Pulling Power From The Plains
IRA FLATOW, host:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.
(Soundbite of song, "Oklahoma")
Mr. GORDON MACRAE (Actor): (As Curly McLain) (Singing) Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain, and the waving wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain.
FLATOW: I just have to spend a few days here, here in Oklahoma, to realize that Oscar Hammerstein sure knew what he was talking about when he wrote the lyrics to the song "Oklahoma," where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.
So what better place to talk about the wind, and more specifically, wind energy? A Department of Energy calls for 20 percent of America's electricity to come from wind power by the year 2030, and their projection for Oklahoma: 38,000 megawatts.
What does that mean? That means adding 30 times the amount of Oklahoma's current capacity over the next 20 years. Can it be done? What about the transmission lines needed to move all that power out of Oklahoma and over to the coasts, where most power is consumed over there in the big cities? Will these power lines be aboveground, below, maybe running through your backyard?
Those are some of the questions we'll be trying to answer this hour, talking about wind power, and we're also going to take a look at small-scale wind power, not these big giant windmills, those small ones, looking - maybe you're looking for a private wind turbine for your backyard or your back 40? One of our guests specializes in small-scale wind turbines, so...
We're broadcasting from the Reynolds Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Oklahoma here in Norman, and if you're in the audience, I invite you to step up to the microphone and ask a question.
Also, our number, 1-800-989-8255, and you can also tweet us @scifri, and you could watch a live broadcast. We're doing a live video stream. It's up and running on our Web site at sciencefriday.com, and you can take a look.
Let me introduce my guests.
Scott Greene is director of the Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative, and that is a joint project of the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. He's also professor of geography at the University of Oklahoma here in Norman. Thanks for being with us today.
Professor SCOTT GREENE (Director, Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative, Professor of Geography, University of Oklahoma): Thanks for having me.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Kylah McNabb is program manager and wind development specialist at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and at the Oklahoma Department of Career & Technology Education in Oklahoma City. Thanks for being with us today.
Ms. KYLAH McNABB (Program Manager, Wind Development Specialist, Oklahoma Department of Commerce Oklahoma, Department of Career & Technology Education): Thanks for having me.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Mike Bergey is the president of Bergey Windpower Company in Norman, Oklahoma, and he's with us today.
Mr. MIKE BERGEY (President, Bergey Windpower Company): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: And Lisa Linowes is executive director of the Industrial Wind Action Group. She joins us from New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord. Thank you for being with us today, Lisa.
Ms. LISA LINOWES (Executive Director, Industrial Wind Action Group): Thank you for having me.
FLATOW: Kylah, let's talk about how much potential does Oklahoma have for producing electricity from wind?
Ms. McNABB: Oklahoma has an unlimited potential to create electricity from the wind. As you can see outside, today is a perfect example of what we have naturally that occurs here in the state.
FLATOW: And so is there a plan to create many more wind turbines and place them around the state, or is there one part of the state that's better than all others?
Ms. McNABB: Well, you obviously need a very good, strong, consistent wind resource in order to put commercial wind projects into the ground. Right now, where you're seeing the development occur is in Western Oklahoma, where the geography lends itself to allowing the wind to flow more naturally and consistent over time.
FLATOW: There's a whole alleyway, right, that goes from way up north all the way down into Texas in that part of the country?
Ms. McNABB: Yes, from North Dakota down - sweeping down the plains, literally, through, into West Texas. It's known as the Saudi Arabia of winds.
FLATOW: Scott Greene, does Oklahoma have a state mandate to have a certain percentage of this?
Prof. GREENE: No, we don't. There's actually a bill before the state legislature to institute a renewable portfolio standard, and it's pending. It passed the House pretty strongly. So it looks like it might go through, but as of yet, there's no formal state mandate.
FLATOW: And as I - why is that? I mean, it was because it's so new, and people haven't thought about it for a while? Now they're looking at the wind, like Texas is looking at it and other states?
Prof. GREENE: I think there's some concern amongst the utility companies regarding having a mandate. You know, they don't want to be told from the government what to do. The state is very traditionally a smaller-government organization in terms of the philosophy.
So I think that the utilities in the past have felt that we'll do it our own way. OG&E is one of the biggest wind producers from a utility standpoint, but they don't want to be told what to do. I think that's one of the reasons it hasn't happened yet.
FLATOW: Kylah, building the turbine is only one part of the equation. You have to have transmission lines to get them to where we use the electricity. Is that a big problem here?
Ms. McNABB: Well, it is a problem, but it's one we're tackling head-on. OG&E is a prime example. They just energized their new 120-mile transmission line from Oklahoma City to Woodward. So you're seeing the commitment from the state and from the utilities to meet the infrastructure needs that need to be in place in order for wind power to grow in Oklahoma.
FLATOW: And that one did run through suburban areas, did it not?
Ms. McNABB: Portions of it did, to my knowledge.
FLATOW: And this is a very sensitive procedure and very sensitive issue that Lisa Linowes talks about. She represents the Industrial Wind Action Group, and according - right here on her Web site, it was formed to counteract the misleading information promulgated by wind energy industry and various environmental groups. What kind of misleading information for the folks out here in Oklahoma that they should know about, Lisa?
