Oklahoma is blowing away its competition in its battle to be a national leader in wind energy.
The industry is providing investment, employment and new jobs to the state every day, said Hannah Hunt, a senior industry data analyst with the American Wind Energy Association.
The state’s prominence in the industry can be seen in an array of statistics. Oklahoma currently ranks No. 4 in the nation in terms of installed wind power capacity, with potentially enough projects coming online by the end of the year to take the No. 3 spot from California, behind Texas (No. 1) and Iowa (No. 2).
Oklahoma already ranks No. 3 for construction activity as well as for total wind energy generation, providing enough electricity to power the equivalent of 1.3 million average U.S. households in 2015. Last year, wind energy provided more than 18 percent of Oklahoma’s energy production, and the industry provides 7,000 jobs in the state.
“We’re really excited to see Oklahoma is building on its legacy as an energy producing state,” Hunt said.
In terms of the future growth of wind, Hunt said that the industry is on its way toward the goal of wind energy supplying 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030.
One factor the wind energy industry needs to focus on is reducing costs. The cost of contracts between wind energy owners and utilities – which then transfers to the customer – fell by 66 percent between 2009 and 2015, Hunt said, but there still is the need to continue that trend. Another primary factor is access to adequate transmission. The more transmission, the more people can connect to and benefit from wind energy.
“That’s something that the industry is continuing to focus on and encourage,” Hunt said. “The vast wind resources in Oklahoma and the U.S. are typically in rural areas, and transmission is what allows it to be connected to higher population zones and get those wind resources to market.”
Clean Line project approved
Clean Line Energy Partners is one of the companies that is building up the nation’s transmission infrastructure. The Houston-based company is working on five different transmission projects to move renewable energy across the country – including the Plains & Eastern Clean Line transmission project, which received its last major regulatory approval from the U.S. Department of Energy in late March.
Plains & Eastern is an approximately 700-mile overhead, direct-current transmission line that will connect 3,500 megawatts of clean energy generation from western Oklahoma, southwest Kansas and the Texas Panhandle with utilities and customers in Tennessee, Arkansas and other markets in the Mid-South and Southeast.
More than $1 billion of investment in the privately financed project will be in Oklahoma, and the project is set to create thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of direct permanent jobs in the state, according to project backers. The project is also set to bring millions in landowner payments, infrastructure payments and ad valorem revenues to the state.
“This will be the largest wind energy project in the country, the largest electric renewable project of any kind,” said Mario Hurtado, the executive vice president of development for Clean Line.
Hurtado said that the project has been in development for five years and that they are excited to have finally started some of the ground work on Plains & Eastern such as the data collection that took place in earnest this summer on animal species, wetlands and cultural resources that might be in the project’s right of way as well as land agents’ conversations with land owners about compensation and minimizing the impact of the line.
Construction is expected to start in late 2017, and the line is set to be completed in 2020.
“Since we are one of the first large projects like this, it is important to set a really high standard,” Hurtado said.
Using local businesses
Among Clean Line’s priorities, Hurtado said, is to direct as much of the Plains & Eastern-related business as possible to local companies.
“We made that decision very consciously because we wanted to be able to magnify and ensure that a significant amount of the money we spend on this project goes to local sources,” Hurtado said.
One example of such a partnership is with Claremore’s Pelco Structural, which will manufacture the steel monopoles for the Plains & Eastern line.
“It could not come at a better time for our state as we struggle to diversify our economy and create jobs away from our historical dependence on the oil and gas industry,” Pelco president Phil Albert said. “This project will bring over $2.3 billion of business development to a three-state region, which includes Oklahoma.”
Pelco began hiring after the Department of Energy released its decision to support the project this spring and has already added 65 positions, Albert said. They plan to continue hiring through the first half of 2017 when they expect to have brought more than 130 new Pelco employees on board.
TRC Companies Inc., which has a major office located in Tulsa, is another example of a local partnership. The company announced in July that it had been awarded a $12 million contract by Clean Line to provide land acquisition services, survey permissions and overall project management for the transmission project.
“Clean Line Energy’s mission of building modern energy infrastructure closely aligns with our own core values of sustainability, including our commitment to grow our clean energy services year over year,” Chairman and CEO Chris Vincze said in a press release at the time. “The 700-mile transmission line will improve the U.S. electric grid, support economic development and job growth, and make safe, reliable and lower cost power available to consumers.”
Some object to wind farms
While advocates tout the environmental and economic benefits of wind energy, the industry has met resistance from sources, including landowners and lawmakers.
One member of the grass-roots movement fighting wind energy companies is Tammy Huffstutlar, whom the Tulsa World first met in June 2014 after wind turbines went up around the eight acres in Canadian County that she’s called home since 1978.
Huffstutlar said that as soon as the Canadian Hills wind project turbines – some of which are less than 600 feet from their barn – were turned on in late 2012, she and her husband, Rick, started experiencing a huge decrease in their quality of life.
She said flickers from the turbines’ blades interrupt sleep and make parts of the house uninviting, and when they’re outside, they live with constant noise. The turbines also seemed to aggravate a previously under-control health problem for her husband.
Today, the Huffstutlars are about a month and a half from moving into a new home, one that they’re building on land around 35 miles west of the home that had once been perfect for them. The couple had been in different stages of the grieving process for several years, Huffstutlar said, but around nine months ago they finally decided that they had to relocate.
“It’s been a huge undertaking,” she said. “We’re not just moving our home. We’re moving our cattle business, our horse business and our horseshoeing business. It’s not like just packing up your household belongings in a U-Haul and driving down the road.”
The sale process concerns Huffstutlar. She know of three homes in the area that have sold since the wind project went up. All three have become rental houses, she said, and the most recent one – a 1980s 300,000-square-foot brick home on two acres with an in-ground pool – sold for 31 percent below its appraised value.
Another thing that concerns her is another series of wind developments, this time from NextEra Energy Resources, being planned for areas close to where she and Rick are moving. Huffstutlar said that she’s vowed to fight these projects earlier in the process and is part of current opposition efforts.
“We’re fighting them once again,” Huffstutlar said.
Terra Walker is another Oklahoman taking on the wind industry. Walker is the vice president of the Oklahoma Wind Action Association, a group made up of residents around Okarche, Kingfisher and Piedmont – just northwest of Oklahoma City – who are advocating for safe setbacks from industrial wind turbines to homes.
Walker said that the group’s formation in 2014 was spurred by the development of Apex Clean Energy’s Kingfisher Wind project. They filed a federal lawsuit against Apex in 2014 over the setbacks as a last resort after they learned that no county, town or city officials had authority over the matter. A motion hearing is set for Sept. 27.
“We are concerned about the health and safety issues when they’re placed too close,” Walker said of the turbines.
In the time since OWAA began, the Kingfisher Wind project was built less than a mile east of Okarche city limits, Walker said. On windy days, which are frequent, Walker, her husband and their two children can hear the turbines from inside their home that sits on 150 acres.
“I am completely surrounded on all four sides,” Walker said. “It sounds like I live at an airport.”