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Rancher harnesses wind to make land more profitable

By Laurel Morales

Snowflake, AZ – Arizona's first large commercial wind farm is set to go online in a couple weeks. The 30-turbine project would not be a reality without the vision of one persistent cattle rancher. And many say he's opened the door for other wind farms to follow. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has the story.

From a distance the wind turbines look like a flock of snowy egrets preparing to take flight. Up close they're massive - towering above most buildings in Arizona.

ELKINS: To give you an idea of the generator there that's basically the size of a cargo trailer of a semi (laughing) so it looks small from here.

Cattle rancher Bill Elkins shades his eyes to gaze up at the blades.

ELKINS: The blades are each roughly 145 feet long to the tip its 412 feet.

Elkins shows off his wind turbines as if he was talking about his children. We hop in his truck to tour the rest of the wind farm.

SFX: opening truck door starting truck

About seven years ago he was looking for a way to make his ranch more profitable for his kids. He and his wife toured a wind farm in New Mexico.

ELKINS: Everything they had there we had here. I went to NAU School of Engineering to educate myself on wind farms.

Wind check. Transmission lines check. Remote site check. Even though he knew there was good wind, Elkins needed to install test towers and document the wind speeds. This was going to be a lot more work than he realized.

ELKINS: It's a pretty rough game to get to this point. Many times we didn't think it was going to work.

Elkins didn't do it alone. Iberdrola Renewables, the largest provider of wind power in the world, built the 100 million dollar farm and convinced Salt River Project to buy the energy. The 30 turbines stand on land owned by Elkins, the state and the Bureau of Land Management. They had to undergo a public comment period, test the bird migration patterns, map out the archeological sites and study the environmental impact.

How's it feel to be finally at this stage? Oh it's wonderful it hasn't all soaked in yet.

A typical lease agreement pays a landowner as much as 5-thousand dollars annually. Elkins wouldn't say how much his family expects to earn.

Every time there's a slight breeze, the blades will spin and send energy to the power grid. The turbines hit their maximum efficiency at a sustained 26 mile per hour breeze.

ELKINS: But on a day like today we have a breeze that's 15 mph and it's probably 30-35 mph up there and that's ideal conditions.

The wind farm will generate enough energy to power 15-thousand homes. There are plans for more than 200 turbines at Dry Lake.

A lot of people didn't believe there was enough wind in Arizona for a project like this. Northern Arizona University mechanical engineer Tom Acker says while we may not have the wind of Colorado or Wyoming

ACKER: There is an ample wind resource to develop. It's a question of economics and how that compares to other wind sources being developed..

And that's exactly why Arizona Public Service was reluctant to get involved with Dry Lake, even thought they're the dominant energy provider in the area. Instead APS spokesman Steven Gottfried says they buy wind power from New Mexico.

GOTTFRIED: We look at what's best for our load, we look at distribution and transmission and we also look at the cost of that power we would have to pay which in turn our customers really have to pay for that power.

Renewable energy consultant Amanda Ormand says wind energy may be expensive but it's stable.

ORMAND: If I put a wind farm in the ground today I know what the price of that energy of that wind farm is going to be a year from now 10 years from now 30 years from now. Would you pay $2.50 for a gal of gas today a little more to know you could drive on gas to know what it's going to cost 30 years from now? I think you'd take that bet.

Arizona has been slow to embrace renewable energy. But now utilities are rushing to generate 15 percent of their energy with renewables by 2025. There are also proposed federal taxes on fossil fuels and carbon.

And that's good news for land owners like Elkins. He receives phone calls everyday from ranchers who want to know how he built his wind farm.

Dry Lake is set to go online in the next couple weeks. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar will be here for the official ribbon cutting in September.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Navajo County.