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In Search of a Panhandle Windfall BY STAYTON BONNER Old school energy production meets new school technology near Roscoe. photo by Stayton Bonner DATELINE I ROSCOE IN hile 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 turover 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 twothirds 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. Its 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.” omprising 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 consisting of “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. 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 6, 2009