More than two hundred million years ago, a great sea stretched over much of the land now known as Texas. That sea, long vanished, has left a lasting imprint on the desolate West Texas terrain. Awful and exhilarating, the land is a smoothed-out, washed-out territory that seems as if it has been ground down by a giant mortar. Apart from mesas here and there or the Big Bend peaks and the Guadalupe Mountains, born of an ocean reef, there is nothing. It is a hard, unromantic land of caliche and scrub, of tumbleweed and bluestem, of flatness and endless sky.
The northwestern reach of Texas, including the Panhandle, is flatter still. Long ago, after the ancient seas retreated, an enormous network of rivers and streams flushed a steady wash of gravel, sand, and mud down from the newly born mountains today known as the Rockies, helping to form the vast expanse of the Great Plains. The sixteenth-century conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, encountering the southern end of those plains in the vicinity of the modern-day cities of Amarillo and Lubbock, wrote that they offered "not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by."
The physics of the Texas terrain—the unobstructed space, the smooth, frictionless earth—make it just right for wind, now as relentless a force on the landscape as the briny waves once were. The state's highway department, in its own tacit acknowledgment of the emptiness its roads cut through, set the speed limit at 80 in these parts, and only then, it seems, because one had to be set. A visitor hurtling along the interstate, as flat and broad as an airport runway, its dark asphalt just short of melting away into the surrounding dirt in hot summer months, feels buffeted by the wind. "Adrift on a billowing ocean of land" is how the late journalist A. C. Greene describes the feeling of bumping along West Texas roads in his memoir A Personal Country.
So relentless was this wind that it was said to render women—always women—crazy. In the first pages of The Wind, a melodramatic 1925 novel, the naïve, pretty eighteen-year-old Letty Mason ("blond and wavy hair," "eyes as blue as periwinkles," "cheeks delicately pink as the petals of peach blooms"), train-bound to the West Texas hamlet of Sweetwater to be a governess, learns from Wirt Roddy, a mysterious mustachioed passenger, of the hard life that awaits her. "'Folks say the West is good enough for a man or a dog, but no place for a woman or a cat,' Roddy murmured."
"But why, why?"
"The wind is the worst thing."
She drew a relieved sigh. "Oh, wind? That's nothing to be afraid of."
He went on as though she had not spoken. "It's ruination to a woman's looks and nerves pretty often. It dries up her skin till it gets brown and tough as leather. It near 'bout puts her eyes out with the sand it blows in 'em all day. It gets on her nerves with its constant blowing—makes her irritable and jumpy.'
She gave a light, casual gesture with one hand. "It blows everywhere, I reckon, even in Virginia. Sometimes in winter we have regular storms of wind and rain. But we don't think anything of them."
He gave her an amused sidelong glance, and twisted his mustache in silence. His air was that of an adult who disdains to attempt to make anything clear to a persistent but silly child.
Decades after that novel's publication, Gail Caldwell, a writer who hails from the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle, where the winds blow even more relentlessly than those around Sweetwater, remembered being "haunted by the stories of pioneer women driven mad by the wind." This was a force so strong that it would disfigure trees; mesquites were permanently bent over, like women hunchbacked from the day-in day-out strain of drawing water from a well. Cattle could die—drown, really—from inhaling snow that blew horizontally, with tremendous force, during a blizzard. In the 1930s the Panhandle was Dust Bowl territory: the wind was so bad, and the land so dry, that whole fields were scooped up and sent swirling across the nation. Trees were such a rarity that they "grew so singly in yards that a kid might name them," in the words of Texas writer Lisa Sandlin.
Seemingly hard-bitten men, the sort featured in the literature of Texas and the High Plains, learned to fear the wind. After exiting the train station in Amarillo, Gideon Fry and Johnny McCloud, two characters from Larry McMurtry's Leaving Cheyenne who had journeyed hundreds of miles to go cowboying in the Panhandle, got a shock. "We got off the train at the big brick station in Amarillo, and it was like getting off at the North Pole," Gid recounts. "The wind whistled down those big streets like the town belonged to it, and the people were just renters it was letting stay." This fierceness also startled a real-life character, Robert E. Lee, stationed in Texas before the Civil War, who bemoaned in a letter to his daughter Mary how the "violence of the wind requires all my hands to hold the paper."
