PAWHUSKA – Two hours northwest of Tulsa, the Flint Hills offer unobstructed vistas that stretch for miles, with nothing but a few scattered trees on the distant horizon.
Oklahoma already has at least 14 wind farms that are in operation or under construction, with a total of nearly 700 wind turbines. In 2010, the state ranked No. 12 in wind-power capacity.
Except for the occasional power-transmission line or cell-phone tower, Joe Bush’s forefathers enjoyed the same view when they began ranching in Osage County in the 1800s.
But the landscape could change next year with plans to build at least three wind farms across the northern half of Osage County. Plans for the wind farms, including information on companies behind the projects, haven’t been officially announced.
“It’s good for me, because it pays money,” says Bush, who has already signed a lease to allow construction of wind turbines on his ranch.
“And it’s good for the world, because it’s clean energy.”
Osage County officials are working on a broad set of regulations, considering the environmental and economic impact that wind farms will have on the area.
The regulations may even deal with the visual impact, County Commissioner Bob Jackson says.
“I have seen some huge wind farms, and really they aren’t that attractive,” Jackson says.
Designated a “scenic byway” between Ponca City and Bartlesville, U.S. 60 runs south of the likely wind farm locations.
“We might want everything set back from the highway a considerable distance,” Jackson says.
He’s more worried about the wear and tear on the highway itself, not to mention the smaller county roads construction traffic will use.
Crews will have to truck in tons of concrete and heavy equipment, as well as turbine blades the size of airplane wings.
Roads will need upgrades before construction and repairs afterward, Jackson says.
“Hopefully, the energy companies will be obligated to help us pay for some of these things.
“Wind power is coming, ready or not. So we better get ready.”
Osage County officials will finish writing the regulations early next year.
In the meantime, wind farm developers are considering at least three locations in the northern part of the county, including one site a few miles south of the Kansas state line near Grainola, where Jackson lives.
The other two sites, Jackson says, are close to Foraker, on the western edge of the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.
The towns have a combined population of roughly 50 people.
“It will be a lot of money for the landowners,” Jackson says. “It’s a great deal for them.”
Nationally, wind-energy companies typically pay landowners $4,000 to $6,000 a year per megawatt, with the average wind turbine producing between 1 and 3 megawatts, according to published reports.
“Best of all,” Jackson says, “it’s green energy. The wind is free and it doesn’t pollute.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that environmentalists don’t have concerns.
Wind turbines are large, industrial machines, some reaching 300 feet in diameter.
And the turbines don’t come by themselves – the developments will include access roads, transmission lines and transformer stations.
It may not be the worst kind of industrialization, but wind farms still amount to industrialization, says Don Wolfe, a researcher at the Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville.
Wind farms are notoriously dangerous for birds. And sites on the East Coast have killed tens of thousands of bats each year.
Central California has lost hundreds of golden eagles at the Altamont Pass Wind Farm, he said.
In Osage County, the concern will focus on the prairie chicken, already an endangered species.
The wind turbines don’t seem to pose any direct threat to the prairie chickens, which are flightless, but they don’t know that.
“They don’t reason the way we do,” Wolfe says. “Basically, they’re programmed to avoid any kind of vertical structure, even cedar trees.”
They won’t nest near wind farms, diminishing their already limited habitat, he says.
In western Oklahoma, energy companies have offered “mitigation,” setting aside millions of dollars to protect nesting areas in other parts of the country to help make up for the loss of habitat near the wind farms.
“It’s not enough,” Wolfe says, “but it’s a step in the right direction.”
He hopes to see a similar arrangement in Osage County, although the agreements will have to be voluntary for the developers.
“The pitch,” Wolfe says, “goes something like this: ‘You’re promoting wind energy as environmentally friendly. If you’re going to say this, then please do the right thing.’”
Until now, wind-power development in Oklahoma has concentrated on the western side of the state, where wind-speed averages are significantly higher.
Recently, however, interest has shifted toward the central part of the state, with easier access to long-distance transmission lines, says Chris O’Meilia, a biologist who tracks wind power issues for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The central part of Oklahoma includes some of the most pristine tallgrass prairie left on earth.
Once covering 140 million acres across the Great Plains, the prairie has been reduced to a fraction of itself, with more than 95 percent plowed under or paved over.
“With an ecosystem that has already been so devastated,” O’Meilia says, “every little bit that we lose is a detriment.”
Some species – deer and turkeys, for example – seem to coexist with wind farms, he said.
For other species, a wind farm might as well be a vast asphalt parking lot.
“At the end of the day,” O’Meilia says, “a wind farm just isn’t the open prairie anymore.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding