On the western edge of the Great Plains, Colorado abuts some of the windiest regions of the country.
But for Vestas, one of the largest producers of wind turbines in the world, close proximity to what makes its business possible wasn’t enough of a positive alone for the company to open a manufacturing plant in the state.
It was state and local incentives — along with an educated workforce and a well-developed rail network — that helped seal the deal several years ago.
Vestas today has invested $1 billion in four Colorado manufacturing plants that employ 3,700 people, company spokeswoman Chanté Condit-Pottol said.
And the company’s presence in Colorado may grow still as state regulators consider whether to allow Xcel, the state’s largest utility, to build and operate the Rush Creek Wind Project, a $1 billion proposal that would span five counties east of Pueblo near the Kansas border. Vestas would build all of the 300 turbines envisioned for the expanse.
Business-friendly policies have helped grow wind energy, said David Ward, public affairs director for the American Wind Energy Association, an industry group in Washington, D.C.
“Some states have yet to build wind farms, but Colorado has been doing it a long time,” he said.
More On The Horizon
When operating at full strength, Rush Creek could generate up to 600 megawatts of electricity, increasing Colorado’s wind energy production by 20 percent. And Xcel anticipates that the Rush Creek project alone would generate $180 million in landowner lease payments and property taxes. The plan, now being considered by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, could be approved this year.
But there are concerns in some quarters about wind energy. Critics say it may not be as cheap as some competing sources because it relies on public subsidies to be profitable. And large wind farms can disrupt habitats, kill birds and require intrusive infrastructure.
But many states, Colorado chief among them, have embraced wind as a viable and clean alternative to fossil fuels. Colorado is on track to meet or exceed its goal of getting 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2020. There are 23 wind farms in Colorado — most on private land — and wind energy provides more than 14 percent of the state’s electricity, enough to power 681,000 homes, according to the industry group.
There also are 20 wind-related manufacturing facilities in Colorado. The turbine factories and wind farms have spurred economic development in the rural areas and small towns of the Front Range, between the Rocky Mountains and the Plains. The industry supports as many as 7,000 wind-related jobs in Colorado, the wind association says.
Colorado was among the first in the nation in 2004 to require utilities to supply a percentage of energy from renewable resources, according to Christopher Worley, director of policy and research for the Colorado Energy Office. Utilities first invested in clean energy to meet the standard. Now, the push toward renewables is market driven, he said.
“In Colorado, since 2011, wind and solar are now cost competitive with fossil fuels,” he said.
Worley expects that Xcel will come online with additional wind farms after Rush Creek. It is hoped that more competitive pricing of clean energy will spur lower utility rates — another incentive for wind-oriented businesses to set up shop or expand in the state.
Most of the wind farms in Colorado are in sparsely populated areas, and there has been little in the way of local opposition seen elsewhere, Worley said.
“There has been some pushback, but in general, they have been well received,” he said. “The jobs really matter in those areas.”
Yet, not everyone believes in wind power. Lisa Linowes, executive director of The WindAction Group in New Hampshire, said utilities and states often oversell the benefits and rush to approve projects.
“Everything is all geared toward, ‘Let’s get this built, and we’ll deal with the consequences later,’” she said. “But no one ever goes back and deals with the consequences.”
She said hidden costs in transmitting the power often fall to ratepayers. And there is little understanding of the impact on local habitats of the large turbines, which can tower 400 feet and have blade spans as large as a football field.
But others point to the environmental upside.
“The emissions benefits are enormous as we retire coal plants and replace them with wind,” said Gwen Farnsworth, senior policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates, an environmental group that pushes for clean energy.
And Colorado has clearly committed to wind.
“It is quite surprising to see in 10 to 12 years how quickly things have grown,” said Worley. “It’s because of the state’s commitment to renewable energy.”