You can download previous versions of our magazine from our archives.
Follow on facebook
by Hugh Stringleman
Dust bowl to renewable energy production in one lifetime – that's the latest story from the Texas
panhandle on the High Plains of the United States.
A wind farming boom in West Texas is turning the settler's curse, almost constant wind, into an asset requiring almost no
effort on behalf of the land owner. For the loss of 2-3% land to production like cropping or
livestock grazing, farmers near Amarillo are earning US$5000-plus per turbine per year.
Charlie Brown told me the eight turbines on 130ha that his
family owned would add at least 20% annually to arable income. The 1.25KW Suzlon turbines were erected by
John Deere, the giant farm machinery multinational now an emerging player in wind energy. John Deere put the
$2 million-each machines on Brown's land with a contract covering short term disruption, for road
construction, underground lines and tower erection, and long term earnings based on actual generation
performance. In one of the windiest places on earth, Brown and John Deere expect 300-plus days a year with
wind run from 12 to 15 mph, which is the optimum for those turbines.
The Brown family is free to continue no-till cropping under the wind farm – indeed
the towers have been placed so that the centre-pivot irrigators still draw their watery circles without
The lucrative nature of this wind power
boom for land owners is illustrated by Brown's neighbour, who is landlord to 53 turbines of 1.5 MW each, at
a total cost over US$100 million, all erected in the phenomenal time of eight months during 2008. At
that time, late in 2008, the promoters Babcock & Brown, an Australian-based merchant bank now in voluntary
administration, claimed their Majestic 79.5 MW wind farm was only a forerunner to 1000 MW of installed capacity it
planned in the panhandle.
Texas now produces 9000 MW of
America's 25,000 MW generated from wind, and is the leading wind power state.
But as the phrase “voluntary administration” might indicate, not everything is coming up roses
in the wind farms of West Texas. Firstly, there is the environmental impact of the turbines themselves.
Not everyone loves a turbine on their horizon, or perhaps next door. Texan judges have
already ruled that visual impact is insufficient reason to decline an application to build, so opponents are turning
to supposed noise and radiation effects on health. But few laws impinge on a Texan's right to do what he
likes with his land.
Outside of the city limits and any
zoning restrictions, pretty much anything goes. Bob Josserand, the 80-year-old Mayor of Hereford, which
calls itself the “Beef Capital of the World”, has seen five economic waves wash over Deaf Smith County,
West Texas, in the time he has been a resident.
Old enough to have experienced the Dust Bowl Depression of the 1903s, Bob was born and raised in Kansas and moved to
West Texas in 1971, at the height of the beef feedlot construction boom. He remains the owner of a
50,000-head lot in the county, which has the greatest concentration of feed lots in the world. With 40
miles of Hereford there are one million head of cattle at any one time, and 2.5 million head finished to slaughter
When he moved into the district in 1971
sugar beet was the largest crop, but the sugar refinery soon closed. Following that, because of the
abundant grain, the feed-lotting industry relocated to West Texas from California, Arizona and Montana, Bob
said. “Then five years ago Deaf Smith County wasn't even on the map of Texas dairying, now we are
number two or three in the state,” he said.
Bob said that the rapid development of dairy farming had “ruined the labour cost on
feed yards.” Yet right now dairy farmers with no debt and only feed cost and labour to pay, were losing
US$3/ 100lbs of milk (about 4.5p/litre).
he and several other wealthy residents subscribed for $10,000 shares in the White Energy ethanol plant, the first
ethanol producer in Texas, which generates huge tonnages of distillers grains for cattle feed. The feedstock
for White Energy is 80% maize and 20% grain sorghum, both of which grow in abundance under irrigation in the Texas
panhandle. But White Energy in Hereford didn't come on line until 2008, by which time maize prices had
soared and ethanol prices fallen. In March it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, has closed
one of its plants and continues to operate two others, including Hereford. But the shareholders' capital has
Another $250 million ethanol plant, being
built by Panda Ethanol to utilise heat from composting cow manure from the surrounding feed-lots, was never
completed before going broke. Fortunately the Texas panhandle is one of the continuously windy regions in
the world, which has brought large numbers of wind turbines in the past two years. Yet one of the largest
promoters, the Australian-based Babcock & Brown, has already exited, leaving its wind farms to a Californian
lawyer and farmer turned wind energy developer, Glen Hodges.
Bob Josserand described Deaf Smith's 17,000 inhabitants as proudly blue collar workers who could turn their hands to anything which came along. And if the recent history of West Texas is a guide, something new will come along shortly.