Dateline

In Search of a Panhandle Windfall
by Published on
Old school energy production meets new school technology near Roscoe.

While I waited for the safety instructor, my eyes wandered to a laminated photograph on the wall. Among motivational posters of sunset kayakers and snow-peaked mountains, a nervously grinning man held up the drooping carcass of a 9-foot diamondback rattlesnake by the shaft of a pitching wedge.

“Goddamn,” said my fellow trainee. I’ll call him Roy. He walked over and took a picture of the snake picture with his cell phone. Roy wore dusty jeans, boots and a camouflaged baseball cap. He looked to be about 17. A large tattoo covered his right arm.

Though I was just visiting, I was required to attend a safety course for newly hired construction workers before touring what will soon be the world’s largest wind farm, near Roscoe. Black plastic cigarette canisters stood like sentinels amid the site’s dust-spattered mobile home offices, clustered down a dirt track just off Highway 84. Wind turbines (pronounced “turbans”) towered over flat cotton fields.

“You know where you want to work yet?” Roy asked.

“I’m just here for the day,” I said.

“I hope they let me climb towers,” he said. “To hell with the oil rigs.”

“A rattlesnake’s strike distance is two-thirds of its body length,” a man said. We turned from the photograph. Jim Mercer, our instructor, had arrived. Tan and fit, he wore rectangular glasses, a black baseball cap, and a bright yellow reflective jacket of the sort favored by crosswalk guards. Before coming to Texas, Mercer worked sheet metal in Arizona and as a private contractor in Iraq, where a bomb had damaged his hearing. He talked a little too loudly.

I had assumed that a landscape as flat as the Panhandle couldn’t be dangerous. Mercer was about to prove me wrong.

“I got angry with my wife and threw her cat in a rattlesnake den,” Roy said, apropos the photo, as Mercer set up a slide projector on the plywood conference table. “They were nesting in a culvert down the road. The rattling was deafening after they got that cat.”

“Guess he didn’t come back out, huh?” Mercer asked with a tight grin.

“Nope,” Roy snorted.

It’s common to hear tough talk on dangerous job sites like oil fields and ranches. Bravado and black humor serve as outlets for anxiety. Mercer shook his head and turned on a projector.

“You know what the No. 1 killer of construction workers is today?” Mercer asked as he unsheathed his cell phone from a belt holster.

“This little baby right here. Talking and driving. Talking and texting. Four 14-year-old girls were texting when they ran daddy’s SUV straight into a horse trailer the other month on a nearby farm-to-market. They were all killed.”

Comprising 97 square miles, the Roscoe wind farm is owned by German energy company E On Climate & Renewables. D.H. Blattner & Sons Inc., a Minnesota construction company, was hired to erect the site’s turbines and administer employee-safety courses. At full power, the Roscoe installation will produce 782 megawatts, enough energy to power around 230,000 homes.

Most of Roscoe’s turbines are Mitsubishi 1-megawatt models, 12 feet in diameter at the base and 308 feet tall from ground to blade-tip. At night, flickering lights atop the turbines warn approaching aircraft.

Each tower is composed of three hollow metal shafts welded together one atop the next. Wearing climbing harnesses clipped to safety lines, construction workers ascend metal rungs inside the tower. The turbine is capped by a nacelle (a boxlike structure holding an electrical generator) and the rotor (consisting of the hub and blades).

“Those blades are 97 feet long and weigh around 8,000 pounds apiece,” Mercer said, absentmindedly fingering a pack of Marlboro reds in his breast pocket. “Two cranes work together to lift them. The wires actually sing while lifting the blades.”

In May 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a report projecting that wind farms could produce 20 percent of the country’s electricity by 2030. Domestic wind energy currently accounts for just over 1 percent of U.S. grid capacity. The 20-percent goal could produce an estimated 156,000 new jobs.

Many would be located in the Great Plains, from Texas through North Dakota. That wind corridor is home to some of the world’s strongest and most consistent air currents. It also encompasses “tornado alley.”

A slide advises workers to seek underground shelter if a twister hits.

“Underground shelter?” Mercer scoffed. “Yeah, right. Best you can find out here is a culvert or bar ditch. But you know what else is heading for that low point? Every animal out here. I’m not bedding down with rattlers, porcupines and skunks. And look at these offices. They’re mobile homes. Tornadoes hate Wal-Marts, Kmarts and mobile home parks. Me? I’m jumping in my Ford and hauling ass.”

Mercer recounted a story about a turbine worker caught in the field during a tornado. The tower’s first section had been erected, but the rest was lying on the ground. As the tornado advanced, the worker crawled inside a 100-foot, open-ended metal tube and hooked his safety harness to one of the shaft’s climbing rungs.

