Oklahoma Revs Up Sustainable Energy - 405 Magazine

Oklahoma Revs Up Sustainable Energy

While the Sooner State remains a major player in the oil and natural gas industries, greener alternative energy options harnessing the power of sun and wind (both of which we have in abundance) are becoming more practical – and more widespread throughout the metro. Take a look at the road to a more sustainable future.

Read it and cheer, folks. That’s right, our fair black-gold, fossil fuel-blessed state is taking a leading role in the alternative energy renaissance sweeping across the country. While coal, oil and natural gas still top the charts on energy production in the Sooner State, those precious and finite resources are getting an assist in providing
power to the people.

Mind You, The Coal, Oil And Natural Gas Producers Didn’t Ask For Help From Alternative And Renewable Energy Outsiders – federal or state guidelines are making their participation mandatory. Most states have implemented Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which are hastening the rush toward renewables. An RPS requires utility companies to obtain a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources by a specific date.

While Oklahoma does not have an RPS, Governor Mary Fallin set a Renewable Energy Goal of acquiring 15 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015. Fallin’s goal for Oklahoma falls roughly in the middle of the pack when compared to other states – in fact, it is the exact same goal as the unabashedly environmentally conscientious state of Washington.
The principle of sustainability works in concert with mandated energy goals. Sustainability urges us to provide for our current needs without putting future generations at risk. Doctors encourage us to eat a well-balanced diet and get some exercise for health benefits. Financial advisors stress diversity in our investment portfolios to minimize risks to our long-term security.

Similarly, sustainability champions the use of alternative and renewable resources to satisfy our energy appetite – or diversify our energy portfolio, depending upon which metaphor you prefer. Sustainability that leads to energy independence can ultimately minimize risks to our national security.

Not too long ago that statement may have been rightly dismissed as so much hippie-dippy, pie-in-the-sky, utopian rhetoric. But for flower children and drill-baby-drillers alike, the times they are a-changin’.

Blowin’ in the Wind

Oklahoma’s eponymous state song makes no bones about it – the wind here comes sweepin’ down the plain. And it does so quite consistently. It’s high time our grand land took Garth Brooks’ advice and started ropin’ that wind – or at least using it to generate electricity. And we are doing just that – and doing just fine, thankyouverymuch.

Favorable federal incentives including production tax credits (2.1 cents per kilowatt hour generated) have encouraged recent development. Currently 29 wind farms operate in Oklahoma, predominately in the northwest quadrant of the state, including the panhandle. With an installed capacity of 3,134 megawatts, the state ranks fifth in the United States in terms of wind power generation.

About 15 percent of the energy produced here in 2012 came from wind power, according to the advocacy group Advancing Wind Oklahoma. While other estimates come in a percentage point or two lower, wind is clearly providing a statistically significant portion of the state’s electricity.

Metro utility provider OG+E produces 12 percent of its energy portfolio from wind power. The Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority (OMPA), a nonprofit joint-action agency serving 39 municipally owned utilities throughout the state, including Edmond Electric, relies on wind for about 10 percent of its electricity generation. All told, renewables account for about a quarter of OMPA’s energy portfolio, according to Drake Rice, OMPA Director of Member Services.

Both OG+E and Edmond Electric offer programs that allow consumers to specifically request wind energy for a small premium per kilowatt-hour. For the average household, electing 100 percent wind power would increase the monthly electric bill by a few dollars. For just pennies a day, you can give a poor, defenseless environment the help it needs. Seriously – where is the Sally Struthers commercial?

“Purchasing green power helps our community become more sustainable while sending a message to others across the U.S. that supporting clean sources of electricity is a sound business decision.”
– Phil Jones, City of Edmond Sustainability Planner

In Edmond, city facilities used wind for 73 percent of their power needs in 2013. Citywide, wind power usage hovers around 11 percent. Edmond’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2013 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the city as a Green Power Community – the first community in Oklahoma to earn the distinction and one of 48 such communities nationwide.

According to the EPA, Edmond’s green power usage of 96 million kilowatt hours is equal to avoiding the carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity use of more than 10,000 average American homes annually. Phil Jones, Sustainability Planner for the City of Edmond, welcomed the EPA honor.

With a Little Help From Our Friends

Within Oklahoma’s Renewable Energy Goal is the caveat that the implementation of energy efficiency practices may be used to meet 25 percent of the 15 percent renewable energy goal. If you think that’s a policy wonk-ish wrinkle, you’re missing the mark. Remember – sustainability is the goal.

In Edmond, the University of Central Oklahoma has wholeheartedly embraced sustainability. But like any philosophical and cultural change, it didn’t happen overnight. It did, however, happen in response to a crisis.

