With lofty hopes and anticipation for the future, Mark Yates sounded much as he did in 2016 as director of field operations with Oklahoma Farm Bureau defending Oklahoma’s State Question 777 Right to Farm. His focus was in selling attendees on taking energy produced in Northwestern Oklahoma and sending it to eastern Oklahoma to get on the grid and to market.
Now as Oklahoma Director and Vice President of Advanced Power Alliance and OK WindPower, Yates spoke to Northwest Oklahoma Alliance (NwOA) on the topic “The Growing Economic Impact of Wind, Solar, and Better Storage in Oklahoma” for the quarterly luncheon on Tuesday at the Woodward Conference Center.
In Northwest Oklahoma, Yates admitted because of his experience with Farm Bureau, he knows transmission lines carry “dirty words” like eminent domain. He said it will take a collective group of Oklahomans pushing it.
“In Northwest Oklahoma, if I'm advocating for more wind and solar, I actually would advocate for more transmission, first and foremost,” Yates said. “We would like some of that development in northwest, we like it the panhandle, we'd like it in Woodward. We need transmission infrastructure.”
Western Oklahoma is producing so much power that it’s causing congestion on the lines, according to Yates. Wind farms are curtailed and actually have to stop operating because they are producing so much power.
Yates pointed out how eastern Oklahoma is benefitting from renewable energy.
“The Google Data Center in Pryor, Oklahoma, a $3.5 billion investment in Pryor as a contract for 100% of their power needs to be renewable energy through Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA), with two Oklahoma wind farms,” Yates explained. “The Amazon fulfillment centers that are being built in Oklahoma City and Tulsa respectively…
will sign renewable contracts. One hundred percent of their power needs to be renewable energy.”
According to Yates, Oklahoma continues to see a spike in corporate procurement of renewable energy. Because Oklahoma has an abundance of low cost gas and the lowest cost of electricity in the United States, it is the epicenter of the lowest cost of doing business across the country.
“That's a message point that I'm hoping that all of our state leaders, our governor, our lieutenant governor and others will be touting, and you as economic development folks will be touting that you're recruiting businesses into Oklahoma,” Yates encouraged. According to Yates, 36 percent of home electricity in Oklahoma is from wind and 42 percent is from gas. Only 27 percent of wind energy generated in Oklahoma actually flows out of state.
“I look at the next three to four years, in all honesty I see our power generation numbers in Oklahoma teetering on, 50 percent will be from renewable sources,” Yates predicted. “I cannot emphasize enough how rapidly technological advancement is taking place.”
In addition to wind energy, Yates said he anticipates more solar farms and battery storage in the near future.
Answering a question from Laverne Representative Merl Swineford, Yates said solar energy will probably not go on 50,000 acres of irrigated cotton farms, high yield row crops or large cattle operations, but will be on marginal yield land.
“We've got a lot of land and will be very viable for solar, where you may just be running 20 head of cattle,” Yates said. “Here's an opportunity. And frankly, with the lease payments, where they're going to be where they are, it becomes very cost competitive very quickly to look at it from an economic standpoint.”
According to Yates, Northwest Oklahoma and the panhandle should be the renewable energy hub of the world. “You can have more wind or solar anywhere else in the world. Really it's perfect,” Yates said.
“But without that pipeline and transmission infrastructure. We've got a ways to go. We've got challenges ahead.”
Answering another question from an attendee, Yates said transmission lines, wind farms and solar farms will change the landscape and view. He said he hears all the time that people don’t like to look at it. “I think the overarching point is, look, all energy resources change the landscape. There's no doubt about that,” Yates said. “Ultimately, if we're going to take advantage and develop all of our resources that we do have into the future, that transition is part of the equation. It has to be.'
According to Yates, the jobs created by wind farms are a big asset to small communities. He doesn’t consider them jobs, but careers that produce employment that won’t be going away in three or four years.
“High Plains Technology Center is the number one wind tech program in the nation,” Yates said. “We're sending folks from all over the country through that program, either re-certified or certified, and they have a 99 percent placement rate, which is just a phenomenal story of that growth.” Wrapping up his talk, Yates said a question is out there as to what the new norm is regarding oil and gas in Oklahoma. With rig counts at a three to four year low, yet production is up, Oklahoman’s are doing more with less. Utilizing the technology and efficiencies across industry lines, changing jobs.
“What are we doing to retrain that workforce, so that they can become, whatever that next job is. Whether it’s in wind tech or solar tech,” Yates said. “Those are some very important conversations to be had. Because it is labor intensive on the front side of construction, but then you're left with long term careers.”