Oklahoma’s Wind Catcher backers have created a scholarship program that would support its future employees and others

Source: By Jack Money, The Daily Oklahoman • Posted: Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Wind Catcher Energy Connection project proposes building 800 turbines like these located west of Minco as part of a wind farm in Oklahoma’s Panhandle. [The Oklahoman Archives]

WOODWARD — Developers of a planned wind farm in Oklahoma’s Panhandle continue to build momentum toward what they hope will be an approval of a major regulatory hurdle early in 2018.

On Tuesday, Public Service Co. of Oklahoma, Invenergy and GE Renewable Energy, backers of the $4.5 billion Wind Catcher Energy Connection, announced they will support a new educational program designed to train new wind technicians for their project and others.

They announced the program as the Oklahoma Corporation Commission prepares to take public comments as part of a cost-recovery request filed by PSO that’s related to plans the partners have to build a 2,000 megawatt wind farm that is expected to generate its power from 800 GE 2.5 megawatt turbines.

The project, which will be developed along the border of Cimarron and Texas counties, also proposes a dedicated line to take electricity generated by Wind Catcher to 1.1 million customers of PSO and its sister utility, Southwestern Electric Power Co.

Tuesday’s announcement wasn’t about the pending regulatory action.

Instead, representatives of companies involved in Wind Catcher and the vocational technical school that would benefit highlighted the announcement’s particulars.

Educating a workforce

They said a commitment to provide $200,000 in scholarship dollars and to install donated wind energy equipment that can be used for training as part of a wind technician certification program at the High Plains Technology Center in Woodward will enable the center to double its annual enrollment of participating students.

Plus, the technology center’s superintendent said pending agreements between the technical center and nearby universities also will make it possible for those students to take transferable credits with them as they pursue associate or bachelor degrees.

Dwight R. Hughes, High Plains’ superintendent, said this week he already sees a healthy demand from potential students for the school’s wind technician certification program.

He said the school created the certification program in about 2011, and that it typically has educated 15 to 20 students annually through a 20-week course it runs each year.

Hughes said the course takes a student from knowing nothing about the wind industry to obtaining as many as 15 different industry-related certifications.

Hughes said the scholarship dollars will enable the technology center to add a second course. Students going through the program from that point forward will be able to apply for scholarships to take care of half their tuition costs.

Invenergy has pledged to pick up the remainder of costs for those who ultimately work at Wind Catcher, but the scholarships are available for students regardless of which company they ultimately hire on with, he added.

“Our goal is to produce a quality student who will do someone a good job,” Hughes said. “We had limited it, because we didn’t want to oversaturate the market.

“And with Wind Catcher coming on and with other wind projects being developed in northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas, we see demand coming along.”

Hughes said he’s also enthused the technology center, Panhandle State University and Northwestern Oklahoma State University are working on plans to award the center’s certified wind technicians with credit hours they could apply toward associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs at the universities.

“That’s not finalized yet, but its exciting news for our students that is out there on the horizon,” he said.

Stuart Solomon, PSO’s president, said he shared Hughes’ enthusiasm about the pending program expansion, scholarship agreement and other support his company and its partners have pledged.

“This partnership with High Plains Technology Center and Oklahoma Panhandle State University will create a job-ready workforce to continue Oklahoma’s energy leadership long into the future,” he said.

Solomon also said he expects the scholarship fund will be set up once “all of us are moving forward” as part of the project.

“That’s a timing detail we haven’t completely worked out, but hopefully we will make that money available as soon as we can so they can start making those dollars available to students as they are going through the program,” he said.

Additionally, Solomon discussed how he believes the Wind Catcher Energy Connection project is poised to be a major economic driver for northwestern Oklahoma.

Looking ahead

PSO and its partners put the total cost of building the project at $4.5 billion, creating about 4,400 jobs along the way and 80 permanent jobs once Wind Catcher is up and running.

In a Corporation Commission filing, PSO said its share of the cost is $1.36 billion, and it’s seeking the commission’s authorization to recover that from rate payers after the project becomes operational in late 2020.

While it said those costs could add $78 million to customers’ bills in 2021, it also asserts it’s likely they actually could see a decline in their electricity costs once the project becomes operational because it forecasts more expensive natural gas prices and because of federal wind energy tax credits that could be claimed as part of the project.

This week, Solomon estimated its consumers could see about $2 billion in total rate savings during the course of Wind Catcher’s operational life.

“This is a real good concrete example of the job creation that will result from the Wind Catcher facility,” he said. “Between the economic impact, the jobs that are created and the consumer savings, we are just extremely pleased we are able to put this project forward and having it come to fruition and start to serve Oklahomans.”

The plan might not be well received, though. Oklahoma’s Attorney General has asserted the utility didn’t follow competitive bidding rules as it worked with its partners to develop the plan and that it hasn’t shown a need for the additional power.

The utility has said it needs a decision from Oklahoma regulators by the end of March to proceed. The project also needs approval from state regulators in three other states and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Oklahoman previously reported that commissioners will allow members of the public to address them with comments about PSO’s proposal on Jan. 4, and that they would take up consideration of the request on Jan. 8.