The Mayor of Wind

The Tea Party and the Koch brothers are trying to end Texas's wind energy boom. They didn't reckon with Greg Wortham.

Photography by Gary Rhodes

  • Sweetwater mayor Greg Wortham-- foe of rattlesnakes, friend of wind.

    Sweetwater mayor Greg Wortham--foe of rattlesnakes, friend of wind.

  • The Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, with 430 turbines spread over 47,000 acres in Nolan and Taylor Counties, is the third-largest wind farm in the world.

    The Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, with 430 turbines spread over 47,000 acres in Nolan and Taylor Counties, is the third-largest wind farm in the world | Photo by Joel Sartore

  • The wind industry revived Sweetwater's flagging economy, sending plenty of new customers to the movie theater and Big Boy's  Bar-B-Que.

    The wind industry revived Sweetwater's flagging economy, sending plenty of new customers to the movie theater and Big Boy's Bar-B-Que.

  • The wind industry revived Sweetwater's flagging economy, sending plenty of new customers to the movie theater and Big Boy's Bar-B-Que.

    The wind industry revived Sweetwater's flagging economy, sending plenty of new customers to the movie theater and Big Boy's Bar-B-Que.

  • The wind industry revived Sweetwater's flagging economy, sending plenty of new customers to the movie theater and Big Boy's Bar-B-Que.

    The wind industry revived Sweetwater's flagging economy, sending plenty of new customers to the movie theater and Big Boy's Bar-B-Que.

  • The wind industry revived Sweetwater's flagging economy, sending plenty of new customers to the movie theater and Big Boy's Bar-B-Que.

    The wind industry revived Sweetwater's flagging economy, sending plenty of new customers to the movie theater and Big Boy's Bar-B-Que.

  • Gabriel Acosta on the factory floor of Argentina-based EMA Electromecanica in Sweetwater. "We knew Texas was a Republican place, but we didn't know how extreme."

    Gabriel Acosta on the factory floor of Argentina-based EMA Electromecanica in Sweetwater. "We knew Texas was a Republican place, but we didn't know how extreme." 

In blustery Sweetwater, Texas, population 12,000, some things pleasantly endure. Waitresses still call total strangers "precious," Friday-night football is the true unification church, and large lanky men, even the ones with doctorates, say howdy through their toothpicks. 

So you're allowed a mild double take on meeting snarky, fast-talking Greg Wortham, the native-son mayor and wind-power evangelist for West Texas, where 1,371 wind turbines in Nolan County alone produced more megawatts last year than all the wind farms in California, powering some half million homes.

More Larry David than Larry Hagman, the former Sweetwater High drum major is five feet six on a good day, does not own cattle, turned down Harvard for Rice, has season tickets to the Houston Opera, supports "the president," and, as a former congressional aide and D.C. lawyer, spouts that Mamet-paced political shtick you hear on Veep. 

"One of the German TV crews came here to do a wind thing," Wortham says dryly over toast and bacon at Sweetwater's Ranch House Motel, "and they said they needed me to ride my horse beneath all the wind turbines 'just like you always do.' I think I've ridden a horse once--on a trail ride in Hawaii." 

Wortham has entertained film crews from National Geographic and Discovery, as well as from the Netherlands, Slovenia, two French channels (the names of which he pronounces in French), the BBC (twice), Australia, Taiwan, and Kyrgyzstan. "Sweetwater is the Detroit of wind!" Wortham says. "When I speak at a wind conference in Brussels, people say, 'There's the mayor!'"

Through such efforts, Wortham became the face of the "Texas Miracle," wherein the reddest of red states overcame its own political divisions to bring thousands of clean green jobs to the oily plains and has, since 2006, led the nation in the production of wind power. On March 26, Texas set a new record for instantaneous wind generation, producing 10,300 megawatts, or enough to power 5 million homes.

Yes, that very same Texas where all statewide elected offices are now held by Republicans, many of whom deny global warming, doubt evolution, and--as we'll see--just on principle want to cripple the wind industry that their own constituents so strongly support. 

It hasn't always been that way. The Texas Miracle was set in motion by Democrats like former governor Ann Richards and Republicans like George W. Bush, who as governor in 1999 deregulated Texas electricity and set renewable energy targets, creating the nation's most welcoming business climate for wind. (The Great Texas Wind Rush, a fine new book by Kate Galbraith and Asher Price, lays out the full history.) 