Ms. LINOWES: I appreciate the question. These days, I believe when we were formed, it was very much trying to balance the debate. There is a lot of information about how wonderful wind was but not enough information about what the realities were in terms of building wind.
I mean, you're talking about Oklahoma seeing anywhere in the range of 35,000 or better megawatts of wind. That's an enormous amount of land that's being consumed. Right now, you have about 1,100 megawatts today, and when you talk about expansive parts of the state covered with wind turbines and the transmission, people need to come to understand that we're not just talking about 121 miles of one transmission line. We're talking miles and miles of it across the country.
FLATOW: So it's that not-in-my-backyard problem you're talking about.
Ms. LINOWES: Well, it's not so much that. It's also the cost, and you were asking the question of why doesn't - why might there be resistance to an RPS, a renewable portfolio standard, in the state of Oklahoma. It's not because the utilities are unwilling to be mandated.
The fact is it's very expensive to build wind energy, and it's very expensive to build renewable energy, and it would not be built but for many of these state requirements because of the cost, because of the demands that it takes to build renewable or power plants way out in the middle of places where we would normally not build any kind of industrialization.
FLATOW: But the same would be true if you're going to build any centrally located electrical transmission place. You'd have to move it to where it's needed. Why would wind be different than that? I mean, back in the East, you know, they're talking - there's resistance to placing these in the ocean, and it looks like a very nice place to put all these things way out there in the ocean. It wouldn't even be, you know, interfering with anybody's lives, at least, a direct impact on their land, as you say here.
Ms. LINOWES: Well, the reality is in many parts of the country - Oklahoma doesn't happen to follow this - but in the eastern regions, the New York ISO, the New England ISO, these are the grid regions that manage the - that are managed in - east of the Mississippi, also PJM. These areas have - they have standards that call for power plants to be built closer to load.
There is a desire to see projects that are built where the energy needs are actually going to be cons-- where the energy is going to be consumed. So when you talk about renewables, any kind of renewables, in this case we're talking about wind, you have to build the power plant where the fuel source is, and that is counter to what is typical for siting projects.
You are not typically siting your power plants far distances from load. And so that's why we don't have transmission in these areas and why there's such a demand for so much transmission to be built.
FLATOW: Kylah, do you have any response to that?
Ms. McNABB: Well, when I think when you locate any sort of power plant, coal plant, nuclear plant, you need a means to carry the transmission, and you can drive through Western Oklahoma west of - just west of Oklahoma City around the Yukon area and see one of their large electric-generating plants using coal and natural gas, and there's large-scale transmission lines running from it as well, into the metropolitan area.
So yes, building electricity near load centers makes a lot of sense, but also you need to take advantage of what's available to you innately.
FLATOW: Mike Bergey, you've got a whole different take on this. You're building almost personalized, smaller wind turbines.
Mr. BERGEY: That's right, but we don't need transmission lines to go in people's backyards. So we've got a rather small wire going into the house. But, you know, we do need a strong grid. We need - in some cases where the electric grid is weak and doesn't provide the stability, can affect the performance of even the small machines. So it's all sort of related.
FLATOW: How small is it? Is it for one house? How much does it cost to put up one of your machines?
Mr. BERGEY: The products that we make are primarily for one home. A homeowner installs them to reduce their electric bill. A total electric home of about 2,500 square feet would take about a $55,000 wind turbine installation before any subsidies.
FLATOW: And how long would it take to amortize that over the cost of the house?
Mr. BERGEY: Well, that depends upon the wind resource and the costs of electricity and the subsidies available. There's now a federal 30 percent tax credit just enacted about a year ago, and many states offer some sort of rebate program.
The payback period here in Oklahoma, where we don't sell very many, is more like 15 years, but if we go out to Southern California, which is one of our active markets, it can be three years.
FLATOW: So if you spend $50,000 on one of your wind turbines, then you get 37 percent of that back from the federal government?
Mr. BERGEY: Thirty percent of the full $55,000 or whatever you spend.
FLATOW: That chops a big chunk of change off of that.
Mr. BERGEY: It really helps. Large wind has had a good subsidy for 15 years. Small wind just got it. So we're - the industry is just getting out of first gear.
FLATOW: Well, it's such a windy place out here. Why can't you sell them in your own state?
Mr. BERGEY: Well, those utility companies keep underpricing their electricity.
(Soundbite of laughter; scattered applause)
FLATOW: Is that right? They're working against you, you're saying?
Mr. BERGEY: Well, they're - we have a lot of coal-based power, and so electricity is reasonably priced, many would say, here, and it just is difficult to compete with.
FLATOW: All right, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We have a bunch of folks waiting. We're going to take a short break. We encourage you to get on the phones, also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. So we'll take a short break and talk lots more about wind energy here in Oklahoma and how it might impact you out there in other parts of the state. Don't go away. We'll be right back after this break.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're out in Norman, Oklahoma, talking about wind power. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Yes, ma'am.
Unidentified Woman #1 (Audience Member): Hi. I'm a student here at OU. I just read a story about a plant that they're trying to build in New Mexico, and they talked about three grids or grid areas. There's the east, the west and Texas.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman #1: And Texas has been causing some difficulty in getting this plan off the ground, and I was wonder if you guys could talk about that a little bit.
