How could wind power evolve in Oklahoma's future?

People often talk about Oklahoma's wind power industry in the future tense " as if wind turbines will magically appear in 2030, the year some economic projections say the state could become one of the nation's biggest producer of the renewable resource.


Left out of those conversations are all the steps needed to get there.

Last week, a group of politicians, ranch owners and energy industry types met in downtown Oklahoma City to discuss not only what the future wind power industry might look like in this state, but also how to get there, where "there" is and what obstacles stand in the way.

More than 1,000 people registered to attend REVOLUTION, the inaugural Oklahoma Wind Energy Conference, which was held at the Cox Convention Center Dec. 2 and 3.

Larry Flowers, of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory based in Boulder, Colo., said the stakes are huge for Oklahoma, which sits right in the middle of the Great Plains, one of the windiest areas of the nation.

By 2030 " that magical year " Oklahoma could see $44 billion in economic development and an increase of 19,000 rural jobs if the nation figures out a way to make wind 20 percent of its overall energy portfolio, he said. That comes with environmental benefits since wind turbines, unlike coal and natural gas power plants, don't release heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

"In the end, it's policy and the politicians that are going to determine what does happen," Flowers said.

So what policies should the local, state and federal governments pursue to attract so-called wind farms to the western part of the state? And what are the selling points and drawbacks for the people who own all this windy land?

The answers aren't simple. At the recent conference, attendees and speakers floated a number of suggestions. All involved looking at the issue more holistically.

One of the big question marks staring down anyone interested in wind power is politics. President-elect Barack Obama is expected to put a price on emissions of carbon dioxide. That makes carbon-free energy sources " like wind and nuclear " all the more attractive.

When and how that will happen, however, is anyone's guess.

The economic benefits for people in the wind business could be huge. If carbon is traded at $20 per ton, Oklahoma could see $60 billion injected into its economy, said Jay Caspary, of the Southwest Power Pool, the government group that oversees the power grid in this part of the country, at a morning session of the wind conference.

Another policy question goes by the confusing name "renewable portfolio standards." The standards simply mean there's a law saying a certain percentage of an area's energy must come from renewable sources " wind, solar, biofuels, for example " by a certain date.

The standards are sometimes said to be a big boost for wind power.

But, as Caspary pointed out, they may not always be necessary.

Oklahoma and Kansas have managed to grab substantial pieces of the wind industry without the standards. The states that have them " and at least 31 do, according to the federal Energy Information Administration " may have vaulted into the wind industry faster without them, Caspary said.

In an interview during the conference, Oklahoma Energy Secretary David Fleischaker said Oklahoma doesn't need a renewable energy standard to promote the wind industry at this point.

"Today, it's not really necessary because all the utilities are going that direction. We don't need that 'open for business' sign," he said. "It would have been helpful five years ago."

A national renewable portfolio standard would kick alternative energy into a higher gear, he said. But, amid the national credit crunch, no policies would help the wind industry as much as money would, Fleischaker added.

 The scenario in which Oklahoma wins out by that magic year of 2030 requires that the nation get 20 percent of its energy from wind by that year. That's a goal President Bush expressed in 2006, stirring a debate among wind power proponents. Experts at the wind conference had competing ideas about what policies, if any, would best nudge the nation in that direction.

One of the biggest problems with wind power, experts say, is that it's difficult " or sometimes impossible " to get electricity from the windy patches of the country to power-hungry cities that use most of the electricity.

"The wind tends to blow in places where we don't have the large population centers," Fleischaker said. "So we have the problem " the challenge " of building transmission lines out."

Power travels around Oklahoma and around the country on a power grid that's analogous to the nation's established system of roads and highways.

The problem is that, while the highway system has expanded, the electrical grid hasn't matched that growth.

"The existing grid in Oklahoma is not adequate," said Lisa Barton, vice president of transmission strategy and business development for Ohio-based American Electric Power. "That comes from its origins. It was designed by local utilities to serve local needs.

"It's a challenge," she said. "It requires a lot of planning, just like we did with the interstate highway system."

Caspary took the point a step further.

He said Oklahoma's infrastructure can handle less power than the state is capable of producing.

Both Caspary and Barton called for a massive expansion of the grid. They said they're encouraged by the fact that Obama has made a talking point of these infrastructure woes.

The Oklahoma House of Representatives in March passed a bill intended to promote power grid expansion by spreading the costs of such projects across energy users in several states.

Still, the infrastructure improvements are expensive, Fleischaker said. The "extremely high-voltage" lines cost about $1 million per mile.

An afternoon panel hosted by Oklahoma Environment Secretary J.D. Strong shed light on a downside of wind power: its effects on wildlife and prairie habitat.

Wind turbines are often 300 to 400 feet tall. For some animals, like the lesser prairie-chicken, which lives in parts of western Oklahoma, they can be a life-changing disturbance.

Scientists think the birds don't go near the monstrous turbines because they fear predators " like hawks and other raptors " may be waiting in the blades.

The bird is already a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and Michael Patten, director of research at the Sutton Avian Research Center, said only about 10,000 to 20,000 of the stocky birds remain. That means, he said, about 90 percent of the birds have already died off, mostly because their prairie habitat has changed so much in the last century.

Wayne Walker, co-founder of the American Wind Wildlife Institute, said conflicts between wildlife and wind turbines should be dealt with in a large scale, not project by project, as he said is currently the case.

None of the researchers and conservationists who spoke at the conference about the lesser prairie-chicken said wind farms should be stopped.

But they said the bird " which does unique mating dances in the spring that draw bird-watchers from across the country " should be a consideration as Oklahoma plans to expand its wind-energy infrastructure.

Flowers said Oklahoma should applaud itself for how far it has come in terms of wind energy. In 2000, he pointed out, Oklahoma, like most states, had almost no wind farms to speak of.

Now, the state makes up to 20,000 megawatts of energy from the wind.

Still, he said, the country only uses the wind for 2 percent of its electricity. In order to boost that number to 20 percent, he said, something has to change.

Many energy experts warn against looking for a panacea to mitigate climate change or solve the nation's energy crisis.

But, according to panelists at the conference, there's much to gain from pursing wind as one solution to these problems.

"You've come a long way, Oklahoma," Flowers said. "But there's a long and big and spectacular future for you if you choose to follow that path."

Now, the state and the nation just have to figure out what the best path is. "John David Sutter

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