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Two Oklahoma towns blown away by wind farm benefits

(Monday, Nov. 3, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Adam Wilmoth, The Daily Oklahoman, 09/28/03: Rural Oklahomans remember the benefits oil-field roughnecks and wildcatters brought when they crowded into local hotels and restaurants 20 years ago.

Two Western Oklahoma communities are getting a taste of some of that same prosperity today, but this time the wildcatters are looking for energy in the sky instead of 12,000 feet underground.

Construction crews moved into Woodward and the Lawton area this spring when they began work on the state's first two wind farms. The work is winding down and the generators are expected to be operating by the end of the year.

Local business owners say the construction phase has been a welcome boon and they are thankful for the recent influx of cash and customers.

Woodward's Northwest Inn made about $50,000 more than normal this summer because of contract workers who were in town to build the wind farm, general manager Dorris Ames said.

"Sometimes you have a night where just a few rooms fill up, but with the wind farm, we've reached above our average occupancy almost every night," she said.

Some workers stayed at the inn throughout the summer, while others were in town only for a few days to complete a smaller part of the project.

As many as 150 workers were on site at a time in Woodward, but only about 30 are left as the construction phase of the project is winding down, project manager Gary Bouska said.

North of Lawton, about 80 contractors were working on the Slick Hills wind farm during the foundation phase this summer, project manager William Kelsey said. Nearly 40 workers are now assembling the towers.

Most of the contractors on both sites live outside of Oklahoma, but while they are here, they eat at local restaurants and stay at local hotels or apartments.

Ann Edwards, owner of Ann's Country Kitchen, which is just down the road from the Slick Hills construction site, said her business has picked up considerably over the past few months, especially as workers stop by her restaurant for lunch.

The Enterprise Rent-A-Car location in Lawton has rented between 10 and 15 vehicles to workers at the site for much of the past two months, assistant manager Jeff Wedig said.

Service companies have also benefited from the project, and a handful of those businesses have also secured long-term contracts because of the wind farms.

Diamond Services Co. of Woodward grossed more than $150,000 in recent months by digging more than 100,000 feet of trenches for the wind farm and for helping with general maintenance on the site, Vice President Mark Campbell said.

The company also is scheduled to help Florida-based FPL Energy perform maintenance work on the companies wind farms in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas.

"We'll send people out there and assist them on maintenance on their generators and towers," Campbell said. "They'll have their own people, but we will supply them with assistance and equipment to get their normal maintenance tasks done."

RSC Equipment Rental of Lawton has also landed business out of state because of the Oklahoma wind farm developments.

The company grossed about $65,000 by supplying fork lifts, personnel lifts, generators, pumps and other items to contractors working on the Slick Hills site, operations manager David Byrd said. It has also signed a deal with the company to supply equipment to a wind farm project near Lubbock, Texas.

The communities may have already benefited somewhat from the wind farm projects, but local residents hope the wind will continue to blow more opportunities into rural parts of the state in the future.

Besides the influx of money communities received while the wind farms were under construction, the projects also will send additional income to western Oklahoma through royalty payments for at least the next 20 years. Landowners involved in the projects are due to receive up to $4,000 per turbine per year for the lease of the land.

"It's a good extra income," said Gary Bouska, project manager for the Woodward wind farm. "I grew up on a farm in Iowa, so I know farming's a hard life and money's hard to come by. Wind power provides really nice money to come by."

Western Oklahoma farmers and ranchers have always had to deal with the wind, but only recently have they begun to see it as an asset.

"I was raised on the farm out here," said Tommy Roedell, who owns land north of Woodward. "I've always dealt with the wind. You either cuss it or discuss it."

Roedell's certainly not swearing at the wind anymore.

His land now contains two 300-foot tall, 145 ton turbines, each capable of generating enough electricity to power a small Oklahoma community.

Both wind farms should be operational by the end of the year, and together, they are expected to produce about 176 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 52,000 homes.

The Woodward project is composed of 68, 1.5 megawatt turbines that extend over 13 landowners' properties. The 102 megawatt project is being developed by FPL Energy. The generated electricity from half of the project will be purchased by Oklahoma Gas and Electric Corp. with the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority buying power from the other half.

Construction in Woodward was completed earlier this month and the site is expected to begin operating next month.

The state's other wind farm is under construction on the Slick Hills north of Lawton. That project has 45, 1.65 megawatt turbines on two landowners' properties. Zilkha Renewable Energy Corp. is developing the project and will sell the electricity to the Western Farmers Electric Cooperative.

Some landowners will benefit more than others ranging from Roedell, who has two turbines on his property, to Stan Kimbell, who will have 39 turbines on his Slick Hills property. Project developers said they chose the site locations based mainly on sustained wind speeds and proximity to existing transmission lines.

Besides the landowners directly affected by the current projects, many of their neighbors are also benefiting from the development.

Don Gilliland, who also owns land on the Slick Hills, said that even though the current wind farm doesn't cross his land, Zilkha has agreed to pay him more than $3,500 a year to reserve the right to build turbines on his property in the future.

"The annual income far exceeds what you could get for leasing it for cattle or anything else," Gilliland said.