FLATOW: Any chance to badmouth Texas in Oklahoma.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Wildly taken.
Unidentified Woman #1: I'm from Montana.
(Soundbite of applause)
FLATOW: Scott, you want to talk about that?
Prof. GREENE: Sure. The - one of the key problems with transmission is that there's a patchwork quilt of utilities, of standards, of lines and so forth, and as was pointed out - Lisa pointed out, if we're going to achieve the goals that we need to achieve to adopt this green economy, we've got to improve the transmission grid.
The plant in Colorado that the question was about is - in New Mexico is, it's just a large-scale plant that's going to be able to run more electricity through it. The problem is that they then need to tie into these different grids, and so if Texas doesn't talk to Oklahoma, the integration between the different grids is not going to happen.
FLATOW: Do Oklahomans look at wind power differently than other parts of the country? I'm not speaking about Texas but other parts, east and west?
Prof. GREENE: We did a survey out west and asked people, when the new turbines were going in out in Weatherford, a little bit west of here, and we asked people: What do you think of this? You know, is it going to harm your view of the landscape and so forth?
The mayor of Weatherford described it as a home run, 90-plus percent approval of putting in the wind turbines. So Lisa's point about you're going to use 35 times more land, we get a lot of calls from landowners and ranchers, and I know that would be 35 times more people happy that they're getting more revenues and more jobs and so forth.
So the difference here, say, as opposed to the Cape Wind Project in Massachusetts or some projects in Scotland and other places is there's much more willingness to accept the wind turbines out west.
CONAN: Yeah, we've been talking about this issue for over 10 years on SCIENCE FRIDAY, and one of the first callers we had was a rancher in Oklahoma saying I want to stand in line for this because I can lease back the land to the power company and make a killing selling electricity as the cattle graze under my wind turbines.
Prof. GREENE: Right. You're losing, you know, tens or a few hundred dollars worth of grazing land, and what you're getting is five, six, $10,000 per turbine. So it's a pretty easy deal for the ranchers to make.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go up there to the balcony.
Unidentified Man #1 (Audience Member): Hi, I work at Science Museum Oklahoma, and our mission is to reveal the wonder and relevance of science, and it looks like there's a lot of really wonderful and relevant science moving into Oklahoma.
What I'm wondering is: Are there any vehicles, be they budget or curriculum, that's coming along with a lot of this really cool science, to help teach at the elementary and secondary level?
Prof. GREENE: We, as part of the Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative, do outreach programs. It's been on my list, actually, to talk to the Science Museum Oklahoma for a long time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. GREENE: We have a summer workshop for teachers, if there's any Oklahoma teachers listening. We do summer workshops for teachers. We go out to the classrooms. I know Kylah goes out to the classrooms and try to - you know, how do you integrate the idea of wind into the past standards?
We had a geometry teacher that was very, very excited and worked with us to develop geometry programs tied to the size of the blades and so forth.
So it's not so much that it's into the curriculum at the K-12 yet. Our group will go out and give talks, for example. There are workshops to integrate in the curriculum. We're you're seeing it from a curriculum standpoint is at the vo-tech level, the career-tech level and at the university level. There are more and more classes related to that at that level.
FLATOW: Here, we had a tweet. A tweet came in from the Internet, asking why transmission lines? Why not turn it into hydrogen, right at the source, and then you could cart it around wherever you need it? Scott.
Prof. GREENE: The simple answer is it's not cost-effective. Storage costs too much. So it's cheaper to put up transmission lines right now than it is to store it as hydrogen. So I think that...
FLATOW: Could you bury the transmission lines instead of being high...
Prof. GREENE: Yeah, it's just - it's much more expensive. I mean, Lisa talked about the cost of transmission lines. OG&E is very interesting because they went out and just built the transmission lines themselves. They said we're not going to have another coal plant for at least another 10 years. Why? It's because we're going to get a source not from foreign sources - foreign meaning in this case Wyoming coal, but we're going to get it internally and locally.
So you could do those things, and speaking now, as I put on my university cap for a minute, you know, the university researchers are doing types of things to look at how do you get storage cheaper and so forth, but it's just a cost-benefit analysis right now.
FLATOW: And Kylah, what's this about creating direct-current electric lines? Most of the lines we see out now, those big high-tension lines, are alternating current. There's very long-distance direct-current lines they talk about.
Ms. McNABB: Yes, they are talking about doing that. When you start looking at the potential that we have - we mention the DOE report, and we can be number two in the nation, providing 35,000 megawatts. When you start moving power across long distances, it makes sense to start looking at direct current and create basically these highways that - where wind power can go on and then come off-ramp, say in Tennessee or Chicago or the East Coast, just for the practical efficiency of how electricity moves.
FLATOW: Mike Bergey, are you going to try to start selling more of your backyard wind towers here in the state? Or what's the future for your company, and...
Mr. BERGEY: We are selling some. As you go into the western third of the state, the wind resource is strong enough that economics actually start looking pretty good. So we are selling some. The federal tax credit's been a big help, but our sales are concentrated on the West Coast, the East Coast and the Upper Midwest.