"It wasn't so much bipartisan as it was nonpartisan," recalls Andy Bowman, CEO and wind project developer for Austin's Pioneer Green Energy and a big Barack Obama donor. "Texas has a very scrappy business culture with lots of risk taking and independence. People put their politics aside." Plenty of them, of course, were more interested in making green than going green, including a lot of ranchers who earned millions in royalties by simply saying yes to the construction of wind turbines on their land. 

   

"Watch for rattlesnakes!" Mayor Wortham barks as we step out of his truck beside a two-lane county blacktop south of Sweetwater. (The previous weekend the town held its 56th annual Rattlesnake Roundup, a festival of snake annihilation that attracts some 30,000 visitors.) This swatch of West Texas is mostly unremarkable and lonely, nothing as cinematic as Big Bend National Park or the Guadalupe Mountains farther west. I was born nearby, in Big Spring, once home to an annual tumbleweed parade and now to a federal prison, and remember AC-free family car trips down these same railroad-straight roads. But south of Sweetwater, the plains of prickly pear cactus and scrub mesquite gently rise to Trent Mesa, a modest table of land maybe 500 feet high. That's where the miracle began. We squint through a minor dust storm at a forest of elegant steel and fiberglass turbines.

"Wind likes mesas," Wortham says. "It's often twice as windy at the top as it is below." He indicates the blades. "They look lazy, but the tips are doing 200 miles an hour--they're doing the Indy 500. From the ground to the top of the blades is twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty." 

By the end of the 20th century, he explains, many of Sweetwater's industrial landmarks, like the Gulf Oil refinery, had closed, and droughts had turned the nearby cotton fields into places of desperation. In the new millennium, drought again plagued West Texas. 

"Around 1999 to 2002," he says, driving past a giant warehouse holding more than a million bales of cotton, "people were just gonna walk away from their ranches. No one would buy anything. Cotton was bad. Other cities got nuclear waste plants and urban sludge. The ranch matriarchs and patriarchs were all about 80 and couldn't work their land." 

Then the turbine folks came to town, drawn by the winds that locals used to curse.

"When Enron first came here in 2001," the wife of the manager of the Ranch House Motel told me, "we were absolutely full with wind people every night and charging the most in our history." Global firms like Siemens, Mitsubishi, and General Electric blanketed Nolan County with a largesse that enriched ranchers and built gleaming new schools in tiny, once-forlorn towns. Two of the county's wind farms, Roscoe and Horse Hollow, are now among the five largest in the world. One-third of the operational wind energy in the United States is within a day's drive of the Ranch House. A one-hour drive from here would encompass more wind energy potential than in Canada or Mexico; if Nolan County were a state, it would be outranked only by Texas as a whole.

"There were times," Wortham says, "when the only two men in the world with billion-dollar wind farms were standing beside each other at the top of a high school football stadium in Nolan County watching their kids." 

The wind industry, in stark contrast with the oil industry that still rules West Texas, meant no pollution, no water use. And--at least in this corner of America, where "environmentalist" is used only pejoratively--few complaints about disturbing vibrations, annoying nighttime warning lights, noise, or bird kills. Wind money brought enough prosperity--more than $12.3 million in annual royalties to Nolan County private landowners--that in some years the county has actually cut taxes. That fortune, however, has not benefited everyone. Sweetwater, which is half Hispanic, still has neighborhoods full of weathered shacks, grinding poverty, and schools with 69 percent "economically disadvantaged" kids. Meanwhile, in outlying Nolan County, which got the wind farms because of its wide-open land, taxable valuation of property rose from $500 million in 1999 to $2.8 billion in 2009. About 20 wind-related firms from as far away as

Argentina set up shop there, some with the help of Wortham's Texas Wind Energy Clearinghouse, an industry recruitment and education organization.

Despite all the good news, folks connected to the Texas wind industry are feeling a bit uncertain these days. Suddenly there's a new media narrative. 

As 20-mile-per-hour winds buffet the Ranch House diner's windows, Wortham's busy phone lights up. An Abilene TV station is asking if he'll do a "stand-up" interview about how the 15-year West Texas marriage to wind might be on the rocks.

"You wanna do what?" he replies. "No, there are $25 billion in Texas wind projects operating right now, and another $13 billion under construction from the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle. We lead the nation in wind power! No, they're not going anywhere. . . . Yes, ma'am. Sure, at noon. Bye." 

