Winds of change

By Marlena Hartz

The wind that whips through eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle sends dust dancing through the streets. It rattles doors and windows, unravels neatly pinned hair, and leaves residents stumbling in its path.

Harnessing its power has never been a more popular pursuit.

Wind energy developers from across the nation see a region ripe for colonization, with stretches of undeveloped land and winds that race through the region at a yearly average of more than 12 miles per hour, according to officials.

“Some places have gold and oil,” said Bovina, Texas economic developer Jim Bob Swafford, “we have wind.”

Swafford said at least four developers are interested in buying thousands of acres in the Bovina area. Their goal: To plant wind turbines on lands owned by farmers and ranchers in the Panhandle, creating plots known as wind farms.

In Curry County, inquiries about wind energy have reached an unprecedented volume, according to Curry County Assessor Randy Williams.

“People are mainly looking for land owner information or looking for owner information on existing wind farms just outside Curry County,” said Williams, who has fielded about eight phone calls on the subject in the last several months.

Neighboring Roosevelt County is also a hot spot, according to Roosevelt County Commissioner Gene Creighton.

The San Juan Mesa Wind Project south of Elida went online in January, pumping electricity to homes in eastern New Mexico, West Texas, Oklahoma and southern Kansas via Xcel Energy.

“The plant is running better than they thought it would,” Creighton said. As a result, 60 to 80 additional wind turbines are to be added to the 120-turbine plant, Creighton said.

The Padoma Wind Power LLP of La Jolla, Calf., owns the farm.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, Texas and New Mexico are already trailblazers in wind energy.

While the wind farms generate few local jobs, they benefit the area by adding thousands of dollars a year to community tax rolls.

Texas, the second largest wind energy producing state, is expected to overshadow the first, California, this year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. New Mexico is ranked as the sixth largest wind energy producing state, according to the association.

But the mighty winds of the Land of Enchantment cannot dissolve major mountains on the path to wind energy growth, according to officials.

The largest purchaser of wind-generated electricity in the nation, Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, is on the brink of satisfying all of its wind energy needs, according to Xcel spokesperson Bill Crenshaw.

The giant buys energy from new age wind farms near Texico, San Jon, Elida and White Deer, Texas, among other places. There, these sleek turbines — distant cousins of rickety, wooden windmills long associated with the West — tower high in the sky, lend horizons a futuristic look.

“We are very nearly chock full (with wind energy),” Crenshaw said.

Because wind is a precarious energy supply — seasonal and intermittent — energy companies cannot rely on it fully, Crenshaw said.

“Wind comes and goes, and when it goes, we have to ramp up our natural fuel sources,” Crenshaw said. Also, strong and sudden wind gusts can jeopardize an entire electrical system if harvested improperly, he said.

With Xcel’s energy needs met, wind developers must find other entities ready to gobble up wind energy, if investment in the region is to reach its potential, officials said.

With big state and tax credits available for alternative energy ventures, there is no lack of willing parties, officials say.
But there is also no lack of hurdles.

The wide open spaces and howling winds of the High Plains beckon wind energy developer Joe Graham of New York. He has visited the region many times. Yet, his dreams of development are quagmired.

Xcel and other large entities own the power grids in the region. And wind developers do not have a system in which to transport harvested wind energy to larger markets in Texas and California, Graham said.

“I am waiting for the market to change in the Panhandle,” said Graham. “Hopefully it will change in the near future,” he said.

Others hope so, too.

Parmer County commissioners last week approved a resolution which supports the creation of a new power grid, or a restructuring of existing power grids in the Panhandle, Swafford said.

“It’s like mining for gold,” Swafford said, “It’s just the mining of wind. Everyone knows we’ve got the wind, we just need to get the transport system.”

A bill at least one New Mexico state representative said could expedite that process died in the past two legislative sessions. It would have created a wind energy authority to oversee the construction of a power grid connecting to outlying states, according to Rep. Jose Campos, D-Santa Rosa, who has his fingers crossed the bill will be passed in the next session.

If it isn’t, Campos fears states such as Wyoming could pounce on the economic benefits of wind energy, while New Mexico is left in the dust.

“We are talking about millions of dollars in money for eastern New Mexico,” Campos said. “And other states may beat us to the punch.”