But Texans have long made use of an unrelenting land. More than a century ago they struck out and prospected an unforgiving ground, giving the world the gusher at Spindletop and generations of black gold. And now they have mined the wind that pitilessly blows across the plains. For it was in these lonely, godforsaken patches of earth that the greatest wind-power revolution that the world had ever seen began. In 1981 Michael Osborne, a wavy-haired Panhandle native who gave up a promising career in music promotion to try to save the world, planted the state's first wind farm—the "second-largest wind farm in the known universe," as he described it a few years later to the Dallas Morning News—with a handful of turbines on his cousin's ranch in Pampa, a town forgotten to most of the world save for a Dust Bowl ballad by Woody Guthrie.
Even before Osborne began poking around, plenty of wind machines were already scattered around Texas. They were rusty, creaky whirligigs that lingered from an era when ranchers across the Great Plains needed them to pump water so cattle could drink and gardens could grow. The first were installed as the railroads were laid across Texas, to harvest water for the new steam locomotives as they chugged along. You can still find the water windmills in remote pastures crowded with weeds where the steel meets the earth. A Texas company actually remains in the business of manufacturing them, and a few men still make a career out of fixing them through sun and snow and hail.
But the old windmills are now dwarfed by the electric big boys, like the steel GE 1.5 and the Vestas V82, which can each provide enough power for several hundred homes. Some of these new turbines are as tall as football fields are long, and forests of them have sprouted atop bleak, scrubby West Texas mesas. As of 2012, the state had more of these sorts of turbines than all but five countries. The area around Sweetwater, where the fictional Letty Mason would indeed go mad because of the wind, is now home to thousands of them. At night the hills become a canopy of red blinking lights to warn off airplanes. Some of the machines tower over horse-headed pump jacks, feeding landowners two streams of royalties.
The rush to build them has intensified over the last decade and a half, after George W. Bush, then a mere governor burnishing his environmental credentials ahead of a run for higher office, signed a sweeping electricity deregulation law in 1999 that established a statewide requirement for renewable energy. In 2006 Texas blazed past California to become the wind-power leader of the United States, and now it has about two and a half times as much wind capacity in place as the runner-up state, which, strangely enough, is Iowa. While the country as a whole got 3 percent of its electricity from wind turbines in 2011, the Texas electric grid got more than 8 percent of its energy from them—and that figure can soar to 20 percent or more on a spring or fall night, when the winds are especially fierce and electricity demand is low. That Texas could make the improbable leap into wind inspired other states to try their hand at it, too, for if the oil and gas state believed in wind, perhaps there was something to it.
Yet Texans are not blind to the challenges of roping themselves to this new and peculiar source of energy. Wind is fickle, and the state has no cost-effective method, yet, for storing large amounts of electricity to make up for when it slows. When the electric grid needs power the most—in the late summer afternoons when air-conditioners are on full blast—the West Texas breezes tend to come to a near standstill. Winds over the Gulf of Mexico blow more consistently in the heat of the day, and a handful of wind farms have sprung up along the coast, though the biggest prize of all, offshore development, remains elusive because of the high cost of building over water.
There are other problems, too. Even in Texas, there are skirmishes over noise and birds and interference with military radar. The construction of giant transmission lines needed to ferry power hundreds of miles from remote, windy landscapes to big cities has sparked an uproar because they cost billions, and few Texans want ugly wires strung across their land. Wind's economics do not work without a tax credit from the federal government, an issue that gives heartburn to libertarian Texas politicians who favor rural development but abhor handouts from Washington.
On the face of it, then, the oil and gas state leading the nation in wind power appears to be a great energy irony. And, indeed, the oilmen of West Texas gamely battled the windmen in the early days by trying to argue county officials out of granting them key abatements on property taxes.
But the growth of wind in this desolate land actually makes perfect sense, because derricks and pump jacks have already scarred the landscape for generations and whetted landowners' appetites for royalties and tax breaks. "In Texas, they want you to respect their property, but they're used to using it as a commodity," says Patrick Woodson, who got started in Texas wind farming in the 1990s, long before it was seen as a sensible business. Texas ranchers, developers, electricity salesmen, and assorted hangers-on all know good money and a rich resource when they see it, in this corner of the world once described by Georgia O'Keeffe as having "terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness."