In the early 2000s, aging facilities and antiquated systems left the university staring at deferred and unfunded maintenance costs in the neighborhood of $4 million. UCO had a choice to make – simply repair or replace the outmoded systems, or find a better way of doing things.

The university chose the latter. Working with Johnson Controls, Inc., the university embarked on a campus-wide effort to reduce waste, improve efficiency and, well, operate in a more sustainable fashion. The resulting energy efficiencies and waste reduction strategies cut UCO’s utility bills so drastically that the savings were used to repay the bonds issued to fund the work. And the university’s new, state-of-the-art systems and energy-efficient equipment continue to keep utility costs down.

“If we find a project that has a 10 to 20 year payback, it’s probably worth doing. If it’s a 70 or 80 year payback,
it probably needs reinvestigating.”
– Tim Tillman, UCO Sustainability Coordinator

By their nature, sustainability practices can’t be a one-shot deal. “It takes commitment,” says Tim Tillman, UCO’s Sustainability Coordinator since 2011. Tillman’s 24-year military career kindled his interest in the sustainability field. “I got to travel all over the place and see how the rest of the world does things,” he explains. On campus Tillman instills a culture of sustainability through a simple approach: “Show students how this impacts our lives.”

The university recognized the impact of their initial plunge into sustainability and jumped headlong into the renewable energy fray. Since 2007, UCO has purchased enough wind power through Edmond Electric to provide 100 percent of the school’s electricity needs. Although the cost savings have been modest, “It’s a great marketing tool,” Tillman says. “It shows people that we are really doing this.”

Now everyone is on board at UCO, where creative solutions to efficiency issues abound. For example, the school makes enough biodiesel fuel from used vegetable oil or animal fat to run the university’s diesel-powered vehicles. “That idea came from our guys in the motor pool,” Tillman says. “They wanted to do this.” An innovative new irrigation system proposed by campus staffers reduced water usage by 60 percent.

Like its home city of Edmond, the university has been noticed for its dedication to sustainable practices. In 2011 UCO received the EPA’s Green Power Leadership Award, one of only 10 organizations nationwide to receive the distinction. Tillman and his Broncho brethren continue to look for better ways to improve, but they aren’t a “change for the sake of change” crowd. “If we find a project that has a 10 to 20 year payback, it’s probably worth doing,” Tillman says. “If it’s a 70 or 80 year payback, it probably needs reinvestigating.”

Here Comes the Sun

Similar successes on a smaller scale can be realized under your own roof. “We have to think efficiency first,” says Bob Willis of Sunrise Alternative Energy, a provider of geothermal, solar and wind energy solutions. “Look at your house as a system and see what you can do to save energy and money.”

Sunrise and a host of other companies do this through energy audits, which are extremely reasonable in terms of cost to the consumer – usually $150 or less for a typical home. The goal of an energy audit is to identify ways to provide utilities in the most cost-effective way. After an energy audit, you will be better equipped to decide if an alternative energy source is right for your home. If you decide to take the green energy plunge, options abound.

For the vast majority of homeowners, on-site wind power generation is simply not an option. I was excited about the prospect of slapping a power-producing pinwheel on my roof when I embarked on this assignment. Hey, why not – it’s windy up there! But, says Willis, the notion of the rooftop turbine is also “junk science.”

Even if it would work (it won’t), “The vibration would drive you crazy,” Willis explains on his company website (for an entertaining and informative side-read, visit sunrisealternativeenergy.com’s “FAQ” section). To have any chance of effectively capturing potential energy, a wind turbine has to be 20 feet higher than any structure within 200 feet. Basically, if you have an acre of land or more, this may be for you. If not? Look to the sun.

While sunshine is often in plentiful supply in Oklahoma, solar power does not currently bask in the utility-grade status enjoyed by wind energy. Although large-scale solar projects may be lacking in the state, don’t go burying your head in the sand. Energy from the sun is there for the taking and is a completely viable option for the residential consumer.

“A few years ago a typical residential solar array would have cost about three times as much … As utility rates increase, your return
on your solar investment will also increase.”
– Chris Gary of Sun City Solar Energy

While most people don’t have an acre for a wind turbine, everybody has a roof for solar panels. The average home uses roughly 1,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity each month. A 10-panel, 2-kilowatt-hour residential solar power system installed on your rooftop and wired into your breaker panel will generate about 300 kWh per month.

The math doesn’t get much simpler than that. So why don’t we have solar panels galore gracing our rooftops? “Oklahoma has great utility rates,” Willis explains. Even with a generous 30 percent federal tax credit, a residential solar power system as described here may take 8 to 12 years to pay for itself, which sometimes makes it a tough sell.

For many the upfront cost obscures the lasting benefits. But the long-term value is apparent. Solar is a nearly no-maintenance system designed to last 25 to 30 years. A 10-year payback period means you can reasonably expect 15 to 20 years of free power generation. And solar systems are more affordable than ever before.

