Border county banking on wind farms to ‘boost’ economy in rural South Texas

Border Report

ZAPATA COUNTY, Texas (Border Report) — The sun is high and bright and the air is dry and choking as construction crews drive in and out of another wind farm project on this hilltop outpost marked by prickly pear and mesquite in rural Zapata County, South Texas.

The county judge, Joe Rathmell, recently gave Border Report a tour of this project — the El Reloj del Sol Wind Farm — which is expected to come on line by June 2021 after suffering some construction delays due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It is the second wind farm project currently under construction in this border county of just 16,000 residents, which is doing its best to get into the lucrative wind energy business to help boost county coffers.

Construction trucks drive in and out on Nov. 16, 2020, of the El Reloj del Sol Wind Farm in rural Zapata County that is being built off Highway 3169. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The Gulf trade winds maintain a constant breeze in these parts, although the Gulf of Mexico is about 125 miles east of here, and there are vast stretches of undeveloped lands that are ripe for the use for wind farms, Rathmell says. The construction jobs are welcome in this county where the average weekly wages for all jobs is $874, or about $45,000 per year.

At this location off Highway 3169, about 6 miles north of the hamlet of San Ygnacio, there are about 70 towering wind turbines being built for what is expected to be a 202-megawatt farm. The venture is being financed and built by Houston-based EDP Renewables North America LLC, according to documents filed in 2018 with the Texas Comptroller’s office.

Zapata County Commissioners and the Zapata Independent School District have approved the company some tax abatements, but Rathmell said overall the county is benefitting from added jobs and they expect revenue from it in the near future.

“It certainly will be providing a very good tax base for our county,” Rathmell said standing just yards from one of the 385-foot-tall metal turbines. “The tax revenue will be considerable and so we are expecting a boost in our local economy once the project is completed.”

We are expecting a boost in our local economy once the project is completed.”

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell

The 10-year “tax abatement with Zapata County ISO has a significant impact on the rate of return for this Project and allows it to be competitive not only with other projects in the EDP’s portfolio,” the company wrote in its May 2018 application to the Texas Comptroller’s office.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell is seen on Nov. 16, 2020, outside the El Reloj del Sol Wind Farm in the rural South Texas border county. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“If it provides jobs, extra tax revenues to the county and school district, it’s a win-win and good economic opportunity to landowners with royalties coming in,” Rathmell said.

Rathmell’s family, which owns the Rathmell Land & Cattle Company, is currently leasing nearly 6,000 of its acres to the project, along with several other families, according to the Comptroller’s office. The project requires about 20,000 acres, Rathmell said.

During an Oct. 9, 2018 unanimous vote by county commissioners on whether to launch the project and offer tax abatements, Rathmell abstained due to his family’s interests, he told Border Report. Documents provided by Zapata County show that Rathmell filed a conflict of interest document in May 2018, nearly five months prior to the vote by commissioners.

“It’s a big project. There are plenty of landowners participating,” he said in response to questions about his family’s connection.



Several other wind farms are located throughout South Texas and proving to be quite lucrative for the counties of Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr, which all benefit from those everlasting trade winds from the Gulf of Mexico.

Nationwide, there are over 58,000 wind turbines in 43 states, according to the U.S. Wind Turbine Database. And Texas and California are among states that lead the nation with wind farms.

Rathmell says it only makes sense for Zapata to give it a try in the hopes of adding to the county’s meager $14 million annual budget.

The 70 wind turbines currently being built north of San Ygnacio, Texas, in rural Zapata County are part of the El Reloj del Sol Wind Farm.

The other wind farm project currently being built in Zapata County is the Las Lomas Wind Project, about 80 miles east on the Starr County line. An estimated 48 wind turbines are being built for this $180 million project. Those turbines are more powerful than the ones at El Reloj del Sol, and can generate 4.2 megawatts each and so only half as many are needed to also produce 200-megawatts when that farm goes online. According to documents filed with the Texas Comptroller’s Office, that project is being privately funded by Houston-based ENGIE North America.

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