The future of the Delaware Mountains wind farms – for years, a source of more than a dozen high-paying local jobs – is in limbo, six weeks after a powerful ice storm took down transmission poles and other crucial infrastructure at the facility. The wind farms have been off-line since the ice storm, which struck the weekend of Nov. 23 and dealt a serious blow to electrical infrastructure across the region.
A call to NextEra Energy Resources, the Florida-based company that operated the wind farms, was not returned as of press-time Monday (Dec. 30). But, given the scale of the damage and the persistent challenges the facility faced prior to the storm, the company may opt to decommission the facility rather than invest in rebuilding it. A final decision on the fate of the wind farms is expected in the coming months.
The facility faced challenges from the beginning of its operations. The farms are located near Guadalupe Pass, one of the windiest spots in the country, and an excess of wind actually became a problem at the facility. In addition to wind damage, the plant regularly was impacted by ice and snow. Production from the facility was also low compared to facilities build with newer technology; the Delaware Mountains plant produced about 30 megawatts of electricity a year, compared, for example, to a wind farm in McCamey, also owned by NextEra, which produces more than twice the amount of power.
Built on the crest of the Delaware Mountains, just south of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the wind farms had been become a local landmark. Construction on the first phase of the project – known as Wind Power Partners 94 – began in 1994, and the second phase, the Delaware Mountain Wind Farm, began two years later. The project was completed in 1999. From the beginning, the facility sold all the power it produced to the Lower Colorado River Authority, the public utility that provides electricity, water, parks-administration and other services in Central and Southeast Texas.
Orion Energy LLC and National Wind Power steered the construction of the wind farms. The facility was subsequently purchased by Florida Power & Light, and in 2009, that company’s energy subsidiary was renamed NextEra. NextEra is the largest operator of wind and solar facilities in North America, with 85 wind plants in the United States and Canada and the world’s largest solar energy facility, in San Bernadino County, Calif.
In recent years, damaged wind turbines and other damaged equipment at the Delaware Mountains facility went un-repaired, and the capacity of the facility declined. Five years ago, there were 121 turbines in use at the Wind Power Partners portion of the facility and 92 turbines in use at the Delaware Mountain portion. By the time the facility went off-line in November, those numbers had declined to 38 and 32 wind turbines respectively.
At one point in the last decade, the wind farm employed 14 people – many from Hudspeth and Culberson counties. Wages were significantly higher than for most jobs in the area; recently, the starting wage for beginning wind technicians was $23 an hour, while experienced wind techs were paid up to $45 an hour. Five local employees were dismissed two years ago, after having been found to have violated workplace regulations, and the facility had not fully re-staffed after that incident.
In 2005, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, purchased the land on which the wind turbines are located, part of his acquisition of hundreds of thousands of acres in Culberson and Hudspeth counties for a spaceport and other projects. NextEra and Bezos executed a contract that allowed the wind farms to continue operating; the contract reportedly included terms aimed at keeping the impacts to the landscape from NextEra’s operations to a minimum.