Continuing their weeklong series on the future of solar power in West Texas, Marfa Public Radio takes a look at small-scale solar projects around the Big Bend region:
The Big Bend region is ranching country. Miles of barbed-wire fences, cows clustered in the distance, and windmills on the horizon. Those windmills, of course, draw well-water from the ground. It’s alternative energy, but it’s old technology.
Preston Fowlkes and his family has been in ranching for generations. For the past five years, he’s been replacing his old windmills with solar panels for his water wells, especially in remote locations.
“We’ve used windmills in the past, but were just not reliable. In my opinion it’s become the best alternative., versus a generator or a windmill or an engine which requires fuel,” Fowlkes says.
It’s a cloudy summer day in Calamity Creek south of Alpine. Stephen Bryan is at the electrical meter outside his home. His company Fine Lines has handled many small solar installations.
“A dual-register meter is what you install if you have solar or any other type of renewable. If the sun were out now, we’d be making power,” Bryan says.
It’s not just ranches or homes across the Big Bend that take advantage of solar power on a small scale. But institutions, too, such as CDRI, Ballroom Marfa, and the Alpine Public Library.
Bennett Jones, through a program of Green Mountain Energy, designed the solar array that’s on the roof of the Alpine Public Library. He also installed a system at his own home in Alpine.
“I sold a pickup truck and turned it into a solar array to power my house. The future is very bright in Texas when it comes to solar,” says Jones. “We have this wonderful resource just hanging there in the sky every day. It’s not going to decrease in our lifetime. We just hit an all-time low last week in solar panel prices worldwide.”
The Alpine Public Library has a display in which patrons can track the efficiency of the panels over time. Jim Fissel also tracks his metering online. He installed 10 solar panels on his house in Marfa in 2009. Just a few months ago, he hit an all-time high in productivity.
There’s a personal satisfaction for Fissel. As a child in the 1970s, his father made the family acutely aware conservation during the energy crisis. His father had dreams of alternative energy that he couldn’t realize until improvements in technology and affordability a generation later.
“During the gas crisis in the 1970s we’d go out with a clip board and see how many times the wheel would spin on the meter,” Fissel says.
With solar energy growing more commonplace, some are dreaming even further now. Fairfax Dorn is the Executive Director of Ballroom Marfa, which has seen a reduction in energy costs since the installation of its panels in 2009.
“My biggest dream, because I know there’s a lot of interest in solar farms coming to Marfa. And my dream is wouldn’t it be amazing if Marfa was powered by solar. It would be the smallest but most powerful little town in America,” Dorn says.