JACKSBORO — The wind rustling the oak trees on the Squaw Mountain Ranch soon may be its undoing as a starkly empty, unspoiled corner of North Texas.
Riding the boom that last year pushed Texas past California as the nation’s leading wind energy producer, a wind power company wants to scatter 100 turbines across an area roughly nine miles long and two miles wide, with at least a dozen of the 250-foot towers on the ranch.
“I’m not interested in having blinking red lights causing the Milky Way not to be as bright or to hear them when now I hear nothing up here except the sounds of nature,” said ranch manager Dan Stephenson, explaining why the ranch declined to lease land for the project and objects to its neighbors leasing as well.
“Wind farm, that’s a spin term,” Stephenson said as he took in a vista of tree-covered ridgelines. “I call them wind turbine industrial zones.”
Though embraced by state political leaders as a clean, renewable electricity source and welcomed by many rural landowners as newfound income, wind farms are gathering fresh opposition from Texas ranchers who say they are an ugly, noisy blight on the wide-open landscape.
Opponents say the turbines, which extend up 400 feet to the tips of their blades, not only threaten birds and wildlife but devalue property in areas such as the distant outskirts of Dallas-Fort Worth, where ranchland is increasingly being used for recreation and second homes.
“We’re in a 100-yard dash trying to fight these things and, they’re already 50 yards ahead,” said Stephenson.
Because Texas does not regulate the siting of wind projects, power companies need only assemble a group of agreeable landowners to set up operations. Royalties paid to ranchers in the Abilene area average about $12,000 per turbine per year, according to testimony in a lawsuit there.
Without governmental oversight, wind farm opponents say, their only recourse has been to head for the courthouse.
In December, five Jack County landowners, including Squaw Mountain Ranch, sued in state court to enjoin several subunits of the Spanish wind giant Gamesa Corp. from erecting “monster wind turbines.” It was the third such suit filed in the state, the other ones were in Taylor and Cooke counties.
Jack County Judge Mitchell Davenport characterized opposition to the wind project as “small but vocal” and said he expects most landowners will lease their land for the project if they have not already.
“I see it as very much a property rights issue,” said Davenport. “If someone wants to lease for oil or wind or whatever, I think that is up to them.”
The judge said economic growth in the county of 8,000 has been “very, very slow,” making the wind proposals “one of our best new opportunities.”
Stephen Wiley, director of Gamesa Development USA in Austin, said the company plans to invest more than $100 million in the first of three projects it has proposed in Jack County, the Barton Chapel Wind Project.
The company will install 60 turbines capable of producing 120 megawatts, enough to power about 85,000 houses, although the variability of wind cuts actual electrical production to about 30 percent of that capacity.
Development of the wind farm near the Squaw Mountain Ranch has been pushed back to 2009 because of a worldwide shortage of wind turbines, Wiley said.
The company, which is seeking property tax abatements, picked the county because it is near transmission lines and has “an abundance of wind,” Wiley said. He said he would have preferred to locate the project in the Panhandle, which state studies rate as having the best potential for wind power. But the location lacks sufficient transmission lines to carry the electricity to more heavily populated areas for use.
Gamesa and larger producers in Texas like FPL Energy, which operates 11 wind farms in the state, have been encouraged to build by the Legislature, which in 1999 mandated renewable energy goals. In 2005, lawmakers called for an output of 5,880 megawatts by 2009 — about 3 percent of total demand — from sources such as wind, solar, landfill gas and flowing water.
Last year, wind turbines in Texas accounted for nearly a third of all those installed in the U.S., according to a report released last month by American Wind Energy Association. And the state now hosts the world’s largest operating wind farm, the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center in Nolan and Taylor counties.
“When they put 1,000 of those next to your property, you’re not living out in the country anymore,” said Dale Rankin, referring to the slim white towers arrayed on the bluffs around his property in Tuscola, about 20 miles south of Abilene.
Rankin, who raises horses on his ranch but makes his living in the chemical business, and eight other property owners sued in 2005 to stop FPL Energy’s wind project.
In December, after a two-week trial, they learned just how difficult it will be to stop the wind industry in Texas.
A jury in Abilene found that the turbines were not a nuisance to neighboring landowners after the judge in the case narrowed the legal claims to one: noise pollution.
“We knew we had an uphill battle in a place that calls itself the wind energy capital of the world,” said Steve Thompson, a Houston attorney representing the landowners. He plans to appeal the verdict.
Trey Cox, a Dallas attorney representing FPL Energy, said claims of ugliness have little legal support in Texas law. “Texas is very much a landowner’s rights state,” he said. “We don’t want neighbors fussing over what things look like. … As long as you’re not doing anything illegal, if you want to have a broken-down barn or paint your house pink, you get to do it.”
He said Texas ranches, including many of those of the plaintiffs, have hosted pump jacks and other energy industry equipment.
Jack Hunt, president of the legendary King Ranch in South Texas, scoffs at comparisons between wind turbines and power lines or pump jacks. “They’re not 400 feet tall and moving,” he said.
The King Ranch, owned by descendants of Capt. Richard King, has taken issue with a proposal to locate 267 turbines on a neighboring ranch near the coast in Kenedy County. County commissioners last spring denied the project a tax abatement, but it could go forward without one.
“The Kenedy and King ranches go back more than 150 years, and we’re at each other’s throats over this deal,” Hunt said, referring to property owned by the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust.
He said the proposed wind farm is likely to have a major impact on the so-called “River of Birds,” the flyway from Canada to Mexico that funnels scores of migrating bird species through the area. “You’re erecting a 10-mile wall,” he said, echoing criticism from environmentalists and birders. “Nobody’s looking at how the birds will react to it.”
Two offshore wind farms that state officials are proposing to build in the Gulf will receive considerable federal scrutiny for their effect on the birds, marine life and other ecological impacts.
“Onshore, there is no oversight,” Hunt said. “Once they start killing birds, and you happen to find out about it, then you can bring in the feds.”
Hunt and other critics say the wind power hardly merits the major tax subsidies it receives. Because wind is so variable, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which controls most of the state’s power grid, calculates it can rely on only 2.6 percent of wind power capacity being available during peak summer demand periods, council reports show.
“They’ve been on the cusp of becoming efficient and useful for a quarter-century now, and they never quite get there,” Hunt said. “We’re destroying so much scenery for so little power.”