The ride south from Dodge City, KS to Woodward, OK is one hundred and ten miles, a long and lonely haul on a hot, hot Saturday in late July. I was most thankful to the caring waitresses at Shorty’s Café in Buffalo, OK, who drew me in like a lost child when I arrived for lunch, filled my water bottles and chilled them while I ate smothered barbeque, fried okra, an immense cinnamon bun, and mason jars full of ice water and diet Coke. I left Shorty’s around 2 pm with four liters of water that stayed cool for less than ten minutes, but I was energized for the final thirty-four miles to Woodward.
On the first rise out of Buffalo I saw them; slender masts with spinning turbines facing south; a row of windmills more daunting than anything Don Quixote ever conjured. They disappeared in a hollow then reappeared, taller. As I got closer I realized there were two rows, no three, in a long line which, according to my map, was the ridge of the North Canadian River. The road dipped and curved around the gnarly plain, the turbines shifted in perspective but continued to grow. I figured I was about two miles away from them. Wrong. Two miles later they were larger but I was still far from their base. Five miles further and still I had not achieved them. There must have been thirty or forty in all, each row a different height. The shortest windmills were closest to the river, the middle stood beyond, and the giant ones held the rear, the direction of my approach. They stood immense and yet I still could not see where they met the ground. The blades whirred ahead of me, blurring together, spinning apart. In Kansas I had read Santa Fe Trailmarkers of how the eternal prairie wind had driven people mad. These turbines just made me dizzy. I pedaled and pedaled but their base was still out of sight. Finally, more than twelve miles from when they first came into view, I came abreast of the turbines. The tallest were hundreds of feet tall. higher than any I have ever seen. The door to enter their base appeared munchkin. They stretched away from the road on either side of the ridge, miles across. I stopped and photographed them, again and again, but could not capture in a single frame the delicate ballet of energy they played against each other or how completely they dominated the entire ridge.
Once the turbines were behind me I slogged out my last twenty miles into Woodward. I rolled into the first motel I saw, got a quiet room in the back, showered and hit the sack, too exhausted for supper. I didn’t think about turbines again. The next morning I pedaled out of town early to get a jump on the heat. There is no traffic at 6:30 am on a Sunday in a state where church attendance, if not exactly a law, is certainly an expectation. I made great time on a new paved stretch of Route 3 that gently roller coasted through the plains. I did not stop until 9:00 when, at the crest of a hill, I leaned my bike against a signpost, took out my water, and scanned the horizon. I looked behind and there they were, those ubiquitous turbines, plain as Truth against the morning sky; a good fifty miles away.
Oklahoma is not a state inclined towards tradition or sentiment; it is pragmatic about land. We gave the land to the Indians, and then decided we wanted it back. We didn’t parcel the Indians off to reservations; we mingled together. We found oil and drilled for it and decided we didn’t want to mingle the surface bounty with the bounty beneath it, so we separated title of the land above and the minerals below into separate entities. Land titles and mineral rights in Oklahoma are a unique labyrinth. The oil has been good, but it is thinning; America still needs energy and Oklahoma has wind to spare, so up go the turbines.
As a resident of Massachusetts, where the debate over the Cape Wind proposal to construct turbines in Vineyard Sound has dragged on for years, I am disappointed by my states’ inability to take responsibility for at least some of our energy consumption. In comparison, Oklahoma built five wind farms within five years in the early 2000’s, moving from a zero wind position to sixth in the nation with capacity to fuel 175,000 homes in that short time. A new farm in construction, developed in conjunction with the University of Oklahoma; will provide all the university’s energy needs. The regulatory processes in Oklahoma are pro-energy and there are tax breaks for wind development. I am pretty sure that the owner of the farm where I took my break, fifty miles from the turbines, was not consulted for her opinion on the turbine’s impact on her property values. In Oklahoma, if there is something useful in the land, or under it, or above it, then you take it.
For me, there are two questions posed by the Centennial Wind Farm above Woodward. Does it add or detract from the landscape, and is it a good energy investment. The first is a question of aesthetics, and I expect that just as many people will find the array of spinning blades gracing the top of the ridge a pleasure to view as will those who side with leaving the ridge bare. After all, this is a state where we leave derricks on the Capitol lawn as sculpture long after they the wells are drilled and dry. The second is a question of math, and where the wind is consistent and strong, the math adds up favorably. There are other issues of note, such as the noise and wildlife disturbance, but these are corollary issues that we can address as the technology matures.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of wind farms, even beyond the math, is that they satisfy the most urgent problem in our energy situation because they produce energy right here in theUnited States. Energy produced by these turbines is energy we do not have to buy from another country. That is a virtue that supersedes economic analysis, because our reliance on imported energy hinders our country in so many ways. Neither our energy policy nor our national defense nor our foreign relations will be sound until we cowboy up to and use our natural, technological, and human resources to become energy self-sufficient. Our ability to interface with other countries in a straightforward and principled manner will be compromised until the United States becomes energy independent.