FLATOW: And your father was one of the organizers, one of the founders of the company.
Mr. BERGEY: He was, he was. He grew out of re...
FLATOW: He invented the Piper Cub airplane.
Mr. BERGEY: Piper Cherokee.
FLATOW: Piper Cherokee airplanes. So he knows a little thing about engineering.
Mr. BERGEY: He does, and he was actually challenged, after he joined the faculty here, challenged to look into the feasibility of wind power. He started doing that before the Arab oil embargo, before it was fashionable. It was a lunatic fringe at the time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERGEY: And so - but as energy became more of an issue, he did more and more work. More students became involved. There were student projects. I came up through that, and we formed the company when I graduated.
FLATOW: Oh, very interesting. Let's see if we can get a question here before we have to go. Yes.
Unidentified Man #2 (Audience Member): In addition to the transmission issues, which you've already discussed, I've some utility companies express concern about availability with wind. I'm just wondering, are these valid concerns? And if so, how do we address them?
FLATOW: Does the wind stop blowing?
Unidentified Man #2: Exactly.
FLATOW: Yeah. I didn't see that here yet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman #2: Not in Oklahoma.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: I've been here three days, and I haven't, you know...
Prof. GREENE: Sure. It stops blowing occasionally. There's no question that intermittency is a potential problem. So anybody that says we're going to get 100 percent of our electricity from wind doesn't understand the resource. I mean, it does stop blowing.
The interesting thing, speaking about Oklahoma, of course, is that wind works very well with natural gas because natural gas turbines you can turn on very, very quickly, and we have - as you heard in the first hour a little bit, we've got a group of folks that really are good at high-resolution weather forecasting.
So you need to link the green energy with the gray energy, and it does die down, but we're way - that's way, way out in the future. The DOE report is, you know, let's have 40 times as much electricity from Oklahoma, and then we'll start to worry about intermittency problems.
FLATOW: Lisa Linowes, with all the enthusiasm out here, what are these people missing? When are they going to have - what's the rude awakening that you think they're going to have?
Ms. LINOWES: Thank you very much. I'd like to respond to that, particularly with regard to the intermittency. Wind energy, as opposed to many other forms of intermittent resources, happens to be unpredictable, as well.
The best we can forecast wind in advance is about 15 percent of the times, we might get it right in terms of the speed of the wind and the time of day when it will blow.
The thing is, across the country - and I will say it's likely the case for Oklahoma, although I haven't examined the projects there - the wind typically blows out of sync with human activity. So maybe it feels like the wind blows all the time, but in fact, it doesn't, and it blows best when we least need the generation.
So even the DOE report, the 20 percent wind power by 2030, stated that wind energy cannot be what we call a capacity resource, that is a resource or a generation energy source that will supply energy when we need it. In fact, we'll likely get it at night in the middle of the winter. That's a problem.
FLATOW: Why couldn't you store it up at night as something else...?
Ms. LINOWES: There's no means of - I'm sorry. There's no means of storing electricity generation in large quantities, and if you would ask anyone that's...
FLATOW: Is that a technical problem or a problem in vision of how to do it?
Ms. LINOWES: It is both. We just don't have the technology right now, and there are a number of ideas that are out there, but they're still in the - at best in the prototype stage.
FLATOW: Yes, go ahead. Scott, you wanted to...
Prof. GREENE: I was just going to respond to a couple of points. First off, the wind resource is very predictable. It's not quite as predictable as shoveling coal into a furnace, but it is predictable. We know when it's going to blow, when it's not going to blow. Up to a certain point, you can make whatever joke you want about weather forecasters, but we do actually a pretty good job of forecasting the wind.
As I said, there's no economically viable ways to store the energy. So I think that that really, from a research standpoint, that's kind of the Holy Grail is how do we actually store the energy. Lisa's right that, you know, it's windy oftentimes at night when we don't need the loads. But, again, the point is, we don't necessarily need - well, we got to keep the neon lights going on in Las Vegas or across New York or whatever. So when the transmission grid comes in, the unpredictability and the intermittency really, again, isn't that much of a problem until you hit 30 percent or so, is kind of the standard number connected to energy from wind.
Ms. McNABB: And I would also offer...
Ms. LINOWES: May I...
FLATOW: Let me get to Kylah and I'll go back to you.
Ms. McNABB: Yeah. I just would also offer, you know, we're starting to change our look at how electricity is used in the society as well. You're starting to see plug-in hybrid electric vehicles come in. The Chevy Volt is coming out. You're starting to see the smart cars being driven around. I know OU uses electric vehicles on their campus.
You start changing electrical habits at home. You have the introduction of smart appliances to where you can set your dishwasher to run six hours after you go to bed. You start changing that load as well. So whereas, traditionally, we have always thought that, yes, of course, we have our peak loads from, you know, 2 PM to about 7 PM, but you're also going to start to see that shift as well as we as a country grow and change in how we use electricity. So you are going to see some load shifts start to shift to overnight hours when wind can be best utilized.
FLATOW: Okay, Lisa, did you want to jump in?
