s largest Christmas light display (or red light district). Some call them eyesores. But these turbines support landowners, pump tax dollars into schools, and don’t leave behind derricks, pollution, or empty wells.
Wind’s growth is just another piece of Texas’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, which has given the energy industry carte blanche to frack, drill, build, and otherwise pursue power for profit. In a state dominated by oil money, wind is just another resource to extract . “There is not a wind farm in Texas that was built as a response to climate change,” clarifies Jeffrey Clark, president of the Wind Coalition, an industry trade association.
Nationwide, wind energy produces enough electricity to power 27 million homes. A little more than one in five wind turbines in the U.S. can be found in Texas.
Still, Texas offers a unique narrative for growing renewable power, especially at a time when California, for example, is mandating statewide carbon neutrality by 2045. Other states, especially wind-belt ones like Iowa and Oklahoma, have great potential to further develop their wind resources.
But none have Texas’s combination of infrastructure, regulatory freedom, and penchant for prospecting.
When Ken Becker, executive director of Sweetwater Enterprise for Economic Development, drove me around town to see the wind economy at work, he left his name tag on. It proved unnecessary. A buoyant presence, Becker knew—and was known by—everyone. Any time he was asked how he was doing, he responded with “I’m blessed!” When I asked how Texas encourages energy investment, he replied, “Some people talk about doing things, and West Texas just sort of does them.”
Becker is very excited about wind. When I asked him to pull over so I could photograph a row of windmills, he showed me his smartphone and started scrolling through turbine photos.
“My wife gets frustrated,” he says. “‘If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all,’ she says. I say no. See, the light’s different on this one today.”
Wind employs roughly 250 people in Nolan County, more than two-thirds of whom live in Sweetwater, the county seat. Many currently work in maintenance (as opposed to construction—during the building boom, approximately 1,200 county residents worked “in wind”); a map of turbines in Becker’s office has hundreds of red Xs representing turbines in wind farms named Turkey Track, Horse Hollow, and Buffalo Gap.
Nearby cement and gypsum plants, as well as Ludlum Measurements, which makes radiation detection equipment, provide more jobs in Nolan County than the wind industry. But wind offers an entire range of high-tech, high-paying positions , and, more crucially for the area’s long-term economic health, increases the region’s tax base. Maintenance technicians start at $20-$25 an hour, and on some of the larger farms, such as Roscoe, a massive wind farm run by the German energy giant E.ON that’s more than six times as large as the island of Manhattan, 75 workers keep the turbines spinning.
Including management, maintenance, and specialized manufacturing. This extends to wind-related companies like EMA Electromechanics, which manufactures industrial circuit breakers as big as a bathroom, and the turbine-blade-recycling outfit Global Fiberglass Solutions.
Becker says that the county’s taxable land was worth roughly $500 million in 1999, before wind turbines began dotting the landscape. By 2008, that value was $2.8 billion.
“We’ve created a work environment where you can have some of these young folk that have left to big cities actually come back and raise their family and make a good living,” says Becker.
Already, the town is home to technicians and maintenance engineers who get flown to wind farms across the country.
“If you’re a company that does anything related to wind, why not be in the backyard of the place where you can look in all four directions and see a turbine?” says Becker.
Billie Jones, an eight-year industry veteran of General Electric Onshore Renewables, and one of the first female turbine technicians to work in Texas, now trains future wind technicians at Sweetwater’s Texas State Technical College. Jones began working in an era before climb-assist systems, and has needed three knee surgeries to recover from the impact of ascending turbine ladders—but the job has allowed her to raise three kids and put two through college.
Jones sees similar economic possibilities for her students, like Kaitlin Sullivan, a 26-year-old from a panhandle town just north of Amarillo. Sullivan says she first saw turbines when they went up near her home during middle school, and, after finishing her degree, she’ll work for a firm in Germany that manufactures printing presses. The TSTC wind program has given her electrical knowledge and the pleasure of a unique vantage point.
“It’s almost like you’re on top of the world on a turbine,” says Sullivan. “When you get out near the blades, it’s just you and the sky.”
Perched on the eastern edge of the Permian Basin—a geological formation rich in oil and natural gas—Sweetwater was linked to electrical lines used to power nearby private drilling operations, which brought electricity all the way from the Dallas-Fort Worth area out to Midland.
Oil would boom and then bust in the ’80s, decimating small businesses and a once-lively town square in Sweetwater, but the power lines provided an easy way to link rural turbines with urban customers. When companies began experimenting with wind power in the late ’90s, the town already had the transmission lines that made remote turbines economically feasible.
The area’s first wind farm, the Trent Mesa Wind Project, broke ground in 1999 with 100 GE turbines, and became operational in 2011. While many expected the new infrastructure to be a passing fad, the demand for power and Texas’s pro-energy, anti-regulation philosophy conspired to create a regional wind boom.
A federal production tax credit provided economic incentive for investment , and governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry threw their support behind wind. Bush and Perry both pushed for the $7 billion CREZ (competitive renewable energy zones) project, which brought an additional 18,000 megawatts of transmission lines out to 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 to cash in across Nolan County between 2006 and 2008.