Wortham harrumphs. "They all want to get the 'gotcha' story that wind has stopped due to fracking." The Texas Miracle story is old news, he says; now that fracking and horizontal drilling have rejuvenated Big Oil and every Texas town with a Dairy Queen seemingly has a dozen overnight millionaires, reporters are back to portraying wind as a fickle, boutique energy source. 

It is certainly true that Big Oil is back with a vengeance. Texas has three of the largest oil and gas bonanzas in the nation--Eagle Ford in the south, the Barnett Shale in the north, and the Cline Shale in the Permian Basin, an ocean of petroleum trapped in layers of West Texas rock centered beneath George W. Bush's hometown of Midland and nearby Sweetwater. Thanks to those newly reachable deposits, this year Texas will likely produce more than 3 million barrels of oil a day, making it the eighth-largest oil producer in the world, ahead of Mexico, Iraq, and Kuwait. 

Today, reports of an exponential increase in traffic fatalities in Midland, prostitution in the "man camps," and mounting complaints about fracking contaminating water wells have also bumped wind farms from the daily news. Yet it's not media contrarianism or competition with oil that has Wortham and the state's wind entrepreneurs most worried. It's the Tea Party. 

One could easily imagine Tea Party Republican lawmakers, ostensibly in favor of job creation, family values, energy independence, and national security, rooting for clean, eternal, American wind. Eighty-two percent of all U.S. installed wind energy capacity can be found in Republican congressional districts, according to the American Wind Energy Association. By whim of nature, wind-power royalties mostly help Republican farmers and ranchers from Texas to Oregon stay on their land, without polluting it, while giving their children middle-class jobs that keep them near home. 

Even so, a chorus of Republicans from red, windy Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Idaho are supporting an effort to eliminate the production tax credit, the federal tax incentive that is at the heart of wind power's success. Charles G. and David H. Koch--the multibillionaire owners of a fossil fuel industrial empire--have mobilized their network of think tanks and Washington allies to oppose the tax credit, even though the Kochs have benefited mightily from decades of tax incentives granted to their own industries. 

In 2012, Mitt Romney took a stand against the tax credit, saying that he wanted a "level playing field" for all sources of energy. That same year, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity opined that the "far left European groups and other radical elements of the environmental movement" were behind Global Wind Day. In 2013, Koch-supported Representative Mike Pompeo (R-Kans.) sent a letter signed by 52 House members to the chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, urging him to let the tax credit expire. Meanwhile, a coalition of some 100 national and local groups organized by Americans for Prosperity sent a letter to all members of Congress asking them to do the same, and the Koch-funded Institute for Energy Research launched an anti-tax-credit ad campaign. 

 

The wind industry, just like coal, nuclear, oil, gas, solar, and a dozen other forms of renewables, has depended on corporate tax incentives to encourage investment and marketplace competition. But Romney was right--it hasn't been a level playing field. 

Oil and gas got $4.8 billion a year in federal support from 1918 to 2009, according to DBL Investors, a socially responsible venture capital firm in San Francisco. Nuclear got $3.5 billion a year between 1947 and 1999. And renewable energy received $370 million annually between 1994 and 2009. Plus, the nuclear and fossil incentives were three and six times longer than those for renewables, respectively. 

Wind's federal support, which pays wind farm owners 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour during a project's first decade, has been essential to its success. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that U.S. wind capacity more than tripled between 2007 and 2012, with an average annual investment of $18 billion. Domestic manufacturers (some 550 facilities located in 44 states) produce 72 percent of the wind turbines and components installed in the United States, up from 25 percent in 2006, and the cost of generating electricity from wind has fallen by more than 40 percent over the past three years.

The tax credit even has a Republican origin; it was first passed in 1992 under Bush the elder and has been renewed many times since. Increasingly, however, renewal has been belated, injecting a damaging uncertainty into the sector's future.

Last year, the tax credit wasn't renewed at all, largely because House Republicans up for reelection wanted to burnish their standing with Tea Partiers back home. As a result, new megawatts from wind turbines plummeted by 92 percent, and 30,000 wind jobs were lost--a 35 percent drop from the 85,000 wind jobs in 2012. Another result was that everyone from West Texas ranchers to California pension fund advisers to Argentine entrepreneurs was left wondering whether America's wind industry had a future.