Ms. LINOWES: I really - yes, I would like to, because there's two points that were just made that need to be addressed. One is that there's the idea of changing our behavior. To meet - and in fact, that's being promoted quite a bit. To meet the idiosyncrasies of wind energy - we've made a decision somewhere in this country, the decision has been made that wind is the most viable alternative for renewables, and therefore, we should move full floor -full step ahead with that. But then, in order to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of it, we change our work habits and our living habits.
The same thing goes for transmission. Up until a few years ago, as I mentioned, the intent was to build generation close to load and able to meet peak demand. And now, we're talking about a national grid system that we can link ERCOT or Texas into all of the other grid regions because, again, we need to be able to service the wind generation.
It needs to be - our thinking needs to be turned around when we're talking what are our alternatives in terms of meeting our energy needs in a low carbon world, not the other way around.
FLATOW: All right. We're talking about wind power this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
I'm Ira Flatow out here in Norman, Oklahoma.
Let's - we'll go down here and then up to there. Yes, sir.
Unidentified Man #1: Yes. My question is, is it possible to convert our current electric grid to be able to use wind power? And if not, what are some of the major resistance points to building a new infrastructure system?
FLATOW: Li-- Kylah.
Ms. McNABB: Well, I guess, conversion to actually take the wind power doesn't need to happen. Wind power is naturally taken on our system as it is. It's not a different kind of power. It's just innately there. It's just a matter of accommodating and balancing it with the generation load that we have.
In what we're just looking at doing and building the new transmission lines, of course, you want to ensure proper siting occurs. You want to ensure that the landowners are as happy as that they can be and that they're placed in the proper location. But, you know, they also need to take place because we have an innate growing electrical need in the nation as a whole. So you're going to see continued growth occur whether or not further wind projects are being built or it's going to be coal or, you know, nuclear.
FLATOW: Well, and wind power could be distributed all over the country. It doesn't have to all be generated in the wind alley here from, you know, this part. We could distribute local wind power in New England or in California. You could build wind turbines in the Great Lakes. You could put them all over the place.
Ms. McNABB: Well, very much so. And distributed generation also you start looking at different markets. You start looking at where an individual town can actually own and operate their own wind turbine. And so your - or school could own and operate their own wind turbine. So once again there, you're not -you're right into a situation, like with Mike here, with his turbines, where they can just generate their electricity needs...
Ms. McNABB: ...and not need a transmission.
FLATOW: If you're going to drill offshore, why can't you put wind offshore as -is the way somebody asked me the other day.
Let's go up here. I promised this gentleman up there. Yes.
Unidentified Man #3: Oh, thank you, Ira. My question is about how big of a concern is the environmental impact of building and having wind turbines, for example, disturbance of the prairie chickens.
FLATOW: The prairie chicken question. Yes, they've been - they're an endangered species.
Mr. BERGEY: And they also taste good, apparently, from what I hear from ranchers out in western Oklahoma.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Oh. Oh.
Unidentified Man #3: The...
FLATOW: We're not saying that's why they're an endangered species though.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERGEY: There certainly are environmental concerns. There's no question about bats are really the biggest one. Certainly, you mentioned the prairie chickens. I'll go back to a point that Kylah made just a minute ago. It's proper siting.
I think that, you know, one of the things that we've done and that the state has done is to tell developers, here's where the prairie chickens are. Don't build your wind turbines in those locations. And most of the wind developers think of themselves as environmentally friendly companies, so they're pretty sensitive to those type of concerns.
Given the amount of resource, given the vast, wide open spaces out west to, again, to say don't go to Hill A because there's prairie chickens or it's a bat cave and go to Hill B - from my standpoint, it's really an information out to the developers and there's a wind-wildlife coalition and so forth. And the industry, I think, is aware of this and it's trying to minimize. There's been some horror stories in the past, but they're really working to minimize those concerns. Not that they're - they're definitely non-zero, but I think the industry is working to minimize them.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Any followup on that? Mike, you have any followup about putting wind turbines out there in the Panhandle?
Mr. BERGEY: No. I think the developers have been pretty sensitive to that. The prairie chickens' problem started long before wind turbines were being developed out there, and they've sort of been pushed back to the fringe areas that are too windy to farm and to build a home, so they are good places for wind turbines. But there is a coalition that looks at that. They've mapped where the birds are, where their breeding grounds are, and they're avoiding those areas.
FLATOW: You don't have any Texas billionaires coming here saying we should build wind turbines all over the place.
Mr. BERGEY: Actually, I'll give you the opposite. One of the local wind developers - and we've talked to them a lot in the past - has a map of Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, and then they just X-ed out. We're not even going to look in these areas because we know that there are prairie chickens in those areas.
FLATOW: Right. All right. We're going to come back and talk lots more about wind here in Oklahoma, maybe in your neighborhood. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Also, we're Podcasting and blogging at sciencefriday.com. You could see a live stream of our show today. So stay with us. We'll be right back.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're here in Norman, Oklahoma, talking about wind power. Let's go to the phones to Robert(ph) in Manhattan, Kansas. Hi.
