Colorado's wind industry is thriving but far-flung
By John Young
A windmill near the Pawnee Buttes at Pawnee National Grasslands. (Denver Post file)
PEETZ — A tumbleweed darts across the highway. By most definitions, this heralds one's arrival at nowhere. Instead, in this case, it announces something unseen and significant.
For quite some time on this day trip to Colorado's northeast territory, all we see is grass — the Pawnee National Grassland. Suddenly, there — here — is Colorado's wind industry for all, or no one, to see.
Up here in Logan County, almost in Nebraska, roughly 300 towering wind turbines churn out electricity for distant microwave ovens and porch lights — 430 megawatts in sum.
Meanwhile, 100 miles away, just outside of the town of Grover in Weld County, the Cedar Creek Wind Farm features 397 generators.
The two operations are part of a line of wind farms that drapes the northeast Colorado state line. Meanwhile, key operations exist near Limon and Lamar.
Down toward southernmost Colorado, 10 miles north of Walsenburg, construction is headed toward a December completion for the Huerfano River Wind Farm, which is contracted with the San Isabel Electric Association.
Coloradans would be surprised to know that, all told, wind operations amount to an industry that ranks with any in the country.
The surprise is natural, because traversing along the Interstate 25 corridor, one sees almost no wind power in Colorado. The mountains are largely bereft of these turbines, in part because winds at higher altitudes can be too fierce.
However, out in the Colorado plains, wind represents a potent economic generator aside from what oil, gas and farm commodities will come from these flatlands.
Based on 2012 figures, the American Wind Energy Association says Colorado ranks sixth in the nation in how much of its electricity — 11.6 percent — comes from wind. As sure as chinooks howl in March, however, it could rank higher, vying for preeminence with national leader Iowa, for whom wind accounts for 24.5 percent of its electricity.
Ask most Coloradans, and few would consider their state a key wind-power player, but Bill Ritter does. The former governor, now director of Colorado State University's Center for the New Energy Economy, says the state has just begun to tap a massive resource.
At the turn of the 21st century, wind power in Colorado largely was limited to rusting farm windmills. Then everything changed.
When Ritter became governor six years ago, the state had a meager 275 megawatts (MWs) of wind power on the grid. Now it has over 2,000 MWs, with more in the construction and planning stages.
Other than steady breezes, the wind industry can attribute three key contributors for this: federal tax incentives; a state renewable energy standard that requires utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy; and utilities that have bought into the economic viability of wind.
"We've seen the price of wind power come down significantly," said Ritter. Factoring the federal production tax credit, he said, the last two major contracts Xcel Energy signed for wind power priced it at around 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour. "That's getting really on parity with other forms of energy," he said.
Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz, citing the role of the production tax credit as well, said the company recently had contracted for "the lowest price of wind generation we've ever seen."
Hear these individuals talk about wind energy and understand that the most pivotal factor in all of this is predictability, both meteorologically and politically.
Politics? The threat that a Tea Party-controlled Congress might pull the plug on the production tax credit over the past year caused a booming industry to stall nationwide. No one knows this better than Colorado firm Vestas, maker of wind turbines. Though its international sales have beenrobust — 686 wind turbines sold this year through June, according to The Greeley Tribune — uncertainty about the tax credit caused U.S. wind producers to hold back.
The fact that the credit has been renewed only for a year rather than long-term, said Ritter, plants a seed of doubt that can't be good for an emerging industry. It's sadly ironic to think that as relates to wind power, Colorado weather may be more predictable than the policymakers in Washington in whose hands the future of a crucial emerging industry may lie.
Ritter calls the wind of Colorado's Eastern Plains some of the best in the country for consistent currents that allow generators to maintain a high capacity — a "sweet spot" of between 8 mph and 18 mph — and minimal inactivity.
Wind has proven to be a potent income generator as well, with each massive turbine yielding $4,000 to $5,000 a year.
So, is the potential of wind in Colorado as vast as all that grassland? Not exactly. First, there's the issue of transmission, since wind power can't be stored. Second, wind power can't be sustained 24 hours a day, meaning utilities always will have to use a general power mix that includes natural gas, coal and other renewables.
In other words, said Ritter, don't expect wind to meet all of the state's energy needs. But it could do a lot more. For one thing, he said, Colorado could export wind-generated power if states like California would allow it.
"We're kind of a power island," said Ritter. Resolving that is going to take interstate cooperation. Seemingly, this is a job for Colorado's congressional delegation, one that could be embraced by Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural.
California has the nation's highest standard for renewables (35 percent by 2025), and ought to be a willing customer of wind energy. Meanwhile, Colorado, in Ritter's words, has the condition of having "trapped wind" it could export.
That railroads can truck coal from coast to coast, that pipelines can send natural gas or oil hither and yon, and yet Colorado can't ship wind-powered electricity wherever it wants — it doesn't seem to fit into the century we now inhabit.