Looking like graceful three-armed swimmers slowly stroking across the skyline, wind turbines are signaling the arrival of a new Valley industry.
By the end of 2012, Willacy and Cameron Counties will have 383 wind turbines in operation. In Kennedy County, the Penascal Wind Farm (owned by Iberdrola) with 168 turbines and Gulf Wind with 118 are already channeling electricity to Texans. Today Texas has over ten thousand megawatts of windpower, more than the twice the second-ranked state. At year’s end, the four deep south Texas wind farms alone will be capable of producing 1,292 megawatts. One megawatt can power about 300 homes. Do the math: that’s 387,600 homes.
This year, the windpower industry, both in construction mode and power-generating mode, is transforming the landscape of the eastern Valley physically and economically.
The newest wind farms are easily visible from Highway 77 northward from Combes. At Los Vientos I and II, the southernmost wind farm which is operated by Duke Energy Renewables, 171 Siemens and Mitsubishi turbines are contracted to send power to CPS Energy of San Antonio and Austin Energy. Beyond that, the Magic Valley Wind Farm, operated by E.ON, will have 112 Vesta turbines whose output is contracted to AEP.
Four years ago, Robert Pena, wind power developer, began scouting Willacy County terrain for Duke Energy. The Willacy and Cameron counties’ almost constant afternoon offshore breeze during the summer coincides with peak power demand, making the region a desirable location for wind farms. Pena initiated bird population studies and hammered out leases with approximately 28 property owners, who had plots ranging from 40 to 4,000 acres which they were farming.
“Generally their attitude has been extremely positive,” Pena said. “They are receiving a secondary source of income from their farming operation. They are seeing a little bit of a windfall and it doesn’t disturb their farming.” Wind farm leases are typically divided into three phases: a basic lease during construction, a segment based on the megawatts installed on the property, and a third covering the annual payment which represents a percentage of the electricity produced or some variation. Several years ago, royalties ran about $3,000 to $5,000 per turbine annually.
The Port of Brownsville has played a part in ongoing wind farm construction. Some models of the aerodynamic blades, each about 150 feet long, arrive there to be loaded onto elongated trailers. Other components arrive from Colorado by rail and truck. Blades and hubs have been staged at Alamo Concrete Products’ temporary Wind Energy Storage Facility in Harlingen along the highway frontage.
At the Los Vientos sites, where about 70 percent of Wanzek Construction’s large labor force is local, a concrete batch plant was installed and running around the clock until late spring while the turbine pads were being poured. Now towering cranes are lifting the four, pre-wired tower sections and stacking them atop each other in the final assembly steps. The “plug and play” sections are bolted together along with the nacelle, the big-as-a-bus control room that caps the tower. The three blades are attached to the hub and placed atop the 262 foot tall tower. The tip of the highest blade reaches about 430 feet above the ground.
“We believe that Los Vientos 1 and 2, in conjunction with other area wind projects, have the potential to transform the surrounding communities and provide a tremendous economic boost,” said Duke spokesman Greg Efthimou. The wind farm in Sweetwater for example has provided a long term boost for schools and retail. Duke believes in developing strong ties to the community and hiring locally, he added. “We own and operate the wind farm with the intent to be there for a long time. We rarely turn down requests to tour the wind farms, particularly from school groups.”
Magic Valley Wind Farms has had more than 200 construction workers on site, according E.ON Energy spokesman Kevin Gresham. The Willacy County turbines are connected to the grid after completion and testing. Gresham said the Willacy County wind farm will supply long term, good paying jobs for approximately 20 technicians and site managers, with a trickledown effect on local suppliers. The wind technology program at TSTC-Harlingen has aided wind farm development. “It’s a great benefit for industry as a whole and for us.”
The Gulf Wind Farm, the first on the Gulf Coast, has been producing wind power on the Kenedy Ranch for Pattern Energy since 2009. Developer John Calaway said the project generates not only power but annual county tax revenue in the multi-million dollar range. And the power production is considerable. “At this minute, we are producing 248 megawatts of power. We are powering 170,000 homes with green energy,” said a pleased Calaway.
Calaway pioneered the avian radar system which was installed at Gulf Wind to address concerns about bird mortality due to wind turbines. “After two years of daily, post-construction surveys for dead birds, mortality rates were lower than the national average,” he said. “Radar gave us the confidence that the majority of migratory birds were flying well above the turbines.” The radar system is designed to shut down the turbines immediately when bad weather forces migratory flocks from a typical altitude of 5,000 feet down to 500 feet, near the blades.
John Polomny is the Los Vientos power plant manager. Around October 1, the wind farm will began testing its turbines and transmitting power through underground cables to an newly energized onsite substation and then to the Rio Hondo substation. While erecting the turbines has been like a manufacturing process compounded by the movement of the huge cranes, the project is on schedule and is due to start full production on New Year’s Eve.
Polomny described Siemens’ space-shuttle-like nacelle as the turbine’s control center, accessed by a long interior ladder. The nacelle holds advanced wind farm manager software that takes in data from exterior measuring devices which determine how many megawatts can be produced given the conditions. The unique logistical challenges of a wind farm involve finding the optimum arrangement of turbine production to meet the current power demands, “the balance of plant,” and to feed electricity into the grid.
The short-term benefits to Willacy County and its neighbors have been visible in construction jobs, a surge for Raymondville businesses, and a rural house that was on fire but saved by a passing wind turbine crew with a water tank.
The demand for power will not decrease, and the wind farms will have positive long term impact on the region. “Duke Energy will have four wind technicians and two turbine manufacturers’ representatives on site,” as well as other employees, Polomny said. He, for one, has purchased a Valley home and has settled into the area. County coffers are eagerly awaiting their PILOT funds, (payments in lieu of taxes.) Property owners can count on additional steady income for a generation while the towers provide shade for livestock on the coastal plains.
Willacy County could take the initiative and operate a Wind Power Visitors Center with an energy company. People would enjoy the chance to get close to a turbine, take photographs, learn how they work, and buy souvenir windmills for the kids back home.
September cover story by Eileen Mattei