As my car crawled west along Interstate 20 in West Texas, the arid October landscape seemed to stretch outward in a quiet perpetuity, punctuated only by the occasional intersection. It was my first time in the Lone Star State, and the magnitude of the Texas plain weighed down on the vehicle in a way that made me feel like a speck on a map. The vacant horizon left nothing but my odometer as a point of reference.
As I approached Abilene that first afternoon, I encountered towering masses of steel sprouting from the ground, their unnatural appearance invoking a sense of disbelief.
This rural landscape that has supported cotton and cattle since the early 19th Century and petroleum since the 20th continues its legacy as a natural resource-dependent economy with the rapid development of commercial wind energy. Now home to thousands of wind turbines generating enough electricity to power over 2.7 million homes, Texas leads the nation in the expansion of this energy source.
But while the industry is creating jobs, boosting local tax revenues, and providing supplemental income to struggling farmers, I found that this burgeoning enterprise has been largely immune from broader questions concerning long-term community and economic impacts. As a student of city and regional planning, I wondered how, and to what extent, local communities were capturing the wealth generated by the wind energy industry. It was also unclear to me how the benefits derived from wind development—monetary or otherwise—were redistributed amongst local populations.
To begin to answer these and other questions for a Rural Futures Lab case study, I first took the time to understand the important rural-urban linkages that support the energy sector of the U.S. Embodied by the string of electrical transmission lines stretching from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to the communities west of the Brazos River—the very route I had just driven—the concept is one familiar to many rural policymakers.
Linkages between rural industries and urban consumers have existed for centuries in the United States, encouraged and even directed to a large degree by the construction of the transcontinental railroads of the mid-19th century and the Interstate Highway System of the mid-20th. And as the nation continues its trend of urbanization, the reliance on rural America’s bounty will become even more prevalent. In a foundation paper authored for the Rural Futures Lab in June 2011, my colleagues and I explored this trend in more detail. We predict that an increasing remoteness of energy generation, driven in part by a transition to more land-intensive, renewable forms of energy, will have profound impacts on rural communities.
My interviews with West Texans confirmed many of the concerns we raised in our report, but also highlighted many of the opportunities discussed in Susan Lurie and Michael Hibbard’s recent blog post on the new natural resource economy (NNRE). For instance, while wind development has been embraced by many landowners, the following comment from a West Texas resident demonstrates just one of many difficulties in achieving the balance between natural resource production and protection described under NNRE: “…you’ll find a lot of places in Central Texas that have chosen not to take wind turbines. Some of them call it eye pollution. They get down there and like the rocky areas and like the clear skies and don’t want to see ’em.”
Equally insightful was my conversation with a small business owner in West Texas. He recognized the importance of using tax revenues generated by the wind energy industry to “improve the quality of life” and consequently mitigate some of the negative boom-bust effects discussed in our foundation paper. However, he noted the difficulty in convincing public officials to do anything but provide tax abatements to lure new, outside firms instead of supporting existing small business in the region.
Of course, only history will tell whether Texas’ newest experiment in rural economic development will result in a windfall or washout for local residents and communities. To ensure equitable benefits, it is imperative that new wealth is captured and reinvested in a way that will improve the quality of life for everyone, for this, one rancher reminds us, “is [the] best thing that can happen to a rural community.”