October 28, 2011

Windmilling, a Dying Art, Hangs on in Texas

Mike Crowell, a third-generation windmiller, works on a windmill near Claude in the Texas Panhandle. (photo by: Axel Gerdau)
by Kate Galbraith
The Texas Tribune

CLAUDE — Working 35 feet above the flat earth of the Panhandle, a young man in a baseball cap loosened the bolts attaching a windmill to a steel tower.

“Ready?” came the shout from the ground. “Yeah, go ahead,” he hollered back. Slowly, the 500-pound windmill was lowered to the ground. A four-man crew expertly dismantled the wheel and replaced the motor, which had stopped working after it ran out of oil, and within an hour the windmill was hoisted back up and ready to spin.

“This is kind of hard to do when it’s windy,” said Mike Crowell, the crew’s 59-year-old boss, who said his crews sometimes work on as many as nine windmills each day.

Only a few dozen outfits like Crowell’s still exist in the Texas Panhandle, practicing the dying art of “windmilling” — fixing the old-style whirligigs that pump water from the aquifers. Windmills were crucial to 19th-century settlers of West Texas and the Great Plains because little surface water existed. Now, thousands of them — far smaller than the giant electricity-producing turbines that have sprouted around West Texas in recent years — still twirl in remote pastures. The windmills go where electricity cannot reach and cattle need to drink, though cheaper solar pumps are starting to push them out.

“Obama wants everybody to go green,” said Bob Bracher, the president of Aermotor Windmill, a company that has manufactured windmills for more than 100 years and still makes a few thousand of them each year in a warehouse in San Angelo. “Well, hell, we’ve been green since 1888.”

Much has changed since then. Now, some of Bracher’s sales go to what he calls the “enthusiasts’ market,” meaning people who want a windmill simply for its iconic look.

But the windmiller profession, celebrated by novelists like Larry McMurtry and Annie Proulx, still hangs on in remote corners of Texas. Crowell’s family has been working on windmills since 1896, when his grandfather traded 60 horses for a rig to drill wells. He learned the trade from his father and uncle, and now his two sons, both in their 20s, have joined the business. He has high hopes for his five grandsons, who occasionally come to watch the work.

“Some of the best features of being a windmill man is we go out on places that only a cowboy will see once in awhile,” said

Crowell, who sometimes works in the scenic Palo Duro Canyon as well as on vast ranches that have 80 or more windmills apiece.

But windmilling can be difficult and dangerous. Crowell needed stitches after another worker atop a windmill dropped a hammer on his head. Work goes on year-round, despite occasionally ferocious winds and ice storms, because if a windmill has stopped pumping water, cattle can die.

“It takes a certain kind of person to be able to stand that type of work environment,” Crowell said.

This year, the weather has brought extreme heat and drought — which has meant boom times for both Aermotor and Crowell Water Well Service, Crowell’s company. Desperate for new sources of water, Texas ranchers have drilled more wells and ordered more windmills.

“We have been very busy this summer because there’s no surface water, and the cattle sure need to drink somewhere,” Mr. Crowell said.

Now, however, things have gotten so bad that ranchers have sold huge numbers of cattle, so business is likely to slow during the winter.

“When there’s no grass and no cattle, there’s no need for water out of windmills,” Bracher of Aermotor said.

Windmills also face a competitive threat from solar pumps, which have recently made significant inroads. Crowell says he spends about 70 percent of his time on windmills but also works on solar pumps, which he began seeing in the Panhandle in the late 1990s.

“Nearly every rancher I know is contemplating going solar,” said Delbert Trew, who ranches on rolling prairie about 40 miles east of Claude, Crowell’s base. He got rid of three windmills about five years ago — they were too expensive to maintain, he said — and bought a solar-powered pump from an Oklahoma company called Robison Solar Systems.

Bill Hoots, a sales executive at Robison, said that things have been “extremely, extremely busy” until recently, though they are now slowing as in the windmill business as ranchers sell off cattle. Dan Prangsgaard, a spokesman for Grundfos, a Danish pump manufacturer, said that growth in the solar pump business has almost tripled in the last two to three years.