"It's impossible to plan in an industry without some certainty," explains Gabriel Acosta, who came to Sweetwater in 2009 to open a factory for an Argentine electrical firm that makes huge, 3,500-pound electrical breakers for wind farms. In 2013, he says, without the tax credit, his company had no sales through the first quarter and had to cut its staff from 22 to 12. Acosta's family has adapted to the Texan landscape and lifestyle--his son became a high school football star--but he remains bewildered by Lone Star politics. 

"I don't understand why this area's two Republican members of Congress aren't fully supporting wind power," he says. "We knew Texas was a Republican place, but we didn't know how extreme." 

Those representatives would be Mike Conaway, a Baptist deacon from Midland in his fifth term, and Randy Neugebauer, a CPA from Lubbock who gained attention for himself by shouting "baby killer" at a Michigan Democrat during floor debate on the Affordable Care Act. Both are publicly in favor of phasing out wind's tax credit but go silent about their long-standing support for Big Oil's depletion allowance, its exploration tax credits, and the host of other forms of government support for the fossil fuel industries. 

"I'm gonna go biblical on you," says Jeff Clark, a former campaign staffer for George W. Bush who now directs the Wind Coalition in Austin. "When I hear people in heavily subsidized industries criticize wind's tax incentives, I say, 'You have to take the log out of your own eye before you take the splinter out of mine.' I'm not calling for an end to their support, but I am calling for an end to their hypocrisy."

"It's a Republican no-brainer," says John Feehery, director of the industry group Red State Renewables, who was once a staffer for former Texas congressman Tom DeLay. "How could they be against wind? It makes absolutely no sense. A lot of them are against the tax credit simply because Obama is for it. This is a mistake for us politically." 

The politics of wind and the Tea Party fully ensnared Texas governor Rick Perry. He once pledged $10 billion in private investment for wind, and his pro-wind boosterism rivaled that of George W. Bush. This earned him the enmity of the Tea Party, as in this attack from right-wing blogger Robert Bradley Jr. in 2011: "Mr. Windpower could not have done Barack Obama and the Environmental Left a bigger favor. And thus Gov. Perry joins Ken Lay and George W. Bush as the fathers of the Great Texas Windpower Malinvestment." Then during his bumbling run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, Perry reversed himself, saying he would let the tax credit expire as president.

Wortham is not done with Tea Party politicians: "We have a state comptroller, Susan Combs, who said wind produced only 500 to 800 jobs in Texas and that wind jobs are like unicorns." In response, Wortham wrote an op-ed for an Austin newspaper listing 33 Texas cities that had wind energy firms, including Sweetwater, which in 2008 alone had 1,000 wind jobs. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the total number of "direct and indirect" wind jobs in Texas is currently 8,000 to 9,000. 

"These people should resign," Wortham says. "They can't tell the truth. Wind is not minimum-wage jobs. It's a comprehensive supply chain industry from the ports to the steel fabricators to the trucking companies to the railroads--all producing the middle-class jobs that [Republican opponents] claim they want."

These are not abnormal tirades for Wortham, officially a political independent who has been elected mayor four times since 2007, twice unopposed. He often rattles Republicans, but if he's feeling any political vulnerability, it certainly doesn't show. His occasionally abrasive side, perhaps honed by years in New York City as director of an urban energy co-op, is apparently more than offset by his ability to attract jobs and global investment to Nolan County, while still caring deeply about rodeos, rattlesnakes, and running backs. 

Like any good small-town mayor, Wortham seems to relish knowing every pothole and bank officer in the county, but loathes what he calls the personal pettiness of local politics. A clique of older Sweetwater country club types, he says, felt their civic clout being threatened when the wind barons came to town. "They controlled every individual in this town," Wortham says: "'You work for somebody whose chain I can jerk.' But wind energy gave us hundreds of people who are disconnected from all that. They are not subject to being jerked." 

And that may be the more enduring Texas wind story--not just megawatts or who got rich but what happens to people and their towns when they can see a future not dependent on oil and gas. Wortham smiles when he tells about the Nolan County students he sometimes asks to speak with foreign reporters working on wind stories. 

"We had ranchers and high school students on call," says Wortham (who also once did media relations for two NFL football teams). "We'd pull this one girl out of volleyball practice all sweaty, and she could answer questions like a Chamber of Commerce president." Another young local announced on Facebook in March that he was leaving town to work on a Siemens wind project in Australia. 

"News like that," says Wortham, "changes the way Sweetwater's kids think about wind, think about their future, think about themselves."

  • "Texas has a very scrappy business culture with lots of risk taking and independence. People put their politics aside."
  • This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

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