How Green is Your Electricity?
For electric co-op members, it might be greener than you think.
Cimarron Electric Cooperative community solar project. Photo by Anna Politano
Monty Kahle knows a thing or two about the earth. For five generations his family coaxed soybeans, cotton, and wheat from the gently rolling farmland of Kay County. In 2016, that land sprouted something altogether different—wind turbines. Today, more than 20 turbines rise from his greening fields east of Braman, just a few of more than 3,000 that dot the landscape in 26 Oklahoma counties.
The otherworldly structures rising high above the ground represent a radical shift for an energy-rich state that built its economy on what lies beneath. Some liken the rapid rise in renewables to an energy revolution. Monty Kahle, for one, is grateful for it.
“When I look at the turbines, I see them as progress,” he says. “We put up cell phone towers and grain elevators. Why would this be any different?”
Kahle, a member of Kay Electric Cooperative, says the turbines on his property take up less than a quarter acre of land and don’t interfere with his farming or his livestock. They pay pretty well, too. A study by the American Wind Energy Association estimates Oklahoma landowners will collect $22 million in lease payments by 2020. The same report predicts property tax collection of $80 million, placing the state second in the nation in wind tax collections.
With 7,794 megawatts (MW) of installed wind energy here and more on the way, the counties playing host to wind developments reap significant benefits. When you consider 1,000 kilowatts (kW) equals one megawatt, and 1,000 MW equals one gigawatt (GW), it’s also a lot of power. If you figure 1 MW powers roughly 159 Oklahoma homes, 7.7 GW could electrify more than 1.2 million homes. Of course, this figure only works if the wind blows around the clock (it doesn’t), and turbines produce electricity at full capacity (they don’t). Older turbines generate at 25 to 35 percent capacity with some newer models producing at 45 percent. When you consider these variables, the more realistic number is 310,000 homes.
On Again, Off Again
For reasons that have everything to do with reliability, Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC) officials keep a close watch on the ever-changing weather. More than anyone, they understand the breezes and sunny days that feed the state’s wind turbines and solar panels are a required diet to keep the electricity flowing. Without these conditions, WFEC must fire up their natural gas-fired units to provide the needed power—often in as little as 10 minutes. The numerous starts and stops put wear and tear on equipment that wasn’t built for such use. As a result, WFEC’s annual maintenance costs have doubled.
“Typically, you have to overhaul the units every six to eight years, but now we do it every four years because of the increased amount of starts and stops,” says Gary Roulet, CEO of WFEC. “We see thousands of starts on our gas units every year. It’s astronomical.”
They’re used to it, though. Ranked as the third electric cooperative purchaser of wind energy in the nation, WFEC raised eyebrows in 2003 by embracing the gusty resource long before federal regulations required power plants to reduce their use of carbon-emitting fuels, namely coal. WFEC’s agreement to purchase 74 MW from Oklahoma’s first wind farm, Blue Canyon, sparked a wind rush in the Sooner State. Today, WFEC’s wind capacity is 615 MW.
“We took the position that as long as we can buy a product that lowers our overall cost, that’s what we were going to do,” Roulet says. “If natural gas were cheaper, we’d have gone in that direction, but renewables were cheap then, and they’re even cheaper now.”
Falling Prices, Rising Sun
While the intermittent nature of wind and solar power make them difficult to rely on 24/7, the ability to lock in power purchase agreements years in advance eliminates the price volatility that comes with gas-fired generation. Thanks to incentive-driven investments and technology advances, wind and solar prices plummeted by more than half over the past decade, making them competitive—and sometimes more affordable—than traditional resources.
In that time, WFEC has added more than 51 MW of solar power, including 18 MWs of production from five utility scale sites across the state; 3 MWs generated by community solar projects located in the service areas of 11 distribution co-ops, and 30 MWs of production from two utility scale sites in New Mexico. By 2020, WFEC will become the largest single G&T purchaser of solar power in the nation through an agreement with a soon-to-be-developed 220-MW solar facility near Hobbs, NM. When this project and other wind commitments occur, WFEC can claim a combined renewable capacity of wind, and solar of more than one gigawatt. Today, renewables account for 28 percent, and sometimes more, of the electricity they sell.
A Positive Turn
Providing a portion of WFEC’s renewable power is the Minco IV project near Minco, Oklahoma. While under construction, the project employed 200 people. In the next 30 years, the project alone is expected to pump some $25.6 million in property taxes into the local community. Wind benefits from five projects in the area already built a new high school and a water tower. Across the state, more signs of gust-driven economic growth: a new courthouse in Dewey paid off in record time, a new running track for Newkirk students, plus better county roads, improved local emergency response services, and much-needed funds for fire departments in various other communities, all thanks to renewable investments.
Happy to tap into a generation fuel that brings benefits to rural communities, cooperatives such as WFEC are finding the rise in clean energy fits their locally driven mission.
“Our costs to members have remained constant while continuing to add more renewables to our mix,” Roulet says. “If you stick with the philosophy to use the cheapest and most environmentally friendly form of energy around, and we pass these savings on to our members, we’re doing our job as a cooperative.”
For co-op members who like the idea of green energy and the positive cash flow it generates for the state, the growing use of renewables by Oklahoma’s electric co-ops is good news. The energy we burn is cleaner than we think.