CALUMET, Okla. - A decade ago, states offered wind-energy developers an open-armed embrace, envisioning a bright future for an industry that would offer cheap electricity, new jobs, and steady income for large landowners, especially in rural areas with few other economic prospects.
To ensure the opportunity didn't slip away, lawmakers promised little or no regulation and generous tax breaks.
But now that wind turbines stand tall across many parts of the nation's windy heartland, some leaders in Oklahoma and other states fear their efforts succeeded too well, attracting an industry that gobbles up huge subsidies, draws frequent complaints, and uses its powerful lobby to resist any changes. The tension could have broad implications for the expansion of wind power in other parts of the country.
Over the last decade, the number of wind-generated megawatts has grown from 6,000 in 2003 to 61,000 last year, which equates to roughly 30,000 turbines.
The biggest wind industry boom is taking place in Texas. Iowa, and Oklahoma are close behind. Other states that have announced major projects include Kansas, North Dakota, and New Mexico, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group.
Today, many of the same political leaders who initially welcomed the wind industry want to regulate it more tightly, even in states like Oklahoma, where candidates regularly rail against government interference, and regulators are launching a fact-finding inquiry. The change of heart is happening as wind farms creep closer to more heavily populated areas.
Opposition is also mounting about the loss of scenic views, the noise from spinning blades, the flashing lights that dot the horizon at night, and a lack of public notice about where the turbines will be erected.
Frank Robson, an Oklahoma real estate developer, said the industry is turning the landscape into a "giant industrial complex," and the growing cost of the subsidies could decimate state funding for schools, highways, and prisons.
With the rapid expansion came political clout. The industry now has nearly a dozen registered lobbyists working to stop new regulations and preserve generous subsidies that are expected to top $40 million this year.
Evidence of that influence can be seen at the Statehouse. A bill by the Senate president pro tem to ban any new wind farms in the eastern half of the state was quickly scuttled in the House. When State Rep. Earl Sears tried to amend the proposal to include some basic regulations for the industry, lobbyists killed that, too.
"I personally believe that wind power has a place in Oklahoma, but I'm frustrated," Sears said. "I think they should have more regulations."
Wind developers say they're just protecting their investment - more than $6 billion spent on construction of wind farms in Oklahoma over a decade, according to a study commissioned by the industry. In addition to royalties paid to landowners, the giant turbines themselves are valued at as much as $3 million each.