Wind and Solar Projects Change the West Texas Landscape

Number of oil and gas rigs operating in Texas has dropped by more than 700 in less than two years

The recent slump in oil prices may be nice when you fill up at the tank, but it also means a lot of Texans are now looking for work.

Just a year-and-a-half ago, Texas had 905 operating oil and gas rigs. And in recent days the count has dropped to just 197.

Every rig represents dozens of workers.

But now, two big projects are breathing new life into the town of Haskell, Texas, nestled in the heart of oil country.

The town of 3,300 – and those that surround it – got hit hard by the slump in oil prices.

"At least 700 people unemployed," said Wallace Emerson, with the Development Corporation of Haskell.

"We have not historically had anything in this area of the state other than farming, and ranching and oil, period," Emerson added.

But Haskell, about an hour north of Abilene, is now a West Texas boomtown.

A 1,000-acre solar energy project on the outskirts of town currently employs 450 people, building the world's second largest solar farm of its kind.

The nearly half-million solar panels on the Alamo 7 site will track the sun as it crosses the West Texas sky.

"With the downturn in the economy and the oil fields, a lot of our employees are actually ex-oil field employees," said Dean North, with Mortenson Construction.

A Haskell native and former oil worker, Heath Livingston is now a project foreman.

"It gives so many people like myself a chance to realize that there's something out there besides the oil industry," Livingston said.

"I've actually hired several people, got several people hired, that I've either roughnecked with, roughnecked for or had roughnecked for me," he said.

Only miles away, another new project stretches as far as the eye can see. One-hundred new wind turbines are waiting to be mounted just outside Haskell, where they will cover 32,000 acres – nearly twice the size of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Nearly 250 people are now working to build it.

"Texas has been leading the county in wind development for a long time," said Mark Bradley, with Bradley Construction Management.

If there's one thing more abundant in West Texas than oil, it's wind. And throughout the region, small towns are capturing alternative sources of energy to survive the slump in oil and fuel the economy.

Thousands of wind turbines now dot the landscape across much of West Texas.

"It's not all wind, it's not all oil, and that's what's important. It gave us a whole new sector. It's not going away. Wind's going to keep blowing," said Greg Wortham, with Texas Wind Energy Clearinghouse.

Just west of Abilene, nearly 1,400 turbines near Sweetwater alone produce enough energy to power more than a half-million homes.

It's the largest concentration of wind turbines anywhere in the world.

"Wind continues to grow. Oil is going to be, with that commodity, they are up and down. So it's great to have these other things as kind of a backup for when some of that stuff does go down," said Ken Becker, with the West Texas Energy Consortium.

Throughout West Texas, many former oil workers are finding productive jobs in new fields.

"There's a need, a strong need for those type of skills: industrial maintenance mechanics, construction workers, same type of skills," said Steve Collins, with Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas.

Now working on the Alamo 7 solar site, Brett McClain lost his job in the oil fields after eight years and doesn't plan on ever going back.

"You know, once you get a taste for something, it's always going to be in my veins, but there's more structure here," said McClain.

"Absolutely a godsend for our whole county, this whole area actually," said Emerson, with the Development Corporation of Haskell.

Together, the two massive projects – wind and solar – replaced all the oil jobs lost in Haskell, where the economy is now booming after the bust.

"It more or less saved our little economy," said Emerson. "We're hoping this will tide us over 'til the oil comes back, 'cause we think it will come back. It always has."

Both projects are scheduled to begin producing electricity before the end of the summer. Local leaders say they will improve the tax base and generate new jobs to keep people in the Haskell area.

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