The University of Arkansas and the city where it's based, Fayetteville, have both rallied behind a $4.5 billion Oklahoma wind energy project that has been under fire from what its supporters call a deceptive TV advertising campaign.
Fayetteville and the UA announced support of the project Thursday, saying the 2,000-megawatt wind farm and 360-mile dedicated transmission line, known together as the Wind Catcher Energy Connection, will help them reach their renewable energy and sustainability goals over the next few decades.
The project will deliver wind power from the Oklahoma Panhandle to the Tulsa area, where the existing grid will carry it into northwest Arkansas. Southwestern Electric Power Co. of Fayetteville, which serves customers in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana, will own 70 percent of the project. Public Service Co. of Oklahoma, a sister company, will own 30 percent.
The 800-turbine wind farm, touted as the largest single-site wind project in the United States, is expected to supply enough electricity to run 800,000 homes. It would aid the UA in meeting its carbon emissions neutrality goal by 2040, and help Fayetteville with its plan to run all city operations with renewable energy by 2030. The Wind Catcher is expected to start generating power as early as 2021.
"We believe that Wind Catcher will be able to deliver reliable renewable electricity to the northwest Arkansas region, including the university and the city of Fayetteville, over the next 25 years," said Mike Johnson, the university's associate vice chancellor for facilities. "We expect it to provide significant economic benefits to Swepco's customers and the region, as well as help both the U of A and Fayetteville meet their goals to reduce carbon emissions. We're happy to join other regional supporters who share this goal, including Walmart and the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association."
The project has been the subject of negative advertising by an anonymous group in Arkansas, Protect Our Pocketbooks, whose TV spots were called misleading and manipulative in a statement last month by Swepco.
"Protect Our Pocketbooks — which does not reveal the names of its backers or the sources of its substantial funding — is presenting misleading information to the public, including manipulation of statements by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson," said Brian Bond, Swepco's vice president of external affairs.
Hutchinson asked the Arkansas Public Service Commission in January to devise a way for utility companies to pass along to customers the benefits of the substantial corporate tax cut of late 2017. In response, utilities have announced cuts that will reduce customers' bills. But Bond said Protect Our Pocketbooks misleadingly associated the governor's comments with the campaign against Wind Catcher.
"The anonymous tax-exempt opposition group claims that Arkansas gets none of the benefits from the project, which is incorrect," Bond added, saying that the state will benefit from power generation with no fuel costs, achieve immediate cost savings and realize "the full value of the federal Production Tax Credits available to the project," as well as the economic benefits of wind turbine components being made in Arkansas.
Swepco predicts the project will save its customers more than $4 billion over 25 years, and GE Renewable Energy, contracted to provide 800 2.5-megawatt wind turbines, anticipates that many of the turbine blades, towers and generator frames will be made in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. Swepco has more than 500,000 customers in three states and is a subsidiary of American Electric Power Co. of Columbus, Ohio, one of the largest electric utilities in the nation, serving 5.4 million homes and businesses in 11 states.
One renewable energy industry insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity, speculated that the opposition was being funded by "anti-wind oil and gas interests" in Oklahoma. "They put a lot of money into a communications campaign, but there's little evidence of real grass-roots opposition to the project."
Grant Tennille, a former Arkansas Economic Development Commission executive director who has written in opposition of the wind project, argues that the benefits are estimated but that Arkansas' part of the cost allocation will be real, some $600 million. Tennille, who also favors emphasizing Arkansas solar projects over Oklahoma wind, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But Mayor Lioneld Jordan of Fayetteville, which hopes to achieve 100 percent community-wide clean energy by 2050, believes any negatives of the Wind Catcher project are being oversold. "The Wind Catcher Project helps the city of Fayetteville take a huge step toward 100 percent clean energy goals," he said in a news release. "Fayetteville is committed to working with leaders of other cities, states, universities and businesses to combat climate change by supporting a low-carbon economy and creating good jobs in energy efficiency and renewable energy."
The Arkansas Public Service Commission, the regulatory body that must approve the state's participation in Wind Catcher, announced a settlement agreement for the project two weeks ago, and the Louisiana Public Service Commission recently announced a similar agreement.
"Wind Catcher would be a fiscally and environmentally responsible way to reduce the University of Arkansas' carbon footprint by more than 40 percent," said Eric Boles, director of the university's Office for Sustainability. "It seem appropriate to state our support for this project during Earth week, and to advocate for others to follow suit."