At sunset, outside one of Sweetwater’s largest wind farms, the crackling of the electricity from the transmission lines overhead that deliver energy as far as Dallas and Austin some 200 miles away adds an eerie tune to the brushland melody of chirping crickets and cicada songs.
The sky darkens and hundreds of red blinking lights, atop each 300-foot wind turbine, begin to appear in all directions, as far as the eye can see.
Larissa Place, assistant director of Sweetwater’s economic development office, calls it “the red-light district.”
Place is responsible for attracting manufacturers and new wind energy-related business to the Texas city of fewer than 11,000 people. But she is also land manager Barnes’ girlfriend.
“I’m between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “My job is to promote wind farms and wind energy, and I do that because it’s good for the environment and creates jobs. But at the same time we’ve lost the ranch that we loved because of it.”
She and Barnes just wanted a place to get away and enjoy the beauty of the rolling plains and canyons of Texas’ hill country, but instead the area surrounding the 3,000-acre ranch they called home was being turned into what she called an industrial complex.
More than 1,300 wind turbines dot the hills of surrounding Nolan County. Those turbines have helped the local tax valuation rise from about $500 million in 1999, when they first started sprouting atop the desert mesas and failing cotton fields, to more than $3 billion in 2017, according to County Judge Whitley May, who heads the Commissioners Court that governs the county and is responsible for approving wind farms locally.
“We were struggling, especially the farmers,” said May, himself a former construction superintendent who helped build wind farms all over the U.S. in the early 2000s.
Now more than 250 families in the Sweetwater area make a living from wind farms, according to the city’s development office.
In 2017, annual turbine land lease payments to Texas landowners added up to nearly $60 million and the capital investment by wind energy companies totaled $42 billion, according to the American Wind Energy Association, the national trade group for the industry.
But not everyone in Texas is a big fan of wind energy. Democratic state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa said he’s for renewable energy if it can stand on its own.
“There is a good side to this: It’s clean energy,” Hinojosa added. “But you can’t subsidize it forever, and you have to have proper oversight to regulate them and determine where to build them.”
Last year, Hinojosa sponsored a bill that eliminates state tax incentives for new wind farms built within a 25-nautical-mile buffer zone around military aviation bases. The measure passed and is currently the state’s first successful attempt at regulating the wind industry since the tax incentives were first adopted in 1999, according to Hinojosa, who’s wary of the recent rush to build wind farms.
“They are building these wind farms to get the tax credit,” Hinojosa said. “They are not sustainable without the subsidies.”