ROBERT (Caller): Yes. The prairie chicken story is a cruel joke. The turkeys don't fly high enough to get in the wind turbine and neither do the prairie chickens. They disappeared from Chautauqua County 30 years ago. It had nothing to do with the wind turbine. I'm out here in Kansas. The wind blows, you can't keep the lawn furniture on the patio and it'll snatch the door right out of your hand. But I'm more interested in independent power supply. I don't want to be tied to your grid. I don't want the grid people to have my power. These grid people are the ones that killed Tesla and did away with all his free energy projects after he died.
FLATOW: All right. Hang on. I got a guy for you, sitting right here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Mike Bergey, who is Bergey Windpower, has got a turbine for you. Mike, sell him something. Let's hear the pitch.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERGEY: No, this is a what we call snip-the-cord view. We all get peeved at our utility companies, some more often than others, but all of us have been at one point or another. But it's very expensive, actually, to duplicate the kind of reliability that they provide with your own set of batteries, your own backup generator.
You can do it, and lots of people in Colorado and more remote areas put in their own solar and wind systems, battery banks. They have to have very efficient homes. They can't have central heat and air for any reasonable cost of putting the power system in. It can work, but if you try to take a typical 2,000, 2,500-square-foot home and cut the power cord to the utility, you're looking at 80 to $100,000 worth of equipment, half of your garage full of batteries, a diesel generator that's going to require maintenance. And that's to give you that 24-hour-a-day, seven days a week power.
FLATOW: So even your wind turbine is not totally off the grid kind of thing. You can't stay totally off the grid.
Mr. BERGEY: Well, we do a lot of village electrification, telecommunication, cell phone power systems, military off-grid applications...
Mr. BERGEY: ...as well as homes.
Mr. BERGEY: But you do need battery banks and you need back-up generators.
FLATOW: Robert, are you willing to spend that kind of money?
ROBERT: The - no, I got $2,000 worth of batteries sitting right here by my feet. But the solar is going to take care of eight hours a day when the - if the wind doesn't blow during the day. And you don't realize the things in your home - that big screen TV, if you look on the power supply to it, that's 12 volt. You'd be amazed at the LED lighting and what is available for your home. The only reason we're using 110 volt is because that's what the grid is purporting. That's how we have been nurtured and cultured is to live with that 110 volt.
FLATOW: Well, if you have a boat, you know that 12 volts is everywhere on your boat stuff, right? So I think Mike is going to hire you, Robert, to sell his stuff and...
ROBERT: Listen, tell Mike have his dad look at the fins on a whale, the grooves in the front of the fins. I'm developing a blade now that has those blades, those grooves in the front of the blade, it makes all the difference in the world.
FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255. Interesting guy, looking to get off the grid.
Mr. BERGEY: Well, there's amazing amount of entrepreneurial and invention in the wind power field. We get letters from inventors a couple times a week.
FLATOW: Another guy - here's another guy from Kansas. Bill(ph) from Overland Park. Hi, Bill.
BILL (Caller): Hi. There's been a lot of discussion about shipping all this power to the flyovers on the East Coast and the West Coast. I'd like to know to what extent this is going to be developed to light and heat us here in the Midwest with our own power and natural resources.
FLATOW: Why ship it out of the state?
BILL: I'll take my answer off the air.
FLATOW: Okay. Thanks for calling. Kylah or Scott? Any comment?
Ms. McNABB: I think what you're going to see is that we're going to meet our own needs first and foremost. It's generated here. We obviously need electricity just like anyone in Chicago or New York does. And so you're going to find ourselves meeting our needs and hit the region first because, like I said, when you look at the actual physics behind electricity transmission and what it takes to move from here to Chicago or here to New York, it's much more efficient just to serve our own region first and foremost.
FLATOW: Alice(ph) out in Redding, California. Hi, Alice. Are you there?
ALICE (Caller): Yes, hello.
FLATOW: Go ahead.
ALICE: Yes, I'm here.
FLATOW: Go ahead.
ALICE: ...question for you about the impact of the wind turbine fields on migratory bird populations, specifically birds of prey.
FLATOW: Okay. Let me - Scott was shaking his head.
Prof. GREENE: Well - so the question was regarding impacts on birds of prey. It's - again, it's a non-zero impact, but it's a fairly minimal impact. Again, if you go back far enough, you look at places like Altamont Pass, which really was a Cuisinart, if you will, for the flying-by birds. But the new turbines...
FLATOW: That's an interesting way of looking at it.
Prof. GREENE: Well, I mean, that's what it was, frankly. And...
(Audience noise; scattered booing)
FLATOW: It killed a lot of birds is what you...
Prof. GREENE: And I mean, it was brutal to the birds and it was very detrimental. The issue now is that the larger-scale turbines, I mean, they're much bigger, they're much more widely spaced, the distance between the blades is much greater that...
FLATOW: So they turn more slowly...
Prof. GREENE: ...the impact has gone down dramatically. So again, it's nonzero, but...
Ms. LINOWES: Ira, may...
FLATOW: Yeah, Lisa.
Ms. LINOWES: Ira, that needs to be addressed because that's simply not factual. The larger turbines that they repowered Altamont with, in fact, they found an increase in number of birds of prey or raptors that were killed by the turbines.
Those turbines are not spinning slower than the smaller turbines. And if you do the calculations on blades of 150 feet in length, you're actually getting blades at the tips spinning upwards of 190, 200 feet per minute...
