Power to the People

The answer could be blowing in the wind.

Prowers County sits just shy of the Kansas border. Most of the 14,219 people who live here struggle to survive by growing winter wheat and grazing cattle. They know other Coloradans may not consider their home on the southeastern plains to be one of the state's more scenic regions, but they savor the long vistas, quiet country pleasures and even the wind. The incessant, relentless wind.

"A lot of people have always said that the only thing we're sure of here is the wind," says Prowers County Commissioner John Stulp.

Just south of Lamar, the county seat, 12,000 acres of cattle-ranching country will soon sprout 108 wind turbines. At full power, those turbines will generate 162 megawatts of electricity for Xcel Energy -- enough to serve the energy needs of about 160,000 people, or 6 percent of the metro area's population.

Brett Amole
Windy city: Stephanie Bonin is pushing the legislature 
to pass renewable-energy mandates.
Brett Amole
Windy city: Stephanie Bonin is pushing the legislature to pass renewable-energy mandates.

Wind energy is a renewable technology that has gone from far out to the Fortune 500, powered in this state by an unusual coalition of conservative Republicans, environmentalists and ranchers. Colorado Green, which will be the fifth-largest wind farm in the United States, could blow new life into eastern Colorado. Already, several national energy companies have been snooping around Prowers County, looking for additional sites for wind farms. And there's even talk of expanding Colorado Green -- before it's gone on line.

"We're told this area is in the top 20 percent of locations for producing wind energy in the U.S.," says Stulp, whose own ranch hosts new transmission lines for the turbines.

Beyond providing energy for Xcel's power grid, Stulp expects Colorado Green to boost county tax revenues by about 20 percent. Although 200 construction workers will leave when the facility is finished, twenty full-time jobs will have been created. Farmers leasing sections of their property for the turbines will gain an additional source of revenue. And even Lamar's municipal power authority will take advantage of the power play, ordering four wind turbines constructed on a hill east of town that will generate six megawatts of electricity at full blast -- enough energy for nearly half the county. (A megawatt is the amount of power required at any given moment by a community of 1,000 people.)

The people of Prowers County are at the forefront of a remarkable transformation that promises to change life for everyone in Colorado. For the first time, a renewable energy source that doesn't pollute and doesn't require drilling or strip mining has become cost-competitive with some fossil fuels.

The timing couldn't be better: One in five Xcel customers has fallen behind on his bills this fall, after natural-gas prices skyrocketed by 73 percent. (Under Colorado law, the utility is allowed to pass those costs on to its customers.) Every summer seems to bring a new record high temperature, adding to the fear that carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels is starting to alter the climate. And as America gets bogged down in Iraq and energy costs continue to rise, more Americans are pressing for alternatives. So after decades of being scorned as impractical and expensive, renewables -- particularly wind energy -- are gaining respect.

Wind is now the fastest-growing form of energy generation in the world. America's wind-energy capacity has grown to 4,700 megawatts in the past three decades, enough electricity to power almost 2 million homes.

"It's domestically produced, and we don't have to send an army anywhere to defend it," says Stulp, a plainspoken man who has farmed and ranched in Prowers County for decades.

Anyone who sees the huge blades of a wind turbine rotate in the breeze is watching electricity being made. The blades spin a shaft connected to a generator that makes electricity, in much the same way that torrents of water coursing through a dam create hydropower or coal-fired boilers generate steam that rotates a turbine and charges an electric field. Each wind turbine is connected to transmission lines that funnel the electricity to an electric company's main power grid and then on to consumers.

"The source of the energy is free," says Stulp. "No one has a market on the wind."

But wind energy faces other obstacles in getting to consumers.

In 2001, Xcel proposed building a new, natural-gas-fired plant to meet Colorado's growing need for electricity. Under the laws that govern utilities in Colorado, Xcel had to prove to the state Public Utilities Commission that its proposed facility was the best option for ratepayers. In its filings with the PUC, Xcel claimed that natural gas is the most cost-effective energy option.

But a coalition of environmental groups, including the Colorado Renewable Energy Society and the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies (now known as Western Resource Advocates), immediately challenged Xcel's plan, arguing that wind power is the most efficient and economical source of electricity.

"There was a wind developer with a good project and a good price," says Rick Gilliam of Western Resource Advocates. "We went to the PUC and asked them why wind shouldn't be a part of the mix."

During a week-long hearing before the PUC, Xcel and its opponents debated the merits of wind power versus natural gas. Xcel pointed to its 2000 study that projected that gas prices would rise at the rate of inflation for the next eighteen years (an estimate that proved to be spectacularly wrong, as Xcel customers now know), and said that natural gas would therefore be the cheapest way to provide the additional capacity needed.

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