Urban resilience for rural revitalization

Texas is known nationwide as being home to cotton, cattle, and oil booms. While these specific things are true, a broader generalization can be made. Texas is home to agriculture and energy. Renewable energy industries are quickly gaining popularity in the state with wind energy leading the movement.

Wind energy is so prevalent in Texas, that if the state were its own country, it would rank fifth in the world for wind energy with about 25 megawatts installed throughout the state according to the American Wind Energy Association.

What’s even more impressive about wind-powered electricity in Texas? In 2019, something monumental happened. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) released their biannual report for the first half of the year and wind had surpassed coal. The difference in energy usage was small with wind coming in at 22% and coal at 21%, but wind has been growing steadily in practice and as a focus for politicians, educators, environmentalists, and local economies.

Lubbock, Texas, is the heart of wind research, industry, and education in the country. It's the home of Texas Tech University and the National Wind Institute (NWI), and the university is the only one in the nation with a degree program for wind engineering. Anyone that’s familiar with West Texas knows that wind turbines are as plentiful as tumbleweeds and prairie dogs. New “wind farms” appear every year on the farmland surrounding small towns. These wind farms pump money into local economies and bring new life to these communities.

Matt Saldana is a small-town Texas native and an employee of the National Wind Institute. Saldana also is an instructor at Texas Tech, specializing in renewable energies, finance and economics, and project management. He has seen firsthand the changes that come with the wind industry while living in Sweetwater, Texas. While there, he witnessed a revival of the small town as money was brought into the community as a result of a new wind farm outside of town. Saldana explained the entire process. 

When a contractor sees potential for a wind farm in an area, they go to the landowners of large farms and ranches with the request to put instruments on their land to take readings of wind speeds in the area, according to Saldana. He said this stage is fully noncommittal and comes with no guaranteed compensation for the landowner. If the owner agrees to having turbines built on their property, the contracting company will begin construction.

As a thank you to the community, developers will often pay for new roads, sidewalks, or schools. In Sweetwater, a new, state-of-the-art school district was built. This allowed for more money to be spent on teachers’ salaries, bringing in new faculty from the metroplex.

While the turbines are being constructed, thousands of temporary jobs are created. Not only are local men and women hired to be on the construction crews, but local motels, restaurants, and gas stations see more business than they have in a long time. While they are under construction, the developers are subject to all local tax rates as well, ensuring the cities receive municipal funding. Saldana said after construction, about 30 well-paying, permanent jobs are given to local residents. The landowners that have turbines on their properties receive a percentage of the revenue that each turbine produces (generally 3% to 8% depending on the specific company and production levels of each turbine, according to Saldana).

“People are being allowed to keep the family farms they’ve had for generations,” Saldana said.

The American farmer is in critical condition. Production prices are at an all-time high, climate change is affecting growing seasons and harvesting, and trade wars with foreign countries have made it harder for many to sell what little yield they have. Farm bankruptcies are up across every region of the country and the farmer suicide rate is one of the highest in the nation. Saldana said that the extra revenue brought in by turbines to family farms has helped people save the land that’s been in their families for generations.

Saldana said that research is being done constantly in order to push the industry forward. A few hot topics in the field include cybersecurity of turbines on the grid, finding a use for old and out of date equipment, moving into offshore capabilities, and finding a way to store renewable energy.

“Renewable electricity can’t be stored,” Saldana said. “Finding a solution to that would be a game changer.”

Saldana said despite the many positive aspects of the wind industry, there is still controversy surrounding wind turbines for people who live around them: endangering wildlife such as birds and bats, disrupting flora and fauna, and the low aesthetic value of the wind farms. He said the NWI is working on addressing these issues and that developers often work with wildlife conservation groups funding research and relocating bird species, like the Lesser Prairie Chicken.

“There’s always going to be pushback no matter the industry,” Saldana said. “(The positives) outweigh the negatives by environmental benefits and just keeping stuff in the ground.”

Despite these controversies, there’s no question that renewable energy industries have earned their place in Texas. Wind powered energy has become a major source of power for the state and only continues to grow. Wind energy allows for more assurance from blackouts, brownouts, and offers a new, clean means of electricity on the grid, ensuring a green method of urban resilience as our population spreads in urban areas; as a result, rural communities in West Texas continue to thrive thanks to the economic spark this industry brings them.

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