Travel across the Texas Panhandle and you’ll see the evidence of an up-and-coming industry that’s making Bob Dylan prophetic: “The answer is blowing in the wind.”
Earlier this month I traveled the 175-mile stretch of Interstate 40 that spans the northwestern reaches of Texas, and was impressed by the sheer number of wind turbines that cover the landscape.
I’ve traveled this road many times, since I have family in Arkansas and Tennessee, and have been seeing the turbines for years, but this time I noticed their proliferation. Amarillo is now like an island in a sea of wind turbines, spanning the horizon in spots as far as the eye can see.
Wind energy has taken flight in Texas. The Lone Star State, despite its long-running affinity for oil and gas, is leading the nation in wind energy production. And the Panhandle isn’t even the most productive region of the state for this burgeoning industry, as north central Texas has most of the largest wind farms nowadays.
According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), 12.6 percent of Texas’s energy production now comes from the wind, and that’s growing every day. Our neighbor to the east is now producing enough wind-generated electricity to supply 5.3 million American homes.
Meanwhile, here in New Mexico, the AWEA ranks us 17th among U.S. states for installed wind capacity, enough to power 334,000 homes. Statewide, it’s not a big jobs producer—up to 2,000 jobs, AWEA data states—but it too is growing. What started as a single turbine in 2001 has grown into 15 wind farms and 850 turbines across the state.
We sit in a great spot for wind energy production. High- and low-pressure air masses kick up the winds, especially at the higher mesa-top elevations, and we’ve got plenty of open space for the turbines.
So, while we wring our hands over the decline in oil and gas money (which accounts for about a third of the state’s tax revenue), the wind offers a not-so-subtle reminder that the future of energy production lies not in the ground but in the air.
We don’t need to wait on our elected state leaders to grow this industry—private enterprise is doing that for us. Plus, we don’t even have to agree on the science of global warming, because economically, investing in wind farms makes good financial sense.
That’s why Xcel Energy is investing $1.6 billion in two new wind farms in eastern New Mexico and western Texas. The New Mexico wind farm will be built south of Portales in Roosevelt County, and will be the state’s largest. It will surpass the state’s largest wind farm right now, the Roosevelt Wind Project, also located a little south of Portales. That one is also owned by Xcel’s parent company, Southwest Public Service Co. (Xcel, by the way, also claims our state’s largest solar farm, east of Roswell.)
Of course, there’s a downside. Wind energy critics are quick to say that government subsidies are propping up the industry. But if indeed that’s true, it’s true for the oil and gas industry as well. Subsidies make energy more affordable for Americans.
Critics also say the turbines are noisy and, along with their power lines, are aesthetically unappealing, and they can be deadly to migrating birds. I remember those concerns being expressed a few years ago in northern New Mexico, where a wind farm was proposed near Ribera in San Miguel County. Even local environmentalists were opposed to the turbines in their backyards.
But New Mexico has plenty of uninhabited lands, far removed from anyone’s backyard. In the area of eastern New Mexico where most of the state’s wind farms are located, there are more cattle than people living near the turbines.
Wind energy is a part of our future. It’s clean, cheap (after the initial investment) and endlessly abundant. When combined with other energy sources like solar (which New Mexico is also well suited for), it’s what will power the latter part of the 21st century. Our state would be well advised to embrace it more than it has.
Someday, New Mexico could be producing more wind- and solar-generated electricity than we would ever be able use, making us an even bigger “exporter” in the production of energy.
That would be good for the economy and the environment. Long live Bob Dylan and his prophetic lyrics.
Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.