No one who has lived in Oklahoma for more than a couple of days is surprised to hear the state ranks as one of the highest producers of wind energy in the nation.
Wind has caused enough damage to hairdos, roofs and golf swings that most agree wind turbines are a good way to finally see a benefit from the strong breezes that Oklahoma has become known for.
State officials have also been open about embracing wind energy and have backed tax breaks in an effort to see more wind turbines built. But as wind farms creep closer to populated urban centers, some state leaders are wondering if the explosion of wind energy projects needs to be reigned in.
“I am a supporter of wind energy, but they don’t have very much regulation in [Oklahoma] and they are moving in towards the Metro area very fast,” said Sen. Rob Johnson, who has filed two bills that could halt a proposed wind farm project west of Piedmont. “I think we need to slow down and look at some things first.”
Johnson, R-Yukon, whose district includes Piedmont, said he has been contacted by concerned citizens who are worried that a wind farm project proposed by Apex Wind Energy would be too close to populated neighborhoods in the Piedmont area. Senate Bill 912 would impose a moratorium on wind turbine construction located within a 10-mile radius of cities with a population of 200,000 or more. A proposed wind farm seeks to locate dozens of turbines between Piedmont and Okarche, and while neither of those cities would meet the population threshold in Johnson’s bill, the majority of the project would be within 10 miles of Oklahoma City, which has a population of 591,967.
The bill was recently passed out of the Senate Committee on Energy, but with approval still needed from the Senate, House and governor’s office, Johnson’s proposed moratorium will test the limits of the state’s support of wind.
Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, oversees a district that stretches from Woodward to Piedmont and is home to vasts amount of rural land that some see as fertile for wind farms. In fact, Apex recently completed its Canadian Hills Wind Farm north of Calumet, which is just beyond Sanders’ district.
The most recent proposed wind farm near Piedmont is in Sander’s district and he said he has talked with people on both sides of the controversial project.
“Obviously you are dealing with private property rights but there are some real concerns that some residents have about wind turbines being built so close to their home,” Sanders said. “But I’m probably not ready to talk in depth about this situation yet, because I want to be very thorough in looking at all the sides.”
Sanders’ noncommittal to one side or the other may not be surprising since Oklahoma has taken a stance of encouraging wind power rather than mandate it. Wind energy has been an easy policy for lawmakers to push because it is a clean source of energy and creates jobs. But now that some lawmakers are hearing from residents of populated areas unhappy with wind turbines being built within eyesight, a debate is developing.
The collision of wind farms and populated areas will most likely continue as wind projects increase throughout the state. Oklahoma increased its wind power by 1,127 megawatts in 2012, ranking it fourth in the nation for wind power growth last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. In fact, close to 15 percent of Oklahoma’s energy was produced by wind last year, according to the organization Advancing Wind.
Besides Johnson’s bill to put a moratorium on wind turbine construction near Oklahoma City, the senator has also filed a bill that would give Canadian County the ability to create a metropolitan area planning commission in order to regulate the placement of wind turbines in unincorporated parts of the county. There had been some confusion as to whether state law allows for such a commission in Canadian County since counties with a city over 200,000 in population are prevented from creating a planning commission.
An opinion from Senior Assistant Attorney General Sandra D. Rinehart stated that Canadian County would not be able to create a metropolitan area planning commission because it includes parts of Oklahoma City. Johnson’s bill, SB 1012, would change that.
“Unless you have a city with 200,000 people actually living in the county I think this law should not apply,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the intent of the law.”
If approved, Johnson’s bill would give the county commissioners the ability to create a planning commission that could regulate the placement of wind turbines in unincorporated parts of the county.
Neither of the bills would prevent cities like Piedmont from one day allowing wind turbines inside their boundaries, although the city has already rejected a plan to place wind turbines inside city limits.
Johnson’s bill might be in a race with the Virginia-based energy company that has said it had hoped to start construction on the wind farm project as early as April.
The proposed wind farm near Piedmont would be the closest wind project to the Oklahoma City metro. According to Open Energy Info, which tracks wind farms across the country, the closest wind farm to Oklahoma City is the Minco Wind Energy Center which is at least 15 miles from the city. There are several other farms west of the metro and none that come close to Tulsa.
According to the map, major cities in other wind energy producing states like Dallas, Denver and Kansas City have wind farms within 50 miles, but none appear to have a major project just beyond their border near populated communities.
The collision of neighborhoods and wind turbines will only continue as more projects are built across the state and the controversy in Piedmont may lay the groundwork for how involved the state becomes in regulating an industry that it has supported for several years.