Giant wind turbines now a part of the landscape

Saturday, December 20th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LAWTON, Okla. (AP) _ The winter wind knifes through the Slick Hills, scouring the limestone where cactus has doggedly carved out a home on the rugged hilltops. The roar of an 18-wheeler drifts in from the distant highway and hawks peer through a morning haze as they soar against the blue sky.

It is a day like thousands of others in the Slick Hills, where the wind-swept rocks have witnessed season follow season according to the natural order _ but now visitors know that something has changed.

The smooth contours of the hills are now punctuated with 45 wind turbine technology reaching for the sky.

The giants of the Blue Canyon Wind Farm loom atop their rocky perches; their massive blades softly breaking the silence with a deep whoosh, their generators gently humming along with the sounds of nature.

The project is on the downhill slope.

Almost all construction is finished and most of the construction equipment is gone. Now crews are making final checks of the turbines; more than 230 feet above the ground.

Wayne Walker, director of development for Zilkha Renewable Energy, the majority owner of the farm, expects all turbines to soon be in full operation.

The project already has begun producing electricity. In November Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (which has committed to buy all the power produced) purchased 3,100 megawatt hours of electricity from the site. The average monthly production at full operation is expected to be a little less than 25,000 megawatt hours; the co-op says that's enough to power 20,000 rural homes.

Blue Canyon has been a groundbreaking venture in many ways. In January, Western Farmers announced its agreement to buy power, the first to purchase commercial wind-generated electricity in the state.

And the process of placing the 328-feet-tall turbines on the hilltops proved to require plenty of literal groundbreaking. Crews blasted the limestone to provide solid foundations for the towers and hauled ton after ton of blasted limestone to be converted into 8 miles of roadway and to be used in thousands of cubic yards of concrete.

``Certainly, the terrain was tough from a construction standpoint,'' Walker said.

To add to that, the construction manager had to deal with some logistical headaches, coordinating blasting, road construction and tower construction so that cranes and bulldozers didn't compete for the same bit of roadway high on the ridge.

And the supplier of the towers fell behind schedule a bit in supplying the masts, which was overcome by increasing production and working crews at night.

Western Farmers also had its work cut out. The power generated on the hilltops is worthless unless it can be delivered to the co-op's customers, so Western Farmers constructed a 26.4 mile transmission line that connects a new substation at the wind farm with the Washita switch northwest of Anadarko.

With the pieces falling into place, Zilkha is still working to find buyers for a second phase of construction. The first phase takes up only about a quarter of the capacity available to Blue Canyon. Walker expects that to take a bit of time. The federal tax credit for alternative energy expires at the end of the year, creating a ``cloud of uncertainty'' about beginning new construction, although Walker believes the credit eventually will be extended.

And power companies will be learning how to integrate wind power _ which tapers off at peak demand times _ with electricity from other sources.

Although the hillside is no longer swarming with activity, the projects will be leaving behind more than just an example of modern technology. There will be maintenance jobs, as well as property taxes.

Walker calculates that the project will pay $300,000 (mostly to Elgin, Cache and Apache school districts) over a 15-year period.

The developers had planned to take advantage of a five-year property tax moratorium and been approved for the exemption, Walker said, but the state Legislature changed the formula toward the end of the last session and Blue Canyon's payroll didn't meet the new standards. The company is hoping the Legislature will allow Blue Canyon to be allowed the incentive under a grandfather arrangement.

Walker is hoping the impact will be more than economic. He's hoping the project, by providing revenue to landowners, will encourage local residents to preserve their farms and the rural traditions that are associated with them.

There are already signs that the wind farm may become a something of a tourist attraction.

``During construction, it was amazing how many cars would pull up at the gate or stop by the side of the road and take pictures,'' said Carl Liles, director of Enterprise Management for Western Farmers.

The project has put Western Farmers in the limelight, such as when the co-op and Zilkha were featured presenters at a statewide conference on alternative energy last summer.

Western Farmers hasn't minded the attention and has been glad to provide tours for visitors _ some of whom got a good education on why the site was selected in the first place.

On one trip, Lies said, the wind was about 50 miles an hour and quickly chilled the bones of the group.

``In Oklahoma, does the wind always blow this way?'' asked one of the tour participants.

Liles who appreciates the vagaries and constancy's of Sooner weather, assured the guest it isn't always so.

``I said, 'No, sometimes it blows the other way,''' Liles replied. ``It's all positive attention though. I don't know anyone who's opposed to renewable energy.''