Windmill Turbines: Not at Home on the Range

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Texas ranchers have embraced helicopters for herding, wireless Internet access for keeping an eye on the futures markets and microchips for tracking their cattle, but there is one piece of modern technology that is sparking a range war in the vast open spaces of the state — the windmill turbine, which opponents say is noisy, ugly, dangerous to wildlife and a tax boondoggle to boot.

While old, rickety wooden mills dot ranchlands across Texas — pumping water for stock tanks and standing as emblematic silhouettes of the Old West — their modern 400-ft.-plus-tall steel counterparts have sprung up across the state, pushing Texas into the lead over California as the country's top wind-energy producer. With the backing of environmental groups and the support of the state's conservative Republican leadership, wind-energy projects are increasing in number.

But they have run into oppositionl. In Massachusetts, the proposed Nantucket Sound project drew initial objections from Martha's Vineyard notables like Walter Cronkite. But their opposition was muted by the guarantee of thorough federal and state oversight. In Texas, however, there is little regulatory oversight of the projects, and so the fight is being taken to state courthouses and pitting neighbor against neighbor. The first lawsuit is set to begin in this week in Abilene as 18 residents of Taylor County sue their neighbors and FPL Energy, claiming the wind turbines are a public nuisance that spoil their views, create noise and cast strobelike flicker effects as the sun sets behind the giant propellers.

Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, the farm at the center of this first lawsuit, became the largest wind farm in the world in October with 421 wind towers spread over 47,000 acres of scrubby ranchland 20 miles southwest of Abilene. Once a rowdy frontier cattle town, Abilene now touts itself as the wind energy capital of the world. The lawsuit has brought the city's past and present into conflict. Most of the 18 plaintiffs in the case, according to their Houston attorney Steve Thompson, work in Abilene — among them a doctor, a professor and a gym owner — but have chosen to live the nostalgic "ranch lifestyle" outside the city, and that's where old Texas and new are colliding.

Many other ranchers have welcomed the turbines onto to their land and view them as a way to keep family lands intact. Companies generally pay an initial easement access fee, usually in the low six figures, followed by monthly wind royalty checks, perhaps $500 for each turbine. But some guardians of Texas lands and legacy are less amenable, among them Jack Hunt, chief executive officer of the legendary King Ranch, headquartered in South Texas. A recent bid by a Scottish company to build a wind farm on the neighboring Kenedy Ranch brought Hunt into the fray and conflict between two ranches.

The Kenedy Ranch project is in limbo after local officials denied a $100 million local tax abatement, and Hunt vows there will never be a wind farm on the King Ranch. The 80 or so descendants of Capt. Richard King who share the King Ranch brand, land and businesses want to preserve the fabled ranching legacy and the land. The two ranches sit in the path of "the River of Birds," the flyway that brings birds from Canada to Mexico, including whooping cranes. Birding enthusiasts are just a few of the eco-tourists, along with hunters and fishermen, that are creating a new industry for Texas ranchers.

Hunt, who managed ranches in California and saw the impact of windmills there, said his concerns go beyond aesthetic and environmental issues. Like other critics, he views wind-energy projects as a financial scheme that allows energy companies to set up "shell companies" that reap large tax abatement benefits from local, state and federal laws and apply those benefits to the parent company.

The energy companies dispute that charge, saying the federal tax credit has had exactly the effect Congress wanted, the proliferation of renewable energy sources. The wind farms also provide economic development in rural areas. "We couldn't build, own and operate wind farms if we did not have widespread community support," said Steve Stengel, a spokesman for FPL Energy, which operates wind farms in 15 states and 11 in Texas. "Our experience in Texas and elsewhere is that far more people are supportive of wind power than those who oppose it."

Hunt, who was appointed to the Texas Water Development Board by then Gov. George W. Bush and reappointed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, has urged his fellow board members of the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association to press political leaders for more study, but to no avail. More changes are ahead for the state's rural areas. Plans have been approved to develop Competitive Renewable Energy Zones that will cluster new and upgraded transmission lines near wind farms, a $10 billion cost that will be passed on to ratepayers.

With federal tax breaks scheduled to expire next year, the current surge in wind projects is likely to continue and has attracted major backing from companies like Goldman Sachs and Berkshire Hathaway. Texas produces 2600 megawatts of wind power, and the state has mandated that it double by 2009, and double again by 2015. But as the projects spread, opponents are planning more lawsuits, Thompson said. "If we get a judgment in Abilene, we will get everybody's attention."