Windmills last about 60 years, longer than solar pumps, according to Brian Vick, the lead scientist for renewable energy at a federal agricultural research laboratory in the Panhandle community of Bushland. But windmills need more maintenance and the solar pumps — which are cheaper up front — are better matched to the summertime needs of cattle, he said, because August and September tend to have little wind and lots of sun.

“You have to haul some water out to the cattle during that period sometimes, especially if the winds are low,” Vick said.

Ranchers putting in windmills and solar pumps can get substantial subsidies via the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the federal Department of Agriculture. Under the N.R.C.S.’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Texas ranchers have recently been eligible for payments of about $6,000 for a solar pump installation atop a well that’s more than 300 feet deep, according to Troy Headings, a civil engineer in Amarillo with the N.R.C.S. The payment runs about $7,260 for a 10-foot diameter windmill, and the rationale, he said, is to make sure cattle graze the entire pasture, "rather than concentrating around one water source and completely denuding that area of grass."

The federal program can cover about 40 to 60 percent of the installed cost of a windmill or solar pump, according to Mr. Crowell.

Will solar pumps ever eclipse windmills in West Texas? Vick, of the Bushland agricultural research laboratory, said that the windmills have “still got a pretty good future for another 20 or 30 years or so.”

Plenty of ranchers still swear by the machines, whose design has changed little in a century.

Rocky Farrar, a rancher near Canadian, has about 15 windmills on his land, and although he installed a solar pump a few months ago, he still hasn’t turned it on.

“I’m just not ready to do that,” Farrar said. “I don’t know why.” He said he loves the sound of the windmills, which have given him little maintenance trouble over the years.

“I think as long as you have any old-school people left,” Farrar said, “you’re going to have windmills.”

October 27, 2011

Huge solar power plants are blooming in California's southern deserts

By Dana Hull
San Jose Mercury News

MOJAVE DESERT -- At first glance, California's vast Mojave Desert seems barren: mile after mile of dust, sand and scrubby creosote bush under a blistering sun. But the huge desert, which spans an area larger than West Virginia, is becoming speckled with gigantic solar power plants that are creating hundreds of construction jobs and, when complete, will generate electricity for millions of homes.

California's solar Gold Rush is under way, fueled by billions of dollars of federal stimulus funding and a new state law that requires utilities to buy a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. While the collapse of Fremont solar manufacturer Solyndra has dominated the news in recent weeks because it received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, several other solar companies that received loan guarantees appear to be thriving.

The project furthest along is BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which has been under construction for one full year and is currently being built on federal land near the California-Nevada border with the help of a $1.6 billion loan guarantee. BrightSource, which is based in Oakland, uses mirrors to concentrate the sun and turn turbines that generate electricity. When complete in 2013, Ivanpah will be the largest solar thermal power plant in the world, generating enough electricity for 140,000 homes.

Currently, more than 800 construction workers are on the sprawling 3,600-acre site, which covers an area half the size of Los Gatos. The steel shell of a massive tower that eventually will be taller than coastal redwood trees is rising from the dust near a parking lot filled with cars, trucks and construction vehicles. Most of the workers arrive before dawn to beat the searing late-afternoon heat, and engineering managers pore over plans in air-conditioned trailers.

Ivanpah is one of nine solar thermal power plants approved by the California Energy Commission last year. In addition, scores of other solar projects are in the pipeline. In August, the federal Bureau of Land Management was processing applications for 17 solar power plants in California's deserts.

Solar currently accounts for less than 1 percent of the state's electricity, most of which comes from natural gas, two nuclear power plants and hydropower. But advocates -- including Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown -- want solar to play a key role in the state's energy future, in part because each project generates hundreds of construction jobs. Brown hopes to add 20,000 megawatts of renewable generation -- about one-third of the state's current power needs -- to California's electric grid by the end of the decade.

"We use a lot of energy in California, and we have aspirations to electrify our vehicle fleet, our ports and to develop high-speed rail," said Commissioner Karen Douglas of the California Energy Commission. "We need significant amounts of utility-scale renewable electricity."