“You ever blow across the top of a beer bottle?” Mercer asked. “Imagine the beer bottle top is 12 feet wide and your breath is raging 200 miles per hour.”

For the Great Plains wind corridor to provide 20 percent of U.S. energy by 2030, the national power grid will have to be overhauled. The grid, owned and maintained by a loose coalition of regional electrical companies and established to serve rural areas, wasn’t built to handle the juice produced by wind farms.

“If Thomas Edison came back today, he’d find some of the same things he’d initially put in,” T. Boone Pickens told me.

As a substantial investor in turbines and natural gas, Pickens stands to make a tidy profit from his widely publicized plan to shift the burden of American energy dependence away from foreign oil.

Pickens isn’t the only billionaire entrepreneur with his eye on a windfall. During September’s initial economic downturn, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. founder Warren Buffett added several wind-friendly energy companies to his portfolio. Unlike fossil fuel prices, which fluctuate, wind production costs are predictable.

But serious roadblocks impede Buffett and Pickens. The Roscoe wind farm is so big because it lies near the northernmost boundary of ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, a regional power grid serving 85 percent of the state. In nearby Sweetwater, high-capacity transmission lines were built years ago to transmit electricity from natural gas power plants to Dallas-Fort Worth, but have increasingly begun carrying wind energy. The Sweetwater area is now home to the country’s three largest wind farms not because it’s the state’s windiest region, but because it happens to be connected to the right load capabilities.

Transmission-line expansion is on the horizon. The Texas Public Utility Commission recently unveiled plans to begin installing new Panhandle lines in 2011.

Exploring the region in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors named the area the Llano Estacado, or “staked plains.” Waist-high grasses waved like a shallow ocean from horizon to horizon. The conquistadors drove stakes into the ground to keep their bearings.

Though still home to high winds, the Great Plains’ native grasses have largely been replaced by cultivated fields, highways and oilfield pump jacks.

Back at the construction site, the slide show presents a bright yellow crop duster spraying a cotton field.

Like most wind farms, the Roscoe site is planted on leased farmland. Property owners allow companies to build turbines in exchange for royalties from the energy. The metal and fiberglass turbines spin over neatly drawn boxes of cotton fields, farm-to-market roads and giant irrigation sprinklers.

“OK, you’re far more likely to see one of these babies than a twister,” Mercer said, referring to the crop duster. “Remember, we’re guests on the farmers’ land. They can do whatever they want. One local boy uses an old biplane to spray. If you see one of these guys popping smoke, then get the hell out of there. Some use a DDT derivative to kill the boll weevils. You see a crop duster spraying, you immediately leave and don’t come back for 24 hours.”

A train flashed on the screen.

“Six or seven trains cruise through here going anywhere from 50 to 90 miles per hour,” Mercer said. “You think they’ve got any crossing guards out here? No way. Also, thanks to Homeland Security, the train companies don’t have to disclose what they’re freighting. These guys could be hauling anything from corn syrup to hydrosulfuric acid. If a spill happens and you’re downwind, walk at a right angle until you’re clear of its dispersion path.”

The screen showed pictures of Native American pottery.

“Okay,” Mercer sighed. “If you unearth any artifacts, work must stop until field research can be done.”

I’d heard stories of workers failing to report pottery found on site. Calling in a research team to catalog antiquities halts production and costs money. I’d also heard rumors of high turnover rates among turbine workers because of meth addiction, a rural Texas scourge.

“Look, I only lie to the IRS and women in bars,” Mercer said. “The fact is that there’s not much Indian stuff out here. As for drugs, you’d better have done all your partying in high school. We have regular, mandatory tests.”

The program continued with slides of spider bites and scorpion stings. “Don’t wear a wedding ring on site,” Mercer said, flashing a jewelry-free hand. “One bite, and your finger can swell up like an overcooked microwave hot dog.”

He warned of killer bees that have migrated into the area from South America. Four workers were recently attacked by a swarm.

“That’s another reason to wear the reflective jacket,” Mercer said. “Bees don’t attack bright colors because they associate them with flowers.”

We saw a truck mired to the axles in mud.

“Even the ground out here can kill you,” Mercer said. “We work in cotton fields that have been plowed down 36 inches below the surface. Your truck will sink and possibly flip if you go too far off the road.”

The safety course ended with slides showing burly, hard hat-wearing construction workers doing jumping jacks and reaching for their toes. Roy shook his head and grinned.

“Laugh if you want, but stretching is proven to reduce soft tissue injuries,” Mercer said. “Everyone on site is required to perform calisthenics before the working day begins.”

