LAMAR — Mixed in with the sound of meadowlarks, tractors and the hum of the wind on Colorado’s southeastern plains is a low, steady beat: “whoop, whoop, whoop.”
It comes from a line of towering, pinwheel-like turbines that are producing electricity used across Colorado. The sound coming from a ridge south of this farming town has become a beckoning call for people struggling through a fifth year of crop-killing drought.
“I get calls pretty much on a weekly basis, ‘How can I get a wind farm on my land?’” said Greg Emick, standing on a ridge top, the turbines trailing off in a curved line amid the yellow and dun-colored, rolling hills.
All but 10 of the 108 turbines are on Emick family land. Emick won’t detail the agreement with the Colorado Green wind power project, but said the family gets royalties and a fee for each turbine, 375 feet tall. The power goes to Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility.
Besides lighting homes, the wind project on the windswept plains 200 miles southeast of Denver is bringing hope to an area battered by recession and a crippling drought that has forced farmers to abandon fields of stunted wheat.
“The Colorado Green project has really helped the morale of the area,” said Chris Rundell, a Lamar-area farmer. “It used to be people would say, ‘What is here?’”
Prowers County Commissioner John Stulp, a farmer and veterinarian, sees a potential chain reaction across the rolling patchwork of wheat fields and range.
Lamar, population 8,800, has already teamed up with the Arkansas River Power Authority, a consortium of municipal utilities, to construct four wind turbines; an estimated 14 percent of the town electricity will come from the project. A turbine whirring away in neighboring Springfield is expected to produce 40 percent of the town’s energy.
The towns and utilities were able to take advantage of Colorado Green’s volume discount when it came to buying the turbines, which cost about $1.3 million each for parts, delivery and warranty.
Rundell and others are even considering wind power cooperatives like those in Minnesota, despite hurdles that include a lack of state tax credits and getting wind power to market through the nation’s complex grid.
“Had Colorado Green not come to the area, all of this would have been highly unlikely,” Stulp said.
The nation gets just three-tenths of 1 percent of its electricity from wind and the American Wind Energy Association trade group predicts no more than 6 percent by 2020. Still, the industry in the late 1990s began scouting Colorado, ranked 11th by the association among states with the most wind power potential.
The major impetus behind Colorado’s largest wind farm was state regulators’ order in 2001 that Xcel Energy use more renewable energy.
Enron Wind, a subsidiary of Enron Corp., checked the Emicks’ land and found a choice spot: The wind averages 18 mph with little turbulence. The family didn’t have to be sold on the usefulness of wind: They had used windmills to run the wells watering their cattle long before.
GE Wind took over the project, building the wind farm and selling it for $212 million to a partnership between PPM Energy of Portland, Ore., and Shell WindEnergy Inc., based in Amsterdam.
The turbines, spread over nearly 12,000 acres, began generating electricity early this year. The project has a capacity of 162 megawatts, enough for 52,000 homes a year.
During construction, hundreds of workers streamed over the rolling fields to finish the work last summer before federal tax credits for renewable energy expired. They built 43 miles of transmission lines, 25 miles of roads and buried 50 miles of cable.
The economic effects rippled from restaurants to gas stations to motels to concrete companies. Stulp said the wind farm will increase the county tax base by about $2 million a year, with much of that going to schools. Colorado Green has 16 permanent employees.
No decision has been made whether to build a second phase of the wind project that would be about the same size. Area power lines could handle at least twice the electricity that would be generated.
The development near Lamar is something Colorado House Speaker Lola Spradley, R-Beulah, wants to see throughout rural Colorado.
The Legislature has repeatedly rejected bills from Spradley that would require utilities to get more of their power from renewable energy sources. She is now backing a similar initiative led by environmental groups that must collect nearly 68,000 signatures from registered voters by Aug. 2 to make the November ballot.
The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union supports developing renewable energy because farmers and ranchers can make money from leasing their land for wind turbines.
The group also sees renewable energy as a way for farmers to combat rising fuel prices.
There is more to it for some farmers, including Rundell. He said he is concerned about the effects of continuing to burn fossil fuel.
“I’ve got two kids who are grown now. I’ve always been concerned about that,” Rundell said.
Coal is the main source of electricity in Colorado, but advocates say wind power can compete economically without the pollution and water use associated with coal mining.
“And you still need to supply the plant with fuel for the next 50 years,” said Dave Bowden, president of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. “With wind, you build a $100 million plant and you have a fixed cost.”
Craig Cox, executive director of the Colorado Coalition for New Energy Technologies, said interest is growing among landowners in starting their own commercial projects. Some groups have started to form limited liability companies and are talking to investors.
Minnesota sets goals for the amount of energy utilities get from sources such as wind and solar.
Some 85 small wind projects in Minnesota have received state aid and 75 more are waiting, said Sarah Johnson of Minneapolis-based Windustry advocacy group.
Mark Willers, chief executive of the farmer-owned Minwind commercial wind project near Luverne, Minn., said the group started with four turbines in 2001 and is putting up seven more.
Organizers viewed the project as a moneymaker for the community as well as area farmers. Willers said lining up buyers was a challenge and stressed business know-how is a must.
“But it’s been a fun project. Environmentally, it’s been great,” Willers said.
Rundell hopes that experience can be replicated in Colorado. He conceded there are many hurdles, including rounding up investors and getting the wind-generated electricity to market.
“Any kind of wind project that comes in, whether it’s 108 turbines or two or three by a cooperative group, it’s going to pay taxes,” he said.
Emick’s father, Robert, restores antique windmills. His handiwork lines a road now overshadowed by the turbines, whose blades span 112 feet and gearboxes could house a school bus.
The younger Emick said the turbines fit nicely into the landscape and the heritage of the plains.
“It’s like they say, the six shooter and barbed wire may have tamed the West, but it’s windmills that allowed people to stay in the West,” he said.