The PTC for renewable energy, which was first established as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, offers a 2.2 cents-per-kilowatt-hour benefit for the first decade of a renewable energy facility’s operation.
An NRDC analysis found that the tax credit would add, on average, $11 billion in value to the U.S. economy every year over the next decade.
Few understand what wind has wrought in Sweetwater better than Rod Wetsel, who literally helped write the book on the subject (Texas Wind Law). A fourth-generation Sweetwater resident and lawyer who sports bow ties and French cuffs, Wetsel brings an old-school charm to the cutting-edge industry.
“Texas is really is what I’d call the Wild West of wind,” he says. “It has almost no regulation, no permitting, totally government hands-off policy.”
Since helping draft some of the first turbine deals in Nolan County, Wetsel has negotiated roughly 10,000 wind leases across the country, mostly in Texas. That doesn’t mean that landowners can simply throw up a turbine in hopes of turning wind into a windfall; for one thing, even the smallest single-megawatt turbine costs roughly $1.25 million to install. Energy companies seek out the owners of large properties after doing extensive research and computer modeling to find areas for expansion.
Companies like E.ON and AES Wind Generation are then responsible for stringing transmission lines and building transformers. Landowners, some of whom host dozens of turbines, receive quarterly payouts, sometimes called “mailbox money” for their regularity, since this renewable resource doesn’t run out like oil and gas. Signed with terms that typically cover 30 to 50 years, these deals offer security (wind money helped many area ranches survive the 2011 drought). And since the windmills are spaced far apart, normally six or seven per 640 acres of land , ranchers can still grow cotton or raise cattle around the turbines.
640 acres is the land area of one “section,” a standard unit of measurement used in the area for large ranches. So while the per-unit cost of a wind turbine is a consideration for lessees, owning enough land to put them on is the main factor.
Wind pays well. Lessees normally make anywhere from $8,000 to $25,000 per turbine, per year, depending on the size and age of the machine, with guaranteed minimum payouts . According to Andy Swift of the National Wind Institute in Lubbock, Texas, wind leases in Texas pay out roughly $60 million a year, and the new generation of larger, more efficient turbines may pay up to $25,000 each. The maintenance of aging turbines, as well as “repowering” existing turbines by replacing smaller, aging blades with a new generation of larger and more efficient ones, will also provide plenty of jobs; one market analyst suggests the market for maintenance and operations will increase from $6 billion a year today to $8.3 billion by 2027.
As per Wetsel, payouts start at roughly $4,500 per megawatt (turbines range from 1 to 3.5 megawatts), increasing $500 per megawatt every five years of the lease term.
Literally out of thin air, wind became one of the larger taxpayers in rural areas, boosting property tax values and local school districts. The industry contributed roughly $12 million to the county’s tax roll between 2008 and 2009, the peak of turbine construction. In 2017, wind accounted for 23 percent of the county’s tax roll, at nearly $9.2 million dollars.
In Nolan County, which hadn’t seen new education buildings for decades, all four districts have expanded since wind arrived in 1999. The tiny town of Blackwell recently spent $14 million on a new high school and football stadium. A trio of wind turbines stands on the school grounds.
If they’re not renewed, federal tax credits for wind are slated to expire in 2020, which would force wind energy to more directly compete with cheaper natural gas. But as industry experts like Clark argue, public utilities will continue to invest in consistent, and consistently cheaper, wind power. Utilities want variety in their power supply as a hedge against uncertainty and price swings, and this uniformity is one of the reason corporations from Amazon to Anheuser-Busch are investing millions. Oil will always have its booms and its busts, but nobody sees the wind stopping any time soon.
While wind has done its part for money and jobs, Sweetwater has seen better days. Empty storefronts and battered buildings circle the town square. The town is dotted with small “gambling” parlors, where one can play slot machines and win coupons, a workaround to the state’s anti-gaming laws. A familiar parade of economic challenges—not just the oil bust, but competition from Walmart and then Amazon—put the city, like other rural areas of Texas, on a downward economic curve. According to the state demographer, 102 of Texas’s 254 counties, nearly all rural, have lost population since 2010.
The real challenge, according to city manager David Vela, is people. During a discussion in the City Council’s meeting room, Vela explains a scenario familiar to small communities. Sweetwater needs trained, educated workers and new businesses, and plans to invest in the small touches (walking paths, splash pads, dog parks, better housing) that make a town more livable. But how do you attract the people without the jobs, or attract the jobs without the people?
As more of each move to the state’s big cities—Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas—it’s only going to become more difficult to attract new residents to Sweetwater. Vela believes it’s about offering a better quality of life. Hopefully, the infusion of new wind energy jobs and turbine tax revenue can convince more Texans that there’s a future in this windswept region.
“We’re out on an island here in West Texas,” Vela says. “We will be a ghost town if we don’t change the way we do things over the next few decades.”
Patrick Sisson is Curbed’s Senior Reporter.