Wind Energy: Oklahoma's Big Windfall?

Monday, November 10th 2008, 12:53 pm
By: News On 6

By Terry Hood, The News On 6

SWEETWATER, TX -- Five years ago, you would have looked at some ground in west Texas and it would have been 80% bare.  Johnny Ussery's family has been living and ranching on the land in west Texas since his grandparents pulled up in a mule wagon back in 1896.  Today, they'd hardly recognize the place.

"It did take a lot of soul searching.  We were really core ranchers," said Johnny Ussery.

Gone are the cattle and crops.  In their stead stand 28 giant wind turbines.

"It's better than raising cattle and its just as good as oil," said Johnny Ussery.

[Click here to watch the Extended Interview With Johnny Ussery]

Link to National Geographic Wind InteractiveThe family is on the front line of an energy boom that many believe will transform the Midwest.

"People cursed the wind here.  And now, we get up every morning and go it's windy.  It's 25 miles an hour.  Let's go!  Money today," said Sweetwater Mayor Greg Wortham.

In addition to being Sweetwater's mayor, Greg Wortham is also the president of the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium.  He has seen his hometown reborn.

"The town was dead.  It was dying.  There was no hope," said Sweetwater Mayor Greg Wortham. 

[Click here to watch the Extended Interview With Greg Wortham]

Now, wind energy accounts for more than 20%of the jobs in Nolan County and the tax base has exploded.  Eight years ago, it was $500 million.  Now, it's $2.5 billion and it will easily be $3.5 billion next year.

The News On 6 asked the mayor if he sees what's happened in Sweetwater as a microcosm of what could happen all over the Midwest.

"It really is.  The Bush Administration has done an analysis that says 300,000 megawatts by 2030 would be 20% of the U.S. electricity supply.  And, that's really 100 Sweetwaters," said Sweetwater Mayor Greg Wortham.

The idea, that the wind that scours the plains could also carry the seeds of economic salvation, sounds almost too good to be true to most folks in Boise City, Oklahoma.  Perched on the far end of the panhandle, it's a town just clinging to the map.

"You can't buy a pair of tennis shoes anywhere.  To buy a pair of jeans, you have to go to the grocery store," said C.F. David of the Boise City News.

David hasn't had much in the way of good news to print lately.  In fact, folks in Boise City feel so neglected; C.F. put a bounty on the governor's head just to try to shame him into a visit.  It worked. 

But, it didn't change the fact that Cimarron County has lost half its population in the last 20 years.

Of those who are left, more than 70% are elderly.  But, one thing this county does have is wind.

"Actually the red zone's excellent and the brown zone is amazing," said Cimarron County Commissioner John Freeman.

According to a map from the Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative, Cimarron County has the strongest winds in Oklahoma.  And, when County Commissioner John Freeman heard that wind could blow in money and jobs, he set out to get his county's fair share.

He called 200 to 300 developers, but was met with the same response:  no transmission.

Boise City faces a common problem in the development of wind energy.  To get the power to consumers requires transmission lines, at a cost of about $1 million a mile.

But, despite that huge hurdle, Freeman struck pay dirt when he made one last call to a small company in Virginia.

Danny McCrystal was already working on a small wind project in Oklahoma and he was fascinated by what he saw on maps coming out of Cimarron County.

"When you look at the wind maps, it's very clear that Cimarron County is nothing but wind," said Danny McCrystal.

McCrystal's company, Generation Energy, is now two years into developing a project that, if built today, would be the largest wind farm in the world. 

"There is a need for bringing new, clean energy into the system.  One way or the other, we are going to have to find a way to finance these projects," said Danny McCrystal of Generation Energy.

His faith is already being rewarded.  Last month, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission approved transmission lines from Oklahoma City into Woodward.  And, an OGE project takes the lines on to Guymon, just 90 miles away from Boise City.

Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Jeff Cloud serves on a regional energy board and says it's just the beginning.

[Click here to watch the Extended Interview With Jeff Cloud]

"All those experts say Oklahoma is going to lead the nation in wind generation by the year 2018," said Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Jeff Cloud.  "Because it's abundant."

Abundant, but not necessarily reliable. 

Along with the expense of developing transmission grids, is the question of reliability.  Sometimes, the wind just doesn't blow.

Greg Wortham doesn't buy any of it.

"Yes it's more expensive to build it because you're buying everything up front," said Greg Wortham.

He firmly believes that as the industry grows and wind farms stretch from Texas to the Dakotas, many of the problems will take care of themselves.

"The larger we get with wind, the more balance there is in the system," said Greg Wortham.

It remains to be seen if the transformation of Sweetwater, Texas, is a model of things to come.

But, Johnny Ussery knows that in his town wind energy brings something to the plains he's never seen before.

"We rode the cycles of farming up and down.  The cattle business up and down.  The weather up and down.  And, this has finally added a level playing field we've never had before," said Johnny Ussery of Sweetwater, Texas.

"This is real jobs, real energy, real infrastructure.  There's nothing fake about this.  This is the real thing," said Sweetwater Mayor Greg Wortham.