Sheer size gives Texas an almost inevitable edge in the wind race. "I thought I knew Texas pretty well, but I had no notion of its size until I campaigned it," Gov. Ann Richards is said to have quipped. Driving end to end across Texas, north-south from Spearman to Corpus Christi or east-west from Beaumont to El Paso, takes at least twelve hours, not including stops. There is plenty of room for wind turbines in the massive West Texas expanse, which already contains the country's largest battery, a radioactive waste dump, a nuclear weapons complex, and all manner of industrial oddities. Many Texans think the turbines are actually an improvement to the dry, scrubby landscape, because they break it up and give drivers along the lonely highways something to look at.
Indeed, it doesn't hurt that Texas is, frankly, less beautiful than, say, California, where towering, snow-capped mountains and gorgeous coastlines have given rise to an environmental activism that's basically lacking in Texas. If a few birds die in the pursuit of energy, not many Texans will care. Jerry Patterson, Texas's colorful land commissioner who pilots his own plane, carries a gun in his boot and has (so far in vain) promoted offshore wind farms, likes to joke that even if wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico slice up migratory flocks, "after several generations we'll have smarter birds." It's a paradox nicely summed up once by Michael Webber, an energy expert at the University of Texas at Austin: "In Texas, because we don't care about the environment, we're actually able to do good things for the environment."
What this boils down to is that the land in Texas is easy to build on. Because Texas joined the union as a sovereign nation, with most of its holdings already carved up among ranchers and pioneers, more than 90 percent of the state remains privately owned, unlike many of the large, windy states further west, where the federal government controls large chunks. In those states, energy developers, whether they want to drill for oil or erect turbines, must go through extensive regulatory hurdles before putting up a project. Not so in Texas. "In Texas, you can put anything you want on your own private land, and nobody can say a thing about it," says Randy Sowell, a Texas wind industry veteran raised in Lubbock. Texans look with wonder at states like Massachusetts and the perpetual snarls faced by would-be developers at Cape Wind.
The way these Texans view their land, in other words, differs considerably from the way that Californians or New Yorkers or even Coloradans view theirs. Today's 26 million Texans not only have a large appetite for electric power of all types as the state grows and changes, but they also come branded with a just-do-it attitude, with deep roots in rural self-sufficiency. The state's economy is built on a proud culture of extracting natural resources; the wind is there, so why not harvest it, too? "The wind business doesn't compete against anything else," says Texas landman Chris Crow. Cattle raising, drilling for oil, hunting, and just about anything Texans want to do with their property can happen in between the turbines.
This is a story of how the new energy got started. It is a tale about men and technology, money and politics. It is about how a state flush with oil and gas came to create a source of energy that would be hailed as clean and green. It is about tinkerers and dreamers who spanned a generation, who were short on money and long on philosophers like Buckminster Fuller, and headed to the hinterlands to see if they could figure out a new way to turn on the lights. Environmentalists and Enron executives, Ann Richards and George W. Bush, stodgy utilities and fresh-faced entrepreneurs all make an appearance.
It is a story that reaches back more than a century, even before the oil rush, when West Texas ranchers and railroad men and townspeople began ordering windmills out of mail-order catalogs so they could harvest clean water from the earth. It continues into the 1970s, when space-age engineers like Jay Carter Sr. and his wunderkind son, Jay Carter Jr., began fiddling around with a blade design they had been fashioning for high-performance helicopters. It picks up with Michael Osborne, who hauled a few of those Carter wind machines into the middle of nowhere and plugged them into the electrical grid, and with a Lubbock priest named Father Joe James, who believed that wasting energy was the opposite of godliness. Later came billionaire Sam Wyly, a friend of George W. Bush's, who got into the wind business after his eleven-year-old daughter complained to her daddy about the dirty air. It is about men in the dreariest, windiest parts of Texas who ignored looks from family members who thought they had lost their minds and set about experimenting with the new machinery and fixing it when it broke down—with very little help from anybody. In the end, they would tame the terrifying force that once drove pretty Letty Mason mad and put it to good use. They would, in short, succeed on a scale beyond their wildest imagination.