In Windy West Texas, An Economic Boom

This is the first feature in a weekly, three-part series on green jobs in various sectors of the global economy.

wind turbinesGrowing up in West Texas, Larry Martin became well accustomed to the challenges of living off the land. Raised on a cotton farm outside the small town of Sweetwater, he recalls defending his family's crops from sandstorms after a hard rain. More often, he hoped the region's brutal droughts would not burn the cotton to death.

Cotton farming in West Texas is a constant battle against the elements. "In college, I saw a lot of farms were going broke," Martin said. "A lot of people work all their life and didn't have much to show for it."

So instead, Martin joined TXU Energy, a regional utility company, and traveled across Sweetwater and greater Nolan County fixing power outages. After nearly 20 years on the job, he took notice when the county's first wind turbines were installed in 2001. By 2006, Texas surpassed California as the U.S. state with the most installed wind energy capacity - West Texas alone produces enough electricity to power 1 million homes. In a region suffering from economic decline, Martin realized the wind was beginning to blow in a new direction.

Martin left TXU and joined three friends to start an energy services company, Wind Energy Turbine Services (WETS), in 2006. Their staff has since grown to include 26 employees, nearly all of whom are Sweetwater locals. "In the future, as we expand, as we get more jobs, we'll need more manpower," Martin said.

In Sweetwater, Martin and seemingly every other business owner is benefiting from the wind energy boom. The population is growing. Unemployment is down. The tax base has swelled so much that Nolan County actually cut taxes last year.

As wind energy continues to expand across the U.S. heartland, rural America is likely to experience a revitalization not experienced since the homestead land grabs of the 19th century. Green jobs - high-quality employment for environmentally sustainable industries - and related spin-off opportunities are proliferating across West Texas. Local leaders predict that the economic growth has only just begun.

The West's Wind Workers

Billions of investment dollars are now being spent on wind energy development across rural America, and the areas with the most wind have yet to be developed. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 300 gigawatts of wind energy capacity can be installed throughout the country by 2030. If investments continue to spread, and necessary infrastructure such as new transmission lines are built, wind energy alone could create thousands of jobs, while providing a clean source of electricity.

Nolan County, first populated with the arrival of railway lines in 1881, prospered until the Great Depression devastated the area's cotton economy in the 1930s. While the area was revived during World War II, farm consolidation during the 1950s led to steady population decline across the county and most of West Texas. Even the discovery of oil in 1939 did little to help the local economy - most petroleum industry employees came from other parts of the country, and they left when the oil dried up in the 1990s. In 2004, 20 percent of the population was living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That same year, the rising unemployment rate reversed itself and began a steady decline. Attracted by a windy climate, high-capacity transmission lines, favorable rules for siting turbines, and a statewide renewable energy standard, wind energy companies, such as General Electric and AES, set up operations in Sweetwater.

Today, workers are pouring in from across Texas to manufacture, transport, maintain, and repair wind turbines. Of Nolan County's estimated 14,878 residents, an estimated 1,124 have jobs directly related to wind energy, according to a study released earlier this week by the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium.

Sweetwater's Economic Revival

The growth in wind energy jobs has been greater than expected, based on industry trends. According to traditional industry estimates, for every 10 or 12 wind turbines, one job is created. But in Nolan County, where 1,572 turbines are projected to be operational by 2009, 480 permanent workers will be required - a ratio of one permanent operations job for roughly every three turbines, or 0.13 jobs per megawatt, the consortium study said.

The wind industry boom has stimulated job growth across the entire local economy. Some 1,500 construction workers are engaged in Nolan County's five major wind energy projects. Building permit values shot up 192 percent in 2007 over 2001 values. Sales tax revenues increased 40 percent between 2002 and 2007. The county's total property tax base expanded from $500 million in 1999 to $2.4 billion this year.

The added revenues are being spent on new roads and several school renovations. One schoolhouse had been in operation since the arrival of the Texas & Pacific Railway in 1881. A new school replaced it in 2005, at a cost of $4.5 million.

To provide training for the growing wind energy industries, the first community college wind energy program in the state began last year. Texas State Technical College-West Texas had rarely attracted many students from beyond Sweetwater before. The 130 students who have enrolled since the program began - ranging from fresh high-school graduates to older transitional workers - come from as far as Corpus Christi, some 400 miles (644 kilometers) away, said Mike Reeser, the college president.

"Typically a program will struggle while word gets out that training is available. This kind of start is extraordinary," Reeser said. "There's a certain cache in West Texas to work in this field.... It is a noble industry."

The majority of U.S. wind projects are being established on privately owned farmland, which has yielded farmers annual compensations between $2,000 and $5,000 per megawatt of installed capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association. In Nolan County, such royalties have amounted to an estimated $12.3 million into the pockets of private landowners, according to the consortium report.

"I've seen us in good times and not so good times," said Jacque McCoy, the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce's executive director. "The wind energy has just revitalized Sweetwater, Texas, and really all of Nolan County."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org. For permission to reprint this article, please contact Julia Tier at jtier@worldwatch.org.

Stay tuned! This fall, Worldwatch senior researcher Michael Renner, in collaboration with Cornell University researchers and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), will release Green Jobs: Toward Sustainable Work in a Low-Carbon World. The report is a joint effort of UNEP, the International Trade Union Confederation, and the International Labour Organization.