In 1897 a gusher of oil erupted from a well near the Caney River in Oklahoma. Nellie Johnstone No. 1, as the well was named, began a decades-long oil boom that powered Oklahoma’s development. Between 1900 and 1944, Oklahoma was one of America’s top oil-producing states, producing over 900 million barrels of oil worth more than $5 billion. Industries, infrastructures, towns, homes, and livelihoods were built on that oil. But the boom didn’t last.
Since the 1950s , the state’s oil and gas industry has experienced dramatic ups and downs. During bust periods, many Oklahoma towns experienced unemployment and economic downturn. But the turn of the century ushered in a new era of sustainability in Oklahoma energy production. In 2003 a quiet but powerful energy revolution appeared on the Oklahoma landscape when the state’s first wind farm began operations. Since then, wind power has been a success story that is cementing Oklahoma’s position on the energy map with the state ranked second only to Texas for wind energy generation.
Oklahoma is extremely windy—the state song mentions the wind twice in its first stanza! While the wind has long been blamed for drying up water holes along with crops, it is also a source of energy that can be harnessed for good. In the 1930s, tower-based wind chargers brought small amounts of electricity to farms and ranches across the state. Now, huge wind farms with even taller towers, longer blades, and more efficient turbines contribute over 7,400 megawatts of installed capacity to the national network —enough to power two million homes.
What makes Oklahoma perfect for wind farms is a western region that is not only windy, but is sparsely populated with limited use for land that is relatively unproductive. Western Oklahoma was in need of an economic boost, and wind power has brought exactly that. Now extensive wind developments stretch along a series of ridge lines running west to east across the region. And wind farms are generating much more than electricity: they are generating jobs, incomes, and opportunities for many rural communities.
Wind energy and agriculture are perfect partners: the wide, open spaces often surrounding ranches and farms are ideal for wind turbines. A typical wind farm leaves around 98 percent of the land free for crop cultivation or grazing livestock, while land lease payments provide a reliable source of additional income—the best of both worlds. This can be a crucial buffer against variable crop prices and the vagaries of the weather, especially drought. In some places these payments have even helped avert some farm foreclosures and enabled the economic expansion of others, keeping countless people employed in agriculture.
Directly and indirectly, Oklahoma’s wind industry is responsible for around 9,000 jobs in the state. Building new wind farms keeps factories and construction workers busy, while breathing new life into local communities. For example, wind power employs specialists in manufacturing, project development, and construction and turbine installation, as well as financial services, transportation and logistics and maintenance and operations —wind turbine technician is one of the fastest-growing jobs in America. The money these jobs generate fuels local economies and supports additional businesses, from grocery stores to real estate to restaurants.
In 2017, Oklahoma installed 851 megawatts of new wind capacity―more than any other state except Texas. These included the Red Dirt and Thunder Ranch wind farms developed by sustainable energy company Enel Green Power (EGP). Operating 10 wind farms across the state, EGP’s $2.7 billion investment will bring in more than $317 million in property tax to local communities, and pay nearly $300 million in lease agreements to landholders—many of them small farmers. In counties in which EGP has a wind farm, the company is one of the largest taxpayers toward local schools and county services. EGP also partners with Oklahoma schools and universities to create education opportunities and scholarships, and is helping to train people for careers in the clean energy economy, further improving job prospects in the state.
And then there are the environmental benefits of wind power. Wind power is a clean and sustainable source of energy that in 2018 alone saved the emission of more than 200 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. In many ways, the development of wind power in Oklahoma reflects the global shift away from fossil fuels to an ever-increasing reliance on renewable energy—a sector that employs an estimated 600,000 people in the U.S. , of whom around 114,000 work in the wind energy industry. Oklahoma’s relationship with wind power is about much more than generating renewable energy: it is about re-energizing the economy and creating jobs in a state whose traditional motto is “labor conquers all things.”
This content is brought to you by our partner. It does not necessarily reflect the views of National Geographic or its editorial staff.