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Gulf Energy Purveyors Get Second Wind

If the project suceeds, about 50 giant wind turbines will be planted eight miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. The wind-turbine platforms would be supported by the same type of structure that secures oil platforms to the Gulf sea-floor, like this one.
Christopher Joyce, NPR
If the project suceeds, about 50 giant wind turbines will be planted eight miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. The wind-turbine platforms would be supported by the same type of structure that secures oil platforms to the Gulf sea-floor, like this one.
Engineer B.C. Fernandez, left, and Harold Schoeffler, co-founder of Wind Energy Systems Technologies, stand at the factory where some of the turbine platforms may be built. Schoeffler hopes to build the United States' first offshore wind farm.
Christopher Joyce, NPR /
Engineer B.C. Fernandez, left, and Harold Schoeffler, co-founder of Wind Energy Systems Technologies, stand at the factory where some of the turbine platforms may be built. Schoeffler hopes to build the United States' first offshore wind farm.

Wind energy is growing fast as an alternative energy source, but it's creating some friction in areas where it's being pursued. Some people complain that the wind turbines are ugly.

One solution is to put the turbines in the ocean where the wind is steady and there are fewer eyes to offend. An offshore project has been proposed in Massachusetts, but beachfront landowners are trying to stop it.

That puts a pair of entrepreneurs in Louisiana -- a Cadillac salesman and an oil-rig engineer -- in the running to build the nation's first wind farm in the ocean, if they can get the money.

An Unlikely Environmentalist

One of those entrepreneurs, Harold Schoeffler, is a regular at the Blue Moon cafe in Lafayette. His daughter owns the place, a magnet for zydeco musicians and their fans. But Schoeffler is known here as a Lafayette's unlikely environmentalist. He says it's not so unlikely.

"I live the outdoors," Schoeffler says with gusto. "I'm out in the swamp, fishing in the Gulf, hunting rabbit, squirrel, woodcock, turkeys. You name it, I've hunted it. We have a 60-day duck season. I'll probably hunt 40 of those 60 days."

Schoeffler's a regular church-goer and a Boy Scout leader. He joined the Sierra Club more than 30 years ago and runs the local chapter.

So why an unlikely environmentalist? Well, he owns the town's biggest Cadillac dealership and sells gas-guzzling cars to the local high-rollers, "to all of the guys who are polluting the hell out of the world," he says with a laugh, "you know, who run the engineering companies, dredging companies, even to the guys we've had in adversarial roles. They still buy cars from us. Amazingly."

Schoeffler sees no conflict between selling V8s and being a Sierra Club leader who sometimes has to sue his customers to protect the environment.

Oilman Turned Windman

During a lawsuit to stop a dredging project, Schoeffler consulted an expert for advice, a 6-foot-3-inch engineer named Herman Schellestede. They've been friends ever since.

Now, these two men have hatched a plan to build 50 giant wind turbines out in the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is Galveston Island," says Schellestede as he spreads out a map of the Gulf on his office desk. "That is our power line and this is our two blocks -- 18 square miles."

Schellestede hardly needs a map of the Gulf. He's built rigs there all 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 no mystery.

"We found out that in Europe, it was proven technology and of course on land it had been proven," says Schellestede. "So we took the land technology, modified it, and then made a plan."

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. It's housed in a former girl's school at a convent in New Iberia. Paintings of nuns still hang on the walls.

Tapping into the Gulf's Oil Knowledge

Schellestede says that by combining oil-rig and wind-turbine designs, his turbines can withstand Gulf hurricanes and still generate electricity cheap enough to compete with coal and natural gas.

He says he can save money by using local talent -- people who've built the Gulf's oil and gas platforms. People who work at Twin Brothers Marine, for example, a sprawling fabrication plant that sits behind sugar cane fields on the Louisiana coast.

A stroll through the plant with Schoeffler and company engineer B.C. Fernandez gives a sense of how big these structures will be. You can stand inside some of the pipes used to build the underwater foundations for oil and gas platforms. They're also being used to build a 280-foot wind tower.

Twin Brothers hasn't built one yet, but Fernandez says it's time.

"We like the windmill idea because I think America has to reduce its dependence on petroleum products," says Fernandez. "It's the wave of the future and with the (high) cost of gasoline, oil and natural gas, it's economically feasible now."

"It's not a conflict with oil and gas; what it does is prolong the life of oil and gas," Schoeffler adds.

There is the question of the ocean view. The Gulf is a popular 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, he says.

"If you were there on the beach having a martini," Schellestede says, "if you looked very carefully you'd probably be seeing the tips of the blades."

The Bird Question

There is one potential problem for the offshore wind farm: Environmentalists say the 125-foot blades from the turbines might kill too many birds. Schellestede says he'll pay for the research to find out whether the wind farm is a threat.

He has reason to worry; the nation's first offshore wind venture, the Cape Wind Project in Massachusetts, was stalled by unexpected local resistance.

"We're saying, 'Be very careful,'" Schellestede says. "We cannot fall into the Cape Wind situation and have money thrown at the wall and nothing happens. That's not reasonable. We are excited but cautious."

A visit to Galveston, Texas, explains why birds could undermine the project. A spit of land nearest to where the wind farm will be is the first landfall for millions of migrating birds that will fly over the wind farm.

Across from Galveston, on the mainland coast is a place called High Island. It's higher, by a few feet, than the pan-flat scrubland surrounding it. There are water-oak and hackberry trees, and the birds love it.

At the Houston Audubon Society's Boy Scout sanctuary, binoculared birdwatchers count off the migrating species: blue-headed vireos, wood thrushes, orchard orioles, northern orioles, summer tanagers and scarlet tanagers, just to name a few.

Audubon's Winnie Burkett is the refuge guide and she's part of a team of environmentalists who are monitoring the Galveston wind project.

"What we worry about is that weather events will concentrate birds," Burkett says. "A front comes and they are pushed together, and on those days you might have a million birds together and they go through a wind farm and what happens?"

They could get chopped up. Biologists say migrating birds normally fly much 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 these will get a true picture of the migration.

She says it's something of a dilemma for environmentalists.

"We want wind power. But there may be places where wind generation is inappropriate, and that might be the Texas coast," says Burkett. "I think it's up to us to learn how we can avoid them."

The Texas coast is a bird paradise, but it's also wind paradise. Texas is second only to California in wind energy.

An Unlikely Wind Advocate

The project has an enthusiastic backer in Texas: Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the General Land Office, which leases tracts in Texas waters, traditionally for oil and gas drilling.

Patterson, a former Marine pilot, has decorated his office in Austin with his gun collection. As a state senator, he sponsored a law to allow Texans to carry concealed weapons. In fact, he's got one in his boot.

"It's just a five-shot .22 Magnum revolver," he says as he pulls it out. "It's smokeless powder."

Patterson knows he's an unlikely wind advocate. But he views wind as a bargain.

"The nice thing about it is it's energy income," Patterson says. "One kind of energy, that's hydrocarbon-based, is going away. We think wind energy will be here to stay and will be a source of income for hundreds of years to come.

"When the wind stops blowing," he says, "we got some bigger problems."

Patterson leased the offshore tracts to the Galveston wind project. He says the only valid obstacle is the danger to birds, but he thinks that can be solved.

"We're going to do anything we can to mitigate the impact," he promises. "Changing the location of the platforms, shutting them down during migration, changing the structure of the platforms so it's not inviting to the bird to rest. We're going to have offshore wind off the Texas coast."

And, he and his Louisiana partners hope they get there before Massachusetts does.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

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