The unregulated wind-energy industry is expanding rapidly across Oklahoma, causing concern among wildlife officials about the location of wind farms and towering turbines.
Oklahoma is among several states with few or no regulations regarding wind-energy development, officials said.
With hundreds of wind turbines producing 1,482 megawatts, Oklahoma ranks eighth among producers of wind energy, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Texas, also a state void of wind-power regulations, leads all other states with 10,085 megawatts of electricity production.
In California, the third largest wind-energy state, the licensing and oversight of wind farms is overseen at the local level, which often brings costly delays in starting up a wind farm, said Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association.
“It can take up to three years and cost $10 million in permitting fees and studies before you can go forward,” Rader said.
During the next 18 months, wind-energy development in Oklahoma is expected to rapidly increase compared to the past five years, said Curt Roggow, a lobbyist for the Wind Coalition, a regional organization representing about 40 wind-energy companies.
For example, during the five previous years, developers erected about 730 wind turbines in Oklahoma capable of producing about 1.5 to 2 megawatts each, Roggow said. During the next 18 months, the state will see an additional 450 turbines going up, adding an estimated 715 megawatts to production, Roggow said.
Oklahoma has 13 operational wind farms and six under construction, Roggow said.
He said the state is undergoing an unprecedented growth period, and wind developers are aware of environmental concerns.
“This is a hyper-growth time for wind energy, and we realize that we are a new industry,” Roggow said. “We are finding our way, working with land owners, the Legislature and others as part of being a good business neighbor.”
Records show Roggow spent about $1,200 on meals for lawmakers and their staff members last year.
Gary Sherrer, state secretary of the environment, said Oklahoma lacks wind regulations but the industry brings clean energy, jobs and a promise of greater energy independence.
“It’s pretty loose,” Sherrer said when asked about wind regulations. “It’s a good industry that the state would want for more jobs and to decrease our dependence on foreign oil.”
A proposal to erect 185 turbines in Osage County could bring $300 million in development, the Tulsa World has reported.
The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality does not regulate the wind industry because no emissions are produced by wind farms, said Skylar McElhaney, DEQ spokeswoman.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission does not regulate the industry because it does not have authority or jurisdiction over any power plant operations, said Matt Skinner, commission spokesman.
While Oklahoma lacks wind-power regulations, wind developers must adhere to building permit requirements when installing wind turbines and accessories.
Even though wind turbines bring renewable energy without pollution or toxic chemicals, their presence can have an impact on wildlife, said Bob Hamilton, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County.
The recent approval of an ordinance allowing wind farms near the Tallgrass Prairie has wildlife officials concerned about the impact on the lesser prairie chicken, a species of bird on the decline that could be a candidate for the endangered species list, Hamilton said.
The lesser prairie chicken, which abhors nesting near tall, vertical objects, could be driven out of the area if wind turbines – some 350 feet tall – are allowed to be erected, Hamilton said.
“We are supportive of green energy, but this is what you could call dirty-green energy,” Hamilton said. “Wind farms are an industrial project and we are saying, ‘Please don’t put your industrial operations in one of the last tallgrass prairies. If you do this, you could create a dead zone for prairie chickens.’ ”
Sherrer said he is hopeful that a planned task force to study the prairie chicken population and economic development can keep the bird off the endangered species list while also encouraging wind-energy development.
“We want to protect prairie chicken habitat, but I have a concern that if the prairie chicken is on the endangered list, it could curb wind-energy development,” Sherrer said.
The task force would be created by Senate Bill 603, written by Mike Schulz, R-Altus. Known as the Endangered Species and Economic Development Task Force, the measure calls for mitigating the impact on the prairie chicken population amid continued development of wind power.
Other legislation affecting wind-energy development includes a law that took effect in January requiring the Corporation Commission to oversee the decommissioning of wind farms that cease to function, Skinner said.
World researcher Hilary Pittman contributed to this story.
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