Public land at risk?

However, critics and grass-roots organizations such as Solar Done Right fear the West's last remaining tracts of pristine public lands are being industrialized by "Big Solar" in the name of clean energy, bringing irreparable harm to native plants and threatened species. They want "smart from the start" planning that allows renewable energy development in some parts of the desert while protecting the rest as conservation land. They want residents in the Bay Area and elsewhere to know that California's deserts are as beloved to some residents as its beaches, parks and redwood trees are to others.

"There's plenty of desert out there -- just put it in the right place," said Jim Lyons, senior director for renewable energy at Defenders of Wildlife, a national organization that opposes the proposed 4,613-acre Calico Solar Project east of Barstow because of its effects on desert tortoises, burrowing owls and bighorn sheep. "It's a lot like real estate: location, location, location."

Solar's potential

The Ivanpah facility embodies many of the hopes and fears of solar power plants in the desert. It will generate 370 megawatts of electricity, which BrightSource says will displace 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the plant's 30-year life. Google (GOOG) has invested $168 million in the project, while PG&E and Southern California Edison have signed long-term contracts to purchase the electricity.

"Solar thermal technology projects like Ivanpah are playing a vital role in helping us meet our state renewable goals while providing for a secure and sustainable energy future," Fong Wan, senior vice president for energy procurement at PG&E, said in a statement.

Unlike rooftop solar panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal plants concentrate the sun's rays with mirrors or lenses to boil water to create steam; the steam then turns turbines that generate electricity. Ivanpah consists of three separate power plants, each with a 459-foot-tall "power tower" and tens of thousands of mirrorlike "heliostats" -- 173,500 in all. While land has been cleared for the construction site, BrightSource has taken pains to leave much of the native vegetation intact. Thousands of pylons protrude from the ground amid vegetation that has been trimmed, but not plowed.

"This has the lowest environmental impact of any project in solar," BrightSource CEO John Woolard said in remarks to media members who toured the project. "We're using a minimal amount of water, and there is low impact on the soil and terrain."

But Jim Andre, a botanist and plant ecologist at UC Riverside, says native plants will not survive under the newly created shade.

"You're altering the conditions that the species have evolved in," he said. "It goes against conservation biology 101."

Concern about tortoise

The biggest environmental controversy at Ivanpah is the endangered desert tortoise. Though BrightSource expects to spend at least $45 million on everything from salaries for biologists to the purchase of thousands of acres of conservation habitat, activists worried about the tortoise protested outside the company's Oakland headquarters.

While alienating some environmentalists, Big Solar has many supporters among the ranks of the state's unemployed. Ivanpah is a welcome source of jobs in San Bernardino County, which has been hit hard by the housing crash.

Iraq War veterans Ross Bowlin and Kenneth Platten carpool more than 200 miles from their homes near Riverside to get to Ivanpah, and they share an inexpensive hotel room in Nevada during the workweek. Both obtained their jobs via "Helmets to Hardhats," an apprentice program that helps veterans transition to careers in the construction trades.

"Before this job I had no construction experience at all, and I was on unemployment for a while," said Bowlin, a former Marine who served two stints in Iraq. "But this job reminds me of being in the military, in that we have a job that's bigger than ourselves. We're facing an energy crisis."

Platten, who served in the Army, misses the adrenaline rush of war but says the sheer scale of Ivanpah gives him a different kind of thrill. The good wages -- about $35 an hour -- help make up for the long drive. In addition, he's used to the desert heat: The deserts of Iraq are even hotter than the Mojave.

"We're building the biggest solar thermal power plant in the world," he said, as he surveyed the power tower. "To see this going up is amazing. I can look out and know that I hauled some of that iron, and that's cool."

Sprouting like weeds

Ivanpah is not BrightSource's only project. The company has filed applications with the California Energy Commission to build two other large solar power plants: the 500-megawatt Hidden Hills project, in California's Inyo County, and the 750-megawatt Rio Mesa project in Riverside County.

"There's so many companies submitting plans and filing for permits that it's hard to keep track," said Laura Cunningham of Basin and Range Watch, a volunteer group fighting "energy sprawl."

