In West Texas Where Wind Power Means Jobs, Climate Talk Is Beside the Point

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wind technician is currently the second-fastest growing job in America (beat out only by solar photovoltaic installer). By the end of last year, there were more than 100,000 jobs related to the wind industry nationwide, at least one-fifth of them in Texas. When the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) launched a seal of approval for wind technician programs in 2011, TSTC was one of only three schools in the U.S. to receive it.

Wind technicians Kaitlin Sullivan and Devan Moore are rigged with safety harnesses for working at the top of a wind turbine. Credit: Meera Subramanian

The students James teaches are a slice of the next generation of wind workers for an industry that, at least in this part of the country, has already established itself. They include veterans and women, those leaning politically right and left, environmentalists and climate change skeptics, the civically engaged and those who never vote. Theclean energy component seems to be a bonus for some, but it was not the primary reason they chose this field. There is the laid-off gas worker who noticed all the wind turbines on the horizon and thought there must be an opportunity there. The English major who couldn’t find a job and remembered how much she liked the outdoor work on her family’s farm in the Texas panhandle. The two veterans who liked the element of risk and heights and the sweet spot of job independence and camaraderie.

Typical of the right-leaning students at TSTC was 31-year-old Scott Maxey. Scott had escaped his home in Redding, California, when he felt that the only job in town was working at Starbucks for minimum wage. He drove until his truck ran out of gas—which happened to be in Sweetwater. He was 25 years old, and he landed a job at one of the two big gypsum mills in town. Making sheetrock paid him more than double what he would have earned as a barista back home. But “at the gyp mill, the hazards there were just too much for my health,” he told me. “I just wasn’t doing well.”

So in 2015, he found work in oil and gas, hauling the sand needed for natural gas fracking, which was on the rise in Texas alongside wind. But there was too much market variability with gas; within a year, Scott was laid off, and the guys he worked with told him to expect that to happen regularly.

“I’m looking around, and there’s wind turbines everywhere,” he said with a dusky laugh. “It just made sense. Why don’t I work for the wind turbine industry?” Impatient to get back into the workforce, he opted for TSTC’s one-year certificate program as opposed to the two-year associate’s degree. When we spoke in November, he had one more semester left before he got his certificate, and he already had a job offer that would take him to Florida to work on solar, and then to California to work on wind.

Texas State Technical College has started wind energy training programs on two of its campuses, in Sweetwater and Harlingen. Credit: Meera Subramanian

In Scott’s mind, clean energy has nothing to do with climate change, which he said has been with us “since the beginning of time. It happens naturally. I don’t think human input is what’s making it change.”

And protecting the environment is not his motivation for getting involved in the industry. Sure, he said, it’s important to be “responsible stewards” of the earth. “There’s no reason to pollute rivers. There’s no reason to go down and just mow down environments just because we can. Totally not okay.” But he went into this field for one reason only: job security.

Scott is not alone in this—which is why the wind industry in West Texas is making for some very interesting bedfellows.

‘Politics Falls to the Wayside’

Nearly three-quarters of Nolan County voters who showed up in November 2016 voted for Donald Trump, who has been more outspoken about reviving the dying American coal industry than about supporting the flourishing wind sector. But that figure only reflects who showed up at the polls. Of the four TSTC students I spoke to at the turbine tower, all of whom were investing their future in wind, only two had voted—a 50 percent rate that reflects the national average. There are always reasons not to vote. The Army vet was overseas, another student was busy. James was busy, too.

“I’m not really political,” James said, “or when I do think about it, it’s already over. I just get so lost with everything going on here, and home life. … It’s just overwhelming. Politics falls to the wayside.”

“What was advanced yesterday is no longer advanced today,” James Beall said. He sees wind power and its continuing advancements as the future. Credit: Meera Subramanian

While I was in Texas, one year after Trump’s election, members of Congress were working on a tax bill that could affect the economics of wind energy in America. The fact that crafting the tax bill was in many ways an exercise in horse-trading behind closed doors seemed to both support and refute the reasoning of everyone who had decided to stay away from the voting booth.

But what happens in D.C. comes to roost on the tips of the turbine blades of Sweetwater. Just as the students of TSTC were seeking certainty for their futures, so too has the wind industry sought stability in the federal financial incentives that help offset initial capital costs. After years of fluctuating tax credits, a bipartisan effort by Congress in 2015 locked in a five-yearRenewable Electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind development. It provided a 2.3-cent tax credit for every kilowatt of electricity produced, with a gradual decline over a five-year period. By mid-November the House version of the tax bill aimed to eliminate the credit immediately. It would have meant a complete mid-stream change in the financial game plan for wind energy companies and the financiers who back them. What American businesses, towns, and citizens want is the opposite of these oscillations; they want certainty.

Ken Becker, executive director of Sweetwater Economic Development, points to some of the 1,300 wind turbines that dot a Nolan County map. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Business interests in Sweetwater were watching these changes on Capitol Hill with some trepidation. “If it affects the industry, [even] if it doesn’t affect us today, it will affect us at some point,” said Ken Becker, executive director of the Sweetwater Economic Development Corp (SEED). We were sitting in his downtown office, on the second floor of an historic Spanish Colonial Revival style home that serves as the Chamber of Commerce, as he told me how wind energy had bolstered the local economy.

“In pre-wind, our county taxable value was $500 million,” Ken explained. “In 2008, it was $2.8 billion,” a five-fold increase that translated to new schools and grand expansions at the local hospital. That’s money for the town, but also a steady income for local landowners, some of whom earn up to $1,000 per month from having a single commercial turbine on their property—and most of the region’s world-class wind farms are dotted across private land. Many say they’re “not sure they’d even have the ranch today if the wind didn’t come on,” Ken told me.

Wind power today provides 12 percent of Texas’s electricity. Credit: Meera Subramanian

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