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TCU Magazine

TCU teams up with Oxford University to study how wind power is transforming Texas.

By Kathryn Hopper

"Maybe the answer really is blowin' in the wind."

The old Peter, Paul and Mary anthem of the 1960s takes on new relevance as power providers look to wind turbines to meet the energy needs of a burgeoning global population.

"We live in very uncertain times, but as scientists, there are a few things we are almost certain of," said Mike Slattery, director of TCU's Institute for Environmental Science. "One is the Earth's population is increasing and will most likely add another 2.5 billion people by the middle of this century, and the second is that humans will always want to improve their living conditions, and this means energy consumption rates will climb."

In Texas, the population is expected to double by mid-century, Slattery said, making it all the more crucial to look for renewable energy sources, including in the winds of West Texas.

In March, TCU announced a five-year, multi-million dollar research partnership with England's Oxford University dubbed the "Wind Research Initiative," which will examine and evaluate the impact of wind power on natural habitats, socio-economics and energy consumption. The research, funded by FPL Energy LLC, a Juno Beach, Florida-based utility, will be centered at the company's Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, the world's largest wind farm, near Sweetwater, 20 miles southwest of Abilene.

While TCU researchers will focus on American sites, Oxford University and its Environmental Change Institute, a world leader in analysis of lower carbon futures and climate change, will look at the impact of wind turbines in Europe.

In addition to examining how wind turbines impact wildlife such as birds and bats, TCU researchers will also investigate socio-economic impacts among the people who live in the big blades' shadows, including effects on land-use revenues, taxes, employment, culture and customs, and the visual impact of the massive turbines. It's an increasingly important issue in Texas, which leads the nation in wind-produced energy.

"This is not just about walking around individual turbines picking up dead birds," said Slattery, who will serve as lead scientist for the project. "We're going to help the world better understand the impact of wind power. This collaboration will afford unprecedented research opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students."

The chance for TCU students to conduct hands-on research in the field and work with scientists from all over the world melds perfectly with the university's goals, added Chancellor Victor Boschini.
"Our mission for students is to educate ethical leaders ideally suited for an interconnected, rapidly evolving, post 9-11 world, and this will help us do that," he said.

In 2006, Texas passed California to become the nation's top wind energy producer and the industry continues to grow at breakneck speed. Oilman T. Boone Pickens has announced plans to erect 2,700 turbines across 200,000 acres of the Texas Panhandle.

Wind energy generates about 1 percent of the nation's electricity, according to the American Wind Energy Association. In Texas, where 3 percent of electricity comes from wind power, demand for additional generators has grown so rapidly that the Texas Public Utility Commission approved construction of additional transmission lines that could deliver as much as 25,000 megawatts of wind energy from remote rural areas to state urban centers by 2012. One megawatt is enough to power 250 to 300 homes.

Industry officials believe wind power could produce up to 6 percent of the nation's electricity by 2020, roughly the same percentage currently generated through hydroelectric power and enough to serve 25 million homes.

Turbines capture the wind's energy with two or three propeller-like blades atop high towers that take advantage of the stronger and less turbulent wind 100 feet above the ground. When the wind blows, a pocket of low pressure forms on the downwind side of the blade.

Standing as tall as a 20-story building, wind turbines loom large on the landscape. At night, blinking red lights on the turbines dot the West Texas horizon and some nearby homeowners complain the visual pollution of the giant blades adds to daily stress levels. But for many in the area, the turbines bring welcome revenue from played out-oil fields and cash-strapped cattle ranches.

Property owners can earn upwards of $5,000 a year for each turbine on their land. Governments can cash in too. For example, the state's Permanent School Fund has garnered more than $750,000 from lease revenues from just one West Texas wind farm and projects they will add more than $3 million to school coffers over 25 years.

There are also plans for wind farms along the Texas coast. The state has leased 11,355 acres off Galveston to a Louisiana company to build 50 turbines, but because the cost of building an offshore farm can be twice as much as one on land, offshore building hasn't taken off in Texas as it has in more densely populated regions.

Some see the massive turbines as simply the latest evolution of the old windmill that powered prairie homesteads. Garrett Boone, founder and chairman emeritus of The Container Store, sees wind energy as a much-needed cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. Boone, co-founder of Texas Business for Clean Air, said the turbines take advantage of a Texas resource.

"I grew up in Dallas and always associated Texas wind with tornadoes, miserable hay fever and bitter cold snaps," he said. "Who knew it could be put to such good use?"

To view the Web cast of the Wind Energy Initiative announcement, go to tinyurl.com/2n6n9g.
Comment at tcumagazine@tcu.edu.