"You basically have a few dozen activists trying to protect this huge desert," she said. "Each solar project is on a different type of ecosystem, and there hasn't been a lot of planning. It's been, 'There's sun, let's build a power plant.' "

Cunningham grew up in the Bay Area and moved to a rural mining town in southern Nevada 10 years ago. A biologist and reptile expert, she has grown to love the desert, and the sense of calm and wonder it inspires.

"You can go into the desert and feel like you are the only person in the world," she said. "And yet it's teeming with life: jack rabbits, burrowing owls, rattlesnakes. In the spring, we have the most spectacular wildflowers, and the whole desert erupts in blossoms."

Conservation plan

In an effort to resolve conflicts between solar companies and conservationists, California is developing a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan to decide which parts of the desert will be open for renewable energy development and which parts will be protected.

"Initially, all of these big solar projects were being crammed down our throats," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity who is active in the conservation plan's process. "But now the state is realizing that you can't just bully projects into being -- you have to take a close look at where they are sited. Climate change is real, and we have to transition to renewable energy. But let's do it without driving species to extinction."

October 22, 2011

Haenszel became 'the source' on San Bernardino County's past

Nick Cataldo, Columnist
San Bernardino Sun

During my years researching San Bernardino County's colorful past, more than a few historians have helped me out immensely. But without question the scholar who made local history the most exciting for me, not only through her own amazing work, but also through the encouragement she gave me, was the late Arda M. Haenszel.

Born on Sept. 24, 1910, in Ebenezer, N.Y., the only child of Dr. Allen and Arda C. Haenszel became fascinated with history early on when she moved with her parents to the semi-abandoned Nevada desert mining town of Searchlight in 1919. Dr. Haenszel was the company physician for the Santa Fe Railway as well as the lone town doctor. In fact, he was the only doctor for miles around.

The region's mining boom was over by nearly a decade, so young Arda grew up around the ghostly reminders of abandoned buildings, mine shafts, and rock dumps. This unique environment may have sparked her interest in the past.

The Haenszel family left Searchlight in 1922 and moved to San Bernardino, which is where Arda called home for most of the rest of her life, until moving to Redlands' Plymouth Village, where she resided during her last years.

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, Arda launched a 33-year elementary school teaching career in San Bernardino. No doubt, her kids learned a thing of two about our region's "olden days" during her tenure.

After her retirement in 1966, she often was honored as the No. 1 consultant on our county's rich heritage. A longtime associate of the San Bernardino County Museum, she amassed a famous set of files - an unbelievably extensive historical collection on any and every topic regarding San Bernardino County as well as parts of Southern Nevada - that have provided material for countless other researchers (including yours truly) in their quest of exploring this region. She efficiently and willingly shared information on local Indian tribes, old trails, pioneers, historic sites, nearly forgotten towns, the Mojave Desert ... the list goes on and on.

Arda also had a strong interest in archaeology and, although not blessed with great health, was no "couch potato" writer. Up until about 10 years before her passing, she always was driving her Jeep out into the most remote areas of the desert, photographing abandoned sites, documenting her findings, and analyzing ancient petroglyphs.

Over the years Arda wrote numerous articles pertaining to archaeology, paleontology, anthropology and history for the San Bernardino County Museum Association. She also wrote many articles for the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society's publications, "Heritage Tales" and "Odyssey," an amazing accomplishment considering her busy schedule volunteering with the County Museum and San Bernardino Public Library. Even more remarkable was that this was mostly done while she was practically deaf and her vision was failing.

Arda was well known for her book donations; she is responsible for the creation of the California Room at San Bernardino's Feldheym Library.

For decades Arda Haenszel had been the "the source" for local history and when she passed away on Jan. 9, 2002, the 91-year-old San Bernardino County resident became part of that story she loved to research and write about.

Her estate included a very generous donation of $749,000 to the City of San Bernardino Library Endowment Fund. On Dec. 13, 2007, the San Bernardino Library Board of Trustees unanimously approved the naming of the California Room as the Arda Haenszel California Room.