“A few years ago a typical residential solar array would have cost about 3 times as much,” says Chris Gary of Sun City Solar Energy, a regional solar energy solutions company. The payback period is an inexact science dependent upon electricity usage, utility rates and the size of the system. Nonetheless, “As utility rates increase,” Gary points out, “your return on your solar investment will also increase.”

In fact, depending on your system and electricity usage patterns, your utility company may even pay you for the power generated by your solar array. “Most utility providers give you a credit for every kilowatt hour that you produce over the amount you consume,” explains Gary. Not all utilities offer these grid tie-in incentives, so look before you leap.

Todd Catania

If a solar array is too much too soon for you, there are other ways to be green without thinking greenbacks. Todd Catania, President of Next Gen Solar Lighting, provides solar lighting solutions for government and residential clients. Solar landscape lighting provides zero maintenance and zero energy cost lighting for about the same cost as a hard-wired project.

For municipal and highway projects, solar lighting can be installed at about one-third of the cost of overhead tower lighting. “And there are savings over the life of the product,” Catania says, due to minimal maintenance and free power. In Edmond, the parks and recreation department uses in-ground solar units to light walking and biking trails in Mitch Park.

Departments of transportation are turning to solar lighting for lane markers and other uses. While the lower installation and maintenance costs made solar lighting attractive in the first place, safety concerns are also driving that market. Unlike the road reflectors commonly seen today, in-ground solar lights are flush with the pavement. Catania says, “You can drive over them or snowplow over them” without loosening them from the pavement and creating a road hazard for motorists.

Down By the River

With wind and solar enjoying the spotlight in the renewable revival, the old reliable classic, hydroelectricity, sometimes gets lost in the background. Hydroelectricity came into widespread use in the late 1800s and continues to offer cheap and reliable power.

It is still the premier renewable energy resource today. Roughly half of the alternative/renewable electricity generated in the U.S. comes from hydroelectric power plants. Overall, about 7 percent of domestic electricity is supplied by hydroelectric power.

“We want students to understand what’s out there by cutting
through the myths. You can’t change the laws of physics.”
– James Saunders, MBA, P.E., Engineering Technologies Department Head and Assistant Professor, Electronics, OSU-OKC

In Oklahoma, hydroelectric power accounts for about 40 percent of the renewable energy production but less than 2 percent of total electricity output. OMPA, the municipal utility agency, typically gets about 14 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric generation.

While wind turbines are affixed in windier western Oklahoma, hydroelectric plants are mostly concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of the state. With more man-made lakes than any other state, however, the potential for hydroelectric power in Oklahoma is considerable. To what extent that potential is realized remains to be seen.

Working for a Living

When discussing energy of any kind, the term “job creation” inevitably finds its way into the conversation. The economics of implementation has long been the bane of wind and solar energy. For years the numbers just didn’t stack up favorably. As that tide is turning thanks to incentives, mandates and a rekindled public interest, the jobs question suddenly becomes pertinent.

And rightfully so – good intentions alone don’t make a project worthwhile. For relatively new technologies like wind and solar power, implementation can be a leap of faith, particularly for a residential consumer. But who do you call if the solar array isn’t working properly? Can anyone out there actually service a wind turbine?

Jerry Saunders (left) and Terry Clinefelter

The short answer is … yes. In the metro, help is here on the campus of Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City. OSU-OKC offers a two-year Associate’s Degree in Renewable and Sustainable Energy that prepares graduates for everything in the green energy industry. According to Advancing Wind Oklahoma, wind power alone supports 2,000 permanent jobs along with itinerant construction work.

OSU-OKC is working to fill those and other positions with instantly qualified graduates. “Our students get hands-on time with the equipment that is out there right now,” says Terry Clinefelter, Construction Technologies Department Head. “We have a commercial grade geothermal heat pump that they can work with here that’s the same as the stuff in the field,” he explains. “Same thing with solar.”

Hardware knowledge is part of the equation. Hard science is another crucial component. In relatively new technology fields, there can be some unrealistic products and proclamations on the market. “We want students to understand what’s out there by cutting through the myths,” explains James Saunders, MBA, P.E., Engineering Technologies Department Head and Assistant Professor, Electronics. “You can’t change the laws of physics.”

Come Together

In a national energy family long dominated by fossil fuels, green energy has matured enough to earn a place on stage. Instead of imposing their collective wills upon each other in a quest for the lead, energy-producing industries are now working in harmony to achieve a common goal.

Although the players have changed their tune a bit, alternative and renewable energy are hardly poised to go solo. Water, wind and solar power have tremendous positive attributes, but their limitations make them best suited to playing a supporting role in many cases. In drought-prone areas, hydroelectricity can obviously be problematic. In addition, the environmental impact from diverting water flow can adversely affect water quality and local wildlife habitats.

