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Getting wind power out of West Texas

Marketplace Staff Jul 28, 2008

Getting wind power out of West Texas

Marketplace Staff Jul 28, 2008


Stacey Vanek-Smith: And If you do a search just about anywhere for T. Boone Pickens, and you’ll see he’s a Texas oil man. More recently, though, he’s been working on becoming a wind man. He’s building a multibillion-dollar wind farm in his home state. But installing windmills might just be the easy part. David Martin Davies has more from the windy West Texas town of Abilene.

David Martin Davies: West Texas rancher Raymond McDaniel has 57 giant wind turbines on his ranch. At peak output, each one grinds out enough electricity to power about 350 homes.

Raymond McDaniel: We can ranch right around the turbines, they don’t interfere with any of our ranching operations. And the income stream from the turbines has been a blessing.

Around here, oil wells used to be as common as coyotes, but the old rocker pumps are rusting. Giant windmills like McDaniel’s now punctuate the wide open plains.

But there’s a problem: too few electric transmission lines to connect the wind farms in West Texas to the big cities like Dallas and Houston. Those lines can only carry so much power — and frequently the wind farms are told to power down.

Ned Ross: They’re running, they’re turning — we’re making the electricity, we just have no way to get it to the people that need it and want it.

Ned Ross of FPL Energy stands under a giant turbine at Horse Hollow, the world largest wind farm.

Ross: The power that’s producing right now above us on this wind turbine is being consumed east of here. That’s a certainty, because I can’t spin this turbine unless somebody’s consuming it right now.

In years past, investors have been skittish about pouring money into wind farms. Then, the Texas Public Utility Commission didn’t want to build more transmission lines without wind farms to hook up. But that chicken-and-egg riddle is over — the PUC just recently approved a $5 billion plan for a network of transmission lines to some of the windiest stretches of Texas.

State Representative Mike Villarreal pushed hard for the plan. He says it’s a start towards changing Texas’ reputation as the sole domain of Big Oil.

Mike Villarreal: Those of us who care about alternative energy, it’s an important step forward. We should celebrate this victory and not give up.

But the new transmission lines won’t break the windpower bottleneck any time soon. Construction won’t be completed for five years. Still, wind producers aren’t wasting any time — plans are underway for more than a dozen new wind farms in West Texas.

In Abilene, I’m David Martin Davies for Marketplace.

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