There are two ways to be energy independent. The conservation method, in which we use no more energy than we can produce ourselves, and the production method, in which we create new energy capacity through extraction (oil, gas, coal), generation (hydro and nuclear) or renewable technologies (wind, solar, hydrogen). Any successful strategy will require a large dose of both, since we currently import about 65% of our oil and we are not likely to either cut our consumption alone or expand our production alone to make up that difference.
The relevant guiding principle that drives our need to be energy independent is the Preamble of the Constitution, “in order to form a more perfect Union.” Our Union is compromised by being dependent on so much energy that we do not control. The baseline issue of our energy policy is not about drilling in the Arctic or installing turbines in Vineyard Sound or restricting incandescent light bulbs or giving tax breaks to hybrid cars. The baseline issue is to decide that that we will be energy independent. There are private interests (large oil companies, defense contracting firms) who presently benefit from the military-energy alignment, but our national interest must trump those profit motivated concerns. As we shift from an imported energy model to a self-sufficient model, there will be profitable opportunities for those firms to participate in our shifted focus. Once we decide we are going to balance our energy equation, there will be a boom of economic activity in this country, both in conservation and production, as we spend energy dollars here instead of flowing them overseas.
It is true that Sadam Hussein was a virulent dictator who did not deserve to govern Iraq. But he is hardly the only one in the world. Yet, he was the one we invaded and overthrew, in no small part because of the instability he posed to our thirst for Middle East oil. The destruction and lives lost, American, British, and Iraqi, cannot be justified in the name of oil. We will never know how an energy independentAmericamight have responded to the curse of Sadam Hussein. But we do know that we cannot deal with all the parties in the Middle East in a consistent and principled manner as long as we depend on them for the lifeblood of our economy.
If we can take that first step, to declare that we will be energy independent and work together towards that goal, the rest is negotiation. If we apply a guiding principle methodology to steer the negotiation, we will establish success targets required for an energy consumption / production mix that can make us independent and then apply a cost-benefit analysis to optimize that mix; the point where we meet our target with maximum satisfaction and minimum pain. Today we have the allusion of satisfying our energy thirst with minimal pain because we do not factor in the tremendous cost that our import dependent energy system places on affairs of State and national security.
We will need to be innovative in our approach, incorporating both centralized and local solutions, providing incentives to guide behaviors that are energy positive, and introducing both short and long term solutions. A short term idea to spark production might be to set up incentives for individual domestic and commercial wind/solar projects that feed the grid, while a long term solution might be to develop viable hydrogen cells to power vehicles. A short term conservation idea might be to tax gasoline at a level that represents the true cost of building and maintaining our incredible road system. Long term conservation ideas would be to transfer to point of use hot water heaters in homes and to set realistic but firm zero net energy usage for new buildings.
Many issues will be contentious, especially strategies that involve invasive land use, such as opening new areas for oil drilling or natural gas exploration or constructing wind farms. It is difficult to assess potential environmental damage from system failures in advance, but as we know from the Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters, failures occur and when they do, the cost is far more than prudent prevention. The way to safeguard against disaster is to get as many points of view as possible in the same boat. If we must expand drilling, then we must expand oversight, and perhaps the oversight needs to be done by advocates for the environment, rather than petroleum company functionaries. There will be dozens of ways to make it succeed, as long as we understand that we are working together towards the goal of energy independence.
This will cost money, you say, money we don’t have. We have spent over a trillion dollars waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq. That was money we did not have, money we borrowed against the ballooning national debt, yet we spent it willingly without knowing the final tab or having any defined measure of success in advance. It was money we spent to protect our way of life without admitting that we have no right to claim a way of life that depends on our extracting the resources of others. We have enough oil and gas and coal and hydro and nuclear and sun and wind and hydrogen on our own turf to meet a comfortable level of consumption if we apply our brainpower to make the technology work. We have enough compassion to develop sensible energy conservation measures without crippling our cherished way of life. The cost of our foreign dominated energy system is draining us. Let’s spend the money to make the system our own.
After spending a few days with family and friends in Oklahoma City, I cycled along old US 66, which Oklahoma has turned into a movable shrine to the golden age of the automobile. I visited the interpretive center in Chandler where I watched Route 66 videos from bucket seats, went to the motorcycle museum in Warwick, the Tepee Park in Fiyol, and the Packard showcase in Afton. Everything stressed pushing the pedal down and keeping the speed up. This makes sense in a state that has always felt more comfortable creating energy over extolling conservation. But US 66 is no longer an official highway, and the landmarks that defined the Mother Road are dwindling pieces of the past. These days, cars heading to Tulsa or on to Missouri use Interstate 44, leaving Historic 66 to a scattering of local traffic, motorcycle caravans, and the guy on the bike. Which I must admit proved to be an energy efficient vacation; no foreign oil was required and I spent hours upon hours along the open road developing pretty nice legs and spinning ideas.