Politics

Rick Perry turned Texas into a wind powerhouse by getting out of the way

A farmer works in his fields near Roscoe, Texas. Roscoe is home to one of the largest wind farms in the world, and wind energy grew substantially during Gov. Rick Perry’s time in office.
A farmer works in his fields near Roscoe, Texas. Roscoe is home to one of the largest wind farms in the world, and wind energy grew substantially during Gov. Rick Perry’s time in office. Star-Telegram

In 2000, at the beginning of Rick Perry’s time as governor, Roscoe was just another exit off of Interstate 20 in West Texas, a wind-swept cluster of homes and businesses without a stoplight, 200 miles west of Fort Worth.

“We were dying,” said Roscoe Mayor Frank Porter, who goes by Pete and manages a Sears department store in nearby Sweetwater. “It was, to be real honest, a typical West Texas town.”

But by the end of Perry’s time in office in 2015, Roscoe was home to one of the largest wind farms in the world with 634 wind turbines and enough power to supply 230,000 homes. The small town of 1,300 saw an influx of jobs and a massive tax base that helped the local school build a brand-new building.

“I grew up in Roscoe and I’ve lived there since I was four years old,” Porter said. “It was a really nice place, but the wind industry did really kick-start us back up and allow us to do some things that we wouldn’t have been able to do without it.”

Perry, tapped as President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of energy earlier this week, is seen by opponents as beholden to oil and natural gas interests during his time as governor. But he also oversaw a transformation of renewable energy in Texas that made the state the biggest producer of wind power in the country.

(Rick Perry) has always been an energy omnivore.

Texas politics expert and TCU professor Jim Riddlesperger

“Texas doesn’t just believe in the potential of wind energy, we are reaping its benefits already,” Perry said during a wind energy conference in 2008. “People who talk about wind energy as a technology of the future clearly haven’t been to West Texas lately: The future of wind energy in Texas is now. I am proud that our state’s installed wind generation capacity leads the nation, a place we did not reach by accident.”

Texas’ wind boom, which began under then-Gov. George W. Bush, was buoyed by a lack of regulations combined with generous tax subsidies.

When Perry followed Bush, he kept things easy for business.

Wind producers could get up to 30 percent of their project paid for by the federal government, and didn’t have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to put up a windmill.

“He has always been an energy omnivore,” Texas politics expert and Texas Christian University professor Jim Riddlesperger said of Perry. “He never saw the world as competition between oil and renewables. He was for anything that brought investment into Texas. As energy prices were high, wind energy, unlike some other renewables, could be a competitive way to produce energy.”

Rod Wetsel, a longtime oil and gas lawyer from Sweetwater, saw the potential for wind power in the mid-2000s and authored the first treatise on Texas wind law in 2011. He said Perry helped alternative energy grow in Texas by staying out of the way.

I speak for some people in renewable energy. (Rick Perry) wouldn’t be our choice, but he’s not the worst choice.

Rod Wetsel, a longtime oil and gas lawyer from Sweetwater, Texas

“Texas, unlike other states, has no government regulation of wind, no permitting agencies, no bureaucracy,” Wetsel said. “It was sort of a perfect-storm situation. You had a governor like Perry who really didn’t back any governmental regulations. He didn’t push to regulate wind, which a lot of people would have done, and continued to make Texas a prime location for not only wind but solar.”

Wetsel noted that Perry comes from an even smaller West Texas town, an unincorporated community of just over 300 called Paint Creek 165 miles west of Fort Worth, so he understands the fierce individuality of rural farmers who willingly signed over their land for wind farms in the mid-2000s.

“Lots and lots of landowners have benefited,” Wetsel said. “There were 11,000 people in Sweetwater in 2000; it was a dying place with a tax base of about $400 million. Wind came in ... and the tax base went up to $3 billion dollars. That in and of itself is sort of a case study of how you can turn economies around. It’s even called ‘wind capital of the world.’”

Wetsel and Riddlesperger are confident that Perry will continue to promote sensible energy growth over rigid small government ideology as energy secretary.

“I speak for some people in renewable energy. He wouldn’t be our choice, but he’s not the worst choice,” Wetsel said of Perry. “He’s from a town that’s smaller than where I live, he’s a guy that I could talk to as far as rural West Texas is concerned. Texas ought to be held up as the model.”

But Texas’ model under Perry included lots of subsidies for emerging industries, which some conservatives like Sarah Palin have blasted as “crony capitalism.”

Perry once wanted to disband the Department of Energy while running for president in 2011, but he famously forgot the agency when asked at a presidential debate.

“It’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: commerce, education, and the uh ... what’s the third one, there? Let’s see... the third one... I can’t,” Perry said, adding “Oops.”

Wetsel and Riddlesperger argue that Perry is solely focused on what is good for business, even if it angers some Republicans.

But Wetsel doesn’t expect Perry to blindly hand out subsidies for renewable energy in a Trump administration. Congress is phasing out subsidies for wind projects over the next five years and Perry isn’t likely to support a reauthorization if Trump has a second term as president.

Perry, who began his career in the state legislature as a Democrat, has never been a fierce ideologue, which could be appealing to Trump as he seeks to “drain the swamp” of Washington.

“I think he’ll do OK,” Wetsel said of Perry in Trump’s Cabinet. “Here in Texas he didn’t ever rock any boats. It was more like a modern-day Eisenhower administration.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

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