Wind energy is best captured at night, when wind speeds trend higher. That also happens to be when the electrical grid is least stressed. But that doesn’t mean there is no place for wind energy. With the ability to offset 2,600 tons of carbon dioxide emissions with each megawatt of production, it makes sense from an environmental standpoint for the grid to draw wind power after dark.

“Are fossil fuels going away? No. Can we throw in a clean gas
burning plant? That should be the goal.”
– Terry Clinefelter,
Construction Technologies Department Head, OSU-OKC

But wind turbines also present complex challenges. With minimal regulation from the state level, wind farms in Oklahoma have put the burden of oversight on smaller municipal governments. Concerns about noise, “shadow flicker” (think of a constant strobe light effect), setback from residential property, bird kills, ice throws and other safety considerations have pitted neighbor against neighbor in the wind turbine sweepstakes.

And sweepstakes it is… Private landowners can strike lucrative deals with wind farm operators to lease their land for wind turbine placement. With minimal zoning requirements in rural Oklahoma, wind farms can pop up just about anywhere. But that may be changing soon.

Introduced in February, Senate Bill 1559 proposes more local control for counties in the planning, permitting and regulation of wind farms. Senate Bill 1440 proposes a halt to all wind farm construction east of Interstate 35 until 2017. Meanwhile federal incentives for wind energy development, including the production tax credit, are tenuous at best. Wind energy proponents fear that tougher regulatory requirements in Oklahoma will drive the emerging industry out of the state.

Solar power is in limited use in terms of utility-level production in Oklahoma right now. As the cost of installation continues to come down, however, it becomes more attractive for residential consumers. Although solar panels cannot generate power at night, their contributions to the grid during peak, midday consumption hours can alleviate strains on the grid. This is especially true during the high-consumption summer months.

Solar faces other local challenges as well. In Oklahoma City, neighborhood covenants may prevent installation of rooftop solar panels. While solar shingles are another solar option, they are fairly new to the product market. Working with normal asphalt shingles, solar shingles are wired together under the roof and into a converter box. Installation is complex and involves drilling numerous holes in your roof in order to run wires for every shingle.

And while solar panels are designed to endure the elements, high winds and massive hail present unique challenges. The industry standard requires that solar panels absorb the impact of a two-inch, 1.18-pound steel ball dropped from a height of 51 inches with no damage. So think racquetball-sized hail.

As with any product, some solar panels and shingles will exceed testing requirements while others will meet them. A reputable manufacturer will note the successful results of industry standard testing on their product’s specifications sheet.

In Oklahoma, where hail strikes are frequent and destructive, a good first step would be to contact your homeowners insurance to see what they will cover. After all, no manufacturer has reported test results after firing grapefruit-sized ice balls at their solar panel.

Although not explored in-depth here, geothermal energy is another attractive option for homeowners. Geothermal or ground source heat pumps use the earth’s natural energy to heat and cool your home. This heat exchange process produces comfortable climate control and can cut monthly utility bills in half. Like solar panels, the initial investment is daunting for some. Over the lifespan of the system, however, it should pay for itself several times over in energy and utility savings.

In the Year 2525

Proponents of alternative and renewable energy are realistic in their expectations, reflecting a keen understanding of the overall energy landscape. “We won’t replace fossil fuels in the next 100 years,” says OSU-OKC’s Saunders. “Pound for pound, you get more energy” from those resources. “Are fossil fuels going away?” asks OSU-OKC’s Clinefelter rhetorically. “No. Can we throw in a clean gas burning plant? That should be the goal.”

Sunrise Alternative Energy’s Willis expounds further on the dynamics at play in Oklahoma. “Our rural heritage gets it on a values level,” he says of public and private adoption of solar and other alternative energy sources, “but we vote with our pocketbooks. Sometimes it’s difficult to promote a long-term view.” Willis envisions an energy self-sufficient Oklahoma, where our energy resources are most viable as a lucrative export.

From a pure economic standpoint, Willis is dead-on. We have a competitive advantage in producing oil and natural gas, where other areas of the world have geographical or technological limitations. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s abundant renewable resources such as wind, water and sunshine can bolster fossil fuel reserves. By “buying low” through the use of renewables and selling our extracted resources high, we may just be able to have our cake and eat it, too.

Alternative and renewable energy sources are helping Oklahoma – and the nation as a whole – achieve energy independence through sustainability. Even in oil and gas-rich Oklahoma, we know we cannot rely on precious fossil fuels forever. By augmenting those resources with alternative and renewable options, however, we can extend their lifespan while continuing to enjoy our lifestyle indefinitely – and sustainably. That’s a song worth singing together.