By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- A major emphasis of the federal Recovery Act has been to incentivize more efficient energy use, and greater investment in alternative energy, which is why it should come as no surprise that a wind energy conference hosted by the state last week was funded, in part, with stimulus money.
What could come as a surprise, however, is the fact that Oklahoma, the place Rogers and Hammerstein immortalized for its plains-sweeping winds, is still trying to make a real name for itself as a producer of wind energy.
Stimulus dollars could help make that happen.
There is certainly no shortage of the monolithic wind turbines rising from prairies of western Oklahoma. According to the most recent report from the American Wind Energy Association, Oklahoma is 12th in the nation in terms of total wind power generating capacity, with 865 megawatts. Texas is by far the nation's wind power leader, with close to 9 gigawatts of generating capacity.
But at "Revolution 2009: Oklahoma Wind Energy Conference," state energy leaders said it wouldn't be long before Oklahoma joins the wind industry's "gigawatt club."
"One thousand megawatts of wind in Oklahoma, which is a very small piece of what we will develop," explained Oklahoma Energy Secretary Bobby Wegener, "generates a $1.2 billion positive impact here in this state."
Secretary Wegener said that would be just from power generation. He and other conference hosts insist there's a broader potential impact from service and support opportunities in the wind industry.
"What brings Oklahomans – all Oklahomans – into this discussion is the possibility of manufacturing these components, of servicing these components, of the research and development capabilities, or possibilities that exist in this industry," said Commerce Secretary Natalie Shirley.
Secretary Shirley claimed the industry could generate 7,000 full-time jobs in the next five years and 18,000 jobs in ten years. For that to happen, though, she said it's critical that the state use forums like the wind conference to grab the attention of some of the industry leaders.
"And, believe me, we've been spending a lot of time talking to them about the assets that Oklahoma has, the interest that Oklahoma has and this conference shows them that we're serious about wind power in this state," Shirley said.
Serious enough to put $150,000 in stimulus money into the conference.
OG&E, meanwhile, is slated to get $130 million in stimulus dollars to accelerate the implementation of its smart grid program, through which the utility will be able to more efficiently distribute power, including wind-generated power.
"Wind is one of the unusual commodities that cannot be stored, [but] has to be used real time," said Marc Spitzer, a commissioner with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C. who spoke at the conference. "Wind that's blowing at two in the morning… if there are no customers, there's not going to be [any] value."
State officials acknowledged that wind power, at best, will only provide for a small fraction of the state's total energy needs, but they said there are several reasons to take the policy and regulatory steps needed to develop it more fully.
"For one thing, it's a price hedge to natural gas price volatility – it gives another fuel to help keep our portfolio balanced; for another it's clean – there are absolutely no emissions from wind and there are no fuel costs, and we know that it's plentiful here in Oklahoma," Energy Secretary Wegener said.
A key issue for the state, however, as it encourages the erection of more turbines and the growth the entire industry, is addressing the needs and concerns of all stakeholders. Balancing industry needs with the concerns of land-owners, who want adequate protections of their rights and of wildlife advocates, who worry about further encroachment on the habitat of the already imperiled lesser prairie chicken, could be a delicate balancing act, indeed.