Millions of dollars in new tax revenue generated from the wind power boom sweeping rural west Texas have helped fund a rash of school building projects, the first signs of an expected economic revival.
“It’s the greatest thing that has happened here,” said James Bible, superintendent of the Blackwell Consolidated Independent School District, where the shell of a new school is rising, financed mainly by tax revenue from windmills. “It’s like day and night for the school districts.”
When he joined the Blackwell district about two years ago, its property tax roll totaled $324 million. Now the total value has mushroomed to $1.2 billion due to the build-out of four nearby wind farms, Bible said.
New computers have replaced aging models in every classroom, teachers have Internet access on their “white boards” and advanced high-school curriculum will be offered soon, Bible said.
Blackwell is one of many cities stretching from Abilene to Midland, where local officials are harnessing tax dollars from a boom in wind power projects.
Florida-based FPL Group, German-based E.ON AG, AES Corp and others are investing billions to erect thousands of giant, whitewashed wind turbines across the wide-open landscape. The turbines capture abundant wind that can produce emission-free electricity and send it to power-hungry Texas cities like Dallas and Fort Worth.
Texas, better known for oil and gas production, leads the nation in wind capacity at more than 5,800 megawatts, a number expected to swell to 18,000 MW as new transmission lines are built.
Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens has become one of the biggest promoters of the wind industry, which has created jobs for local workers and royalties for farmers and ranchers who allow turbines on their land.
While many West Texas residents support wind development, one central Texas county openly opposed two wind projects, leading developers to abandon their plans.
Officials in Gillespie County, home to several tourist areas, including a popular hiking destination called Enchanted Rock, said wind turbines would harm the area’s scenic views.
“IT HAS STABILIZED THE COUNTY”
Wind investment has provided a solid tax base allowing school districts to sell bonds to raise education funds even though land values were capped for 10 years as an incentive for developers.
“We wouldn’t even have considered the bond issue before the wind farms came in,” said Guy Nelson, superintendent of the Highland Independent School District in Roscoe. “It has stabilized the county. People who would have left are staying.”
Proceeds from an $8 million bond issue will go to build new facilities for the Highland district’s 220 students, Nelson said.
New school funds are part of a larger trend toward economic renewal on the heels of the wind power expansion.
“The hotels are full, the restaurants are full,” said Karan Bergstrom of Sweetwater, ground-zero for the wind boom which now rivals the city’s famous rattlesnake roundup. “There’s not an empty house,” Bergstrom said.
Jonathan and Karan Bergstrom leased two parcels of farmland to a subsidiary of German-based E.ON AG for a wind farm in Roscoe, which will become the world’s largest when completed next year. The Roscoe wind farm will surpass FPL Energy’s nearby Horse Hollow wind farm in Taylor County.
Nolan County landowners Tom and Max Watt, who graduated from Roscoe High School and have lived in New Mexico for many years, are now considering retiring in the area.
“We used to curse the wind,” Max Watt said. “Now we love it.”