After the course, I toured the wind farm with site manager Jerry Hawkins. In his late 60s, Jerry has white hair, glasses and a deeply lined face. We both wore hard hats, plastic safety goggles and bright, reflective jackets, even inside his extended-cab Chevy truck.

“Company policy,” Jerry said.

We rattled down dirt roads, white dust lingering in our wake. At a crossroads, the door of a bright blue portacan slammed open and shut like a crippled bird trying to take flight. Flagged red signs screamed, “Warning! Power lines overhead!” We passed an empty turbine construction site.

“The wind’s blowing so hard this afternoon that they’ve stopped work on the towers,” Jerry said. Wooden boxes 15 feet tall housing electrical equipment and emblazoned with the red Mitsubishi symbol stood next to unfinished towers rising 100 feet. Three 97-foot blades affixed to a rotor lay splayed on the ground next to a Winnebago-sized nacelle. To hold all this weight steady in high winds, the turbine shafts are sunk in giant concrete foundations. From the highway, it’s impossible to appreciate their immense size.

The Roscoe wind farm is an international project. Spearheaded by E On, the project utilizes parts from Japan, Denmark and Spain. Compared with Europe, where wind energy technologies have been developing rapidly since the 1970s, domestic R&D has been relatively stagnant. That’s changing. General Electric Co., E On, Siemens and Mitsubishi Corp. all maintain offices in nearby Sweetwater. Foreign companies are driving development in the Panhandle with an eye toward expanding across the country.

Jerry and his wife have a home in Wichita Falls, about three hours away. Because the wind farm job was too good to pass up, he’s living temporarily in a Sweetwater RV park and commuting.

“This is the way we’re heading,” Jerry said, nodding to the rows of half-completed turbines. “They’ve completely changed Sweetwater. There used to be nothing out here. Now their high school has even got an Astroturf football field.”

Turbine farms from Texas to Canada could revitalize America’s rural economy. But in addition to the outdated power grid, other major hurdles exist. For one thing, there’s no functional storage system, so turbine-generated electricity has to be utilized in real time. The wind often blows hardest in the morning and evening, when demand is lowest. And what happens when the wind doesn’t blow?

Despite such challenges and a sagging economy, the U.S. wind energy market is moving ahead. During the next few years, Congress will likely implement some type of carbon-credit trading program similar to Europe’s to curb U.S. industrial emissions. Companies exceeding their pollution quotas would be required to buy green energy, like wind or solar.

“They’ve had me working some night shifts lately,” Jerry said. “They’re in some kind of rush to get all these things up.”

The afternoon sun was oppressive. There was nowhere to hide on the plains. Jerry played a gospel music CD in the truck, the air conditioner on full-blast, and sang along quietly while we drove. A water truck passed by, moistening the roads to hold down the dust.

“I’m a member of the Christian Classic Cruisers,” Jerry said. He opened the glove box, pulled out a booklet, and showed me pictures of his 1920s-era Chevrolet. He, his wife and their toy poodle drive the antique car to charity events, raising money for underprivileged children.

“We’ve got that poodle instead of any grandkids,” Jerry said. “The dog goes everywhere with us.”

We stopped near a power substation, seemingly comprised of Frankenstein lab props. Wind energy converted by the turbines is amassed here before being transmitted down the line to the ERCOT grid. The air crackled like a giant bug-zapper. Cows grazed an adjoining field. A nearby shed housed old farm equipment.

Continuing on, we paused under a row of spinning turbines.

“Hear that?” Jerry asked.

The turbines made a steady whoop-whoop, like a hotel lobby’s revolving door.

“I don’t even notice the noise anymore,” Jerry said. “Once you pull a quarter-mile away, you can’t hear them at all.”

We rolled up to a crew working on a turbine. The wind had let up enough to let the men get back to work. A bright orange hard hat bobbed at the top of a partially completed shaft. The worker looked like a circus performer preparing to be shot from a giant cannon. An immense yellow crane hoisted bearings into the sky.

“That’s the foreman there,” Jerry said, pointing to a gray-haired man smoking a cigarette in a Dodge pickup with the windows rolled up. “I’m going to see if we’re working tomorrow. I’d sure like Saturday off.”

Jerry walked over to the man, who rolled down the window and smiled. I noticed spotlights and a generator at the turbine base. The men worked for 10 minutes and then stopped again. Jerry came back to the truck.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Wind picked up,” Jerry said. “Looks like we’re calling it a day. It’s about 5 anyway.”

“Are you working tomorrow?”

“Yep,” Jerry said. He shook his head and smiled. “At least I don’t have to pull the night shift. It’s good to get a break.”

Austin’s Stayton Bonner received a state grant to write about wind energy development in the Panhandle.