RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep in Baghdad, I'm Renee Montagne.
Wind energy is growing fast, but some people don't like wind turbines; they say they're ugly. One solution is to put the turbines in the ocean, where there are fewer eyes to offend. An offshore project has been proposed in Massachusetts, but beachfront landowners, and others concerned with preserving coastal views, are trying to stop it. That puts a pair of entrepreneurs in Louisiana in the running to be the first in the nation to build a wind farm in the ocean, if they can get the approval and the money. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:
Southern Louisiana means crawfish, oilrigs and zydeco music.
(Soundbite of music)
It's a young crowd at the Blue Moon Café in Lafayette, but everyone recognizes a tanned and weathered 66-year-old man named Harold Schoeffler. His daughter owns the place, but, more important, Schoeffler is prominent environmentalist. He says it comes naturally.
Mr. HAROLD SCHOEFFLER (Co-Founder, Wind Energy Systems Technologies)): I live the outdoors. I'm out in the swamp; I'm fishing in the Gulf; I'm hunting deer, rabbit, squirrel, woodcock. We have a 60-day duck season and I'll probably hunt 40 days of the 60.
JOYCE: Schoeffler is a regular churchgoer and a Boy Scout leader. He joined the Sierra Club over 30 years ago and runs the local chapter. As for a living, well, he owns a Cadillac dealership and sells gas-guzzling cars to the local high rollers.
Mr. SCHOEFFLER: To all of the guys who are out there polluting the hell out of the world, you know, who are running the engineering companies, the dredging companies, even to the guys that who have had an adversarial role, they still buy cars from us. Amazing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOYCE: Schoeffler sees no conflict between selling V-8s and being a Sierra Club leader who sometimes has to sue his customers to protect the environment. In one lawsuit to stop a dredging project, Schoeffler consulted an expert for advice, a bear-sized engineer named Herman Schellestede. They've been friends ever since. And now these two men have hatched a plan to build 50 giant wind turbines out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. HERMAN SCHELLESTEDE (Co-Founder, Wind Energy Systems Technologies): This is Galveston Island, and see that line, that is our power line, and this is our two blocks, you see, 18 square miles.
JOYCE: Schellestede hardly needs a map of the Gulf. He's built rigs there all of his life. He rode out a hurricane on a rig once. He says the days of oil and gas are numbered. Schoeffler convinced him that offshore wind technology was not some sort of pipedream.
Mr. SCHELLESTEDE: We found out that in Europe it's been proven technology; and of course, on land it had been proven. So we took the land technology, modified it, and then made a plan.
JOYCE: The plan is to spend $250 million to build a wind farm that will generate as much power as a small, coal-fired plant. To do it, Schellestede and Schoeffler formed Wind Energy Systems Technologies, housed in a former girls' school at a convent in New Iberia. Paintings of nuns still hang on the walls.
Schellestede says by combining oilrig and wind turbine designs, his turbines can withstand Gulf hurricanes and to generate electricity cheap enough to compete with coal and natural gas. He says he can save money by using local talent, people who built the Gulf's oil and gas platforms, like Twin Brothers Marine, a sprawling fabrication plant that fits behind sugar cane fields on the Louisiana Coast.
A stroll through the plant with Harold Schoeffler and company engineer BC Fernandez gives a sense of how big these structures will be. Steel plates 3.5 inches thick are rolled like so much cheese into tubular pipe. You can stand inside some of these pipes. They are used to build the underwater foundations for oil and gas platforms, and they do the same for a 280-foot high wind tower.
Twin Brothers hasn't built one yet, but Fernandez and Schoeffler say it's time.
Mr. SCHOEFFLER: We like the windmill idea, because, I think, America has to reduce its dependency on petroleum products. It's part of the wave of the future that the cost of gasoline, oil, natural gas, it's economically feasible now.
Mr. SCHELLESTEDE: It's not a conflict with oil and gas. What it does is prolong the life of oil and gas.