Ms. LINOWES: ...miles per hour, rather. They're very, very fast. And the birds are not clearing them that well. The fact is, too, Altamont is not just the poster child of what we solve the problem with, as the wind industry likes to say the problem doesn't exist elsewhere. In fact, birds and, as was mentioned, bats are seriously being harmed by these towers, particularly where nylon forced(ph) at ridgelines in the East. We know of a project in Wisconsin, they just find very high bat kills. And the problem is the wind industry is not willing to step up and acknowledge there truly is a problem. And the studies we have are insufficient in demonstrating the - what the scale of the problem right now.
Prof. GREENE: If I could...
FLATOW: Go ahead, Scott.
Prof. GREENE: ...could comment on that. First off, I don't represent the wind industry. I'm a professor. And I agree that we need to study the impacts more. Something that we're doing in Oklahoma, studying the impacts; it's a pretty minor impact in terms of the birds and bats in Oklahoma. And so it really comes back to a siting issue.
I mean, Altamont Pass is an interesting case. They basically should've never built there. And as we mentioned a few minutes ago, there's really been an increased awareness about where to site these. So bird-kill is a really significant problem in the Appalachian region in West Virginia. Let's not build there. Let's improve the transmission line and then focus on Western Kansas or Eastern Colorado,or places where we know that the bat and bird impact is minor.
Ms. LINOWES: That may be so, but that's certainly not stopping developers from going to West Virginia - to claim that they're sensitive to the issue is not exactly true. They're focused on concerns about global warming, and they're putting that forward as a more serious problem than the bird and bat kills.
But may I ask you a question? Do you know of any wind projects in the state of Texas that have had any kind of pre-imposed construction studies done to understand what the impacts have been on birds and - migratory birds and bats?
Prof. GREENE: Let's just not comment on whether or not Texas is doing things rightly or not.
Ms. LINOWES: Well, you could - they're the largest in terms of sited projects, or there were other states they could pick on like Minnesota.
Prof. GREENE: I think...
Ms. LINOWES: Illinois.
Prof. GREENE: Again, there's two points. One - and I'm speaking again from Oklahoma. We have developers come to us and say, you know, help us with our siting. And we say - and we've worked with the Nature Conservancy, for example, don't build where the bat cave - the bat caves, with an S. Don't go where the bat caves are, don't build where they're perching. So they're very receptive to that.
If you do an environmental impact comparison of the amount of whooping cranes killed in Kansas versus the impacts of strip-mining coal or the damage associated with burning that coal or importing, you know, oil or compressed natural gas from less - more suspect countries, I think that you'll see where the benefits lie.
FLATOW: All right, let me go to the last question.
Ms. LINOWES: But the only time that...
(Soundbite of applause)
FLATOW: All right, let me move on to this question from the audience here. Yes?
Unidentified Man #4: Yes. I've done some research into doing some small wind farming generation and came across a problem when I found out that the utility company wants to charge you more than they want to compensate you if you wanted to put your power generated back on their grid. I know that it differs from state to state in the legislation about what they are asked to pay you, whether it be a wholesale or retail price. And I didn't know what the initiative that are coming in Oklahoma, that's going to be addressed in the legislature or where that needs to take place.
Prof. GREENE: If I could answer the first part of it and then maybe I'll ask Kylah to answer or Mike...
FLATOW: Don't get Mike (unintelligible).
Ms. LINOWES: Mike.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. GREENE: ...Mike to answer the second part. There's been a really strong push, one of the biggest pushes recently for community wind, schools, tribal complexes, towns wanting, you know, to spend half a million dollars, $1 million, $3 million to develop their own wind. And that's really rapidly growing. The issue about the utility payback, I'll turn that over to one of my colleagues.
Mr. BERGEY: Yeah.
FLATOW: Mike Bergey?
Mr. BERGEY: Well, at the small scale, the homeowner scale, we have net metering so that the meter turns backwards when you have excess power for most of the utilities, and that's in over 40 states and it's fairly a straightforward issue. There's a gap, however, once you get beyond sizing something for your own needs and you want to become a merchant, you want to sell. The utilities have a monopoly and they're your only customer.
And so the regulatory policies will determine whether you can establish a successful business in that regard. There are only two states that I'm aware of - Minnesota and Iowa - that have state legislation that guarantee you a market for an intermediate size machine. And that's - we don't have that here in Oklahoma, and so we don't have the kind of farmer-owned wind projects that Iowa and Minnesota have. I think it's a problem, and I'm hoping that the legislature will address it one of these days.
FLATOW: All right. We're going to change gears a little bit. I want you all to hang around here, because joining us now is Flora Lichtman, our - for our Video Pick of the Week. Flora is our video editor and she's now - now to talk about a project she went out to visit. And, hi, Flora.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Yes. This week, we did a sort of a field guide to wind turbines. And it came about because when we were out in California a couple of weeks ago for the show, we were driving along the road and we saw these turbines and, you know, everyone in the car had a really different sense of how big, of the scale of these things. And we looked it up online and it was 256 feet tall. Now, I'm sort of like spatial-relations-ly challenged, so that didn't mean a terrific amount to me. So we went to Pennsylvania, to Bear Creek Wind Park, and saw some of these giant...