JOYCE: There is the question of the ocean view. The Gulf is a big vacation spot. But Schellestede claims these are friendly coastlines. People are used to seeing big metal on the horizon, and the turbines will be eight miles offshore.
Mr. SCHELLESTEDE: If you were there having a martini on the beach, if you look very carefully, you'd probably be seeing the tips of the blades.
JOYCE: But birds could be a problem. Environmentalists say the 125-foot long blades might kill too many. Schellestede says he will pay to do the research to find out. But he worries. He notes that the nation's first offshore wind venture, the Cape Wind Project in Massachusetts, was stalled by unexpected local resistance.
Mr. SCHELLESTEDE: We cannot fall into the Cape Wind situation and have money thrown at the wall, you know, and nothing happens. That's not reasonable. So we're excited but cautious.
JOYCE: To see why birds are important to this, you need to go to Galveston. It's a spit of land nearest to where the wind farm will be, and it's the first landfall for millions of migrating birds that will fly over the wind farm.
From Galveston, you take the ferry to the mainland and drive up the coast to a place called High Island. It's higher, by a few feet, than the pan flat scrubland. There's water oak, and hackberry trees. The birds love it.
At the Houston Audubon Society's Boy Scout Sanctuary, binoculared bird-watchers count off the migrating species: blue-headed vireos, wood thrushes…
Ms. WINNIE BURKETT (Refuge Guide, Houston Audubon Society): Orchard orioles, northern orioles, summer tanagers, scarlet tanagers…
JOYCE: Audubon's Winnie Burkett is the refuge guide, and she's on a team of environmentalists that's monitoring the Galveston Wind Project.
Ms. BURKETT: What happens, that we worry about, is that weather events will concentrate birds. A front comes and the birds are pushed together and on those days you might have a million birds together, and they go through a wind farm and what happens?
JOYCE: They could get chopped up. Biologists say migrating birds normally fly higher than where the turbine blades will be, unless bad weather pushes them lower.
So the project designers will put two towers in the gulf, where radar and infrared cameras will track bird flight patterns. But Burkett isn't convinced that these will get a true picture of the migration. She says it's something of a dilemma for environmentalists.
Ms. BURKETT: We want wind power, but there may be places that wind generation isn't appropriate. And we feel that might be the Texas coast. It's a thing that's up to us to learn about how we can avoid them or how we can have, look, look, look, turn around. It's a wood thrush. It's right here, do you see him? He's probably just come in. He's come in tired off the Gulf. And that's what it's about.
JOYCE: The Texas coast is a bird paradise, but it's also wind paradise. Texas is second only to California in wind energy, and the project has an enthusiastic backer in Texas: Jerry Patterson. He's the commissioner of the General Land Office, which leases tracts in Texas waters, traditionally for oil and gas drilling.
Patterson was a Marine pilot. He decorates his office in Austin with his gun collection, and as a State Senator he sponsored a law to allow Texans to carry concealed weapons. In fact, he's got one in his boot.
Commissioner JERRY PATTERSON (Commissioner, Texas General Land Office): It's just a--it's a five-shot .22 magnum revolver; it's smokeless powder.
JOYCE: Patterson knows he's an unlikely wind advocate. But he views wind as a bargain.
Commissioner PATTERSON: The nice thing about it--it's energy income. One kind of energy is going to go away, that's the hydrocarbon base. We think wind energy is going be here to stay for, you know, hundreds of years to come. I certainly hope so. When the wind stops blowing, we've got some bigger problems.
JOYCE: Patterson leased the Galveston Wind Project the offshore tracts it needed. He said the only valid obstacle is the danger to birds, but he thinks that can be solved.
Commissioner PATTERSON: We're going to do everything we can to mitigate the impact: changing the location of the wind farm, shutting them down during migration, changing the structure of the platform so it's not inviting for birds to rest. You know, we're going to have offshore wind off the Texas coast.
JOYCE: And, he and his Louisiana partners hope, before Massachusetts does.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Questions and answers about wind turbines are at npr.org.