FLATOW: Big ones. Yeah.
LICHTMAN: ...giant, mammoth turbines.
FLATOW: Right. And then you went out and visited smaller ones.
LICHTMAN: Yeah. We saw Mike Bergey's turbines right here in Norman, Oklahoma as well. And I mean, the contrast between the two is really incredible. The big ones really like, you know, the blades themselves are about twice the length of a tennis court.
FLATOW: Wow. Wow. That's pretty cool.
LICHTMAN: Which is just hard to imagine, I think.
FLATOW: Yeah. Exactly. We're talking about wind this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Flora Lichtman on our Video Pick of the Week. If you go to sciencefriday.com, you can see the video that Flora made and showing the comparison between these two wind turbines. And...
(Soundbite of laughter)
LICHTMAN: And the little ones are just adorable.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: When you get an adorable - when you get a comment from Flora that it's adorable, it's really adorable. I mean, let me tell you...
LICHTMAN: I know. You're competing with like, caterpillars and...
FLATOW: That's right. The other videos that Flora has made were adorable caterpillars and...
LICHTMAN: Dancing babies and...
FLATOW: Dancing babies, like that. So a wind turbine is adorable if she says that it's adorable.
Mr. BERGEY: That's very kind.
FLATOW: That's right.
LICHTMAN: And Mike Bergey actually makes - that was one of the neatest parts of that about our field trip, is that we saw actually how you put them together right there.
Mr. BERGEY: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
LICHTMAN: And do most wind manufacturers, wind turbine manufacturers actually do the construction?
Mr. BERGEY: I think - in our industry, not too many. We do more of the actual construction fabrication than most of our competitors. But I'm really glad you brought that up because that's something that we missed talking about was how many jobs are being created by this new industry and how important that is to the economy here in Oklahoma. In Western Oklahoma, people were moving away because there just were not the jobs. The oil and gas industry is great when it's booming. But it busts on regular occasions. And it's dry land farming -it's rather rough.
But the wind turbines have been an economic boom. And Lisa was talking about, you know, the - thousands of farmers having their land taken away from them. They're lining up to have their land used. I mean, they - it used to be that you knew somebody had an oil - a new oil contract royalty because they had a -the shiniest pickup in the church parking lot on Sunday. But now, you can tell that that's the fellow who signed the wind turbine contract.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Got the shiniest pickup. Yeah. And the construction that Flora was talking about in her video, you see you jumping - is that you jumping up and down on that turbine blade?
Mr. BERGEY: Yes. Yes, it was.
FLATOW: You said you could put 12 people on that turbine blade, jumping up...
Mr. BERGEY: We have - you know, one of the advantages of building, developing products out here - and we grew out of the University of Oklahoma Research, we're thankful for that - but we're in Tornado Alley. And so, Mother Nature tore the bejesus out of our early attempts.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERGEY: And so, out of the wreckage grew very robust wind turbines, which allowed us to be very successful around the world. If they survive in Norman, Oklahoma, they survive everywhere.
FLATOW: If you'd like to see Mike jumping up and down on his blade, go to our Web site at sciencefriday.com and watch Flora as she watches him create these turbines out there. What part of the country was - describe the countryside when you're out there. Was it...
LICHTMAN: In Norman or in Pennsylvania?
FLATOW: In - well, no, in Norman. When you're out there - for people - we're here in Norman, it's windy.
LICHTMAN: It's windy. And one - that was one of the neat features of these little turbines is that they actually orient. They're designed in such a way so that, you know, if the wind changes its direction, they reorient by themselves. So that seemed like a neat, you know...
Mr. BERGEY: Well, yeah - they go up in people's backyards and they're 100 feet up in the air. Nobody's going to do maintenance on them, or want to.
FLATOW: So they have to be strong.
Mr. BERGEY: And so they have to be - sort of take care of themselves.
FLATOW: How big a backyard do you need?
Mr. BERGEY: We recommend an acre or more, because...
FLATOW: An acre or more?
Mr. BERGEY: ...you've got to (unintelligible).
FLATOW: That's a lot. That's not very much out there.
Mr. BERGEY: It's not very much. No. But if I could, very quickly, I just like to sort of circle around on I think Lisa's main point, that people don't like transmission lines, don't like the views of them. That's our biggest problem, the permitting, the not-in-my-backyard, the five or 10 percent of the people who just don't like the looks of small wind turbines, that's our problem.
FLATOW: In their backyards.
Mr. BERGEY: Yeah.
FLATOW: But there's no - they have no problem with the line running into their house from the...
Mr. BERGEY: No. No.
FLATOW: It's not going over anybody's else property and...
Mr. BERGEY: No. The power poles that are ubiquitous. But the wind turbines, a new wind turbine, that's looked on with more horror than it deserves.
FLATOW: Okay. We're going to end it right there. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us. Mike Bergey is president of Bergey Wind Power in Norman. Kylah McNabb is program manager and wind development specialist at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education in Oklahoma City. Thank you. Also with us is Scott Greene. He's director of the Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative. That's a joint project between the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. Thank you for being with us. Also, Lisa Linowes is executive director of the Industrial Wind Action Group. Thank you, Lisa, for being with us today.
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