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Rural Americans Bank on Wind Power

As Americans struggle with today's economic hardships, some rural communities are looking to wind power as a way forward. In the central state of Oklahoma, known for its frequent tornadoes, wind is now seen as a positive force by scientists, businesses and universities.

The same wind that sometimes wreaks havoc is now spinning 100-meter-tall turbines that dot highways and rural landscapes, providing wind energy to city power plants.

Each turbine costs about $2 million to build and install. Developers are also paying landowners $4,000 to $6,000 per year for leases to put a turbine on their land.

In return, landowners are being asked to collect data from each turbine to perfect the technology, as scientist Angie Albers explains.

"They measure the wind's rotation that then goes down to a data logger, which is similar to this, and then this records the data," she says. "Then we get data chips in the mail from the landowners. They pull out the chips and then send them to us and we process the data."

A booming business

Albers, who is project coordinator for the government-funded Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative, sees wind as a new economic boom which can help save rural communities where turbines are located.

"I do foresee it as a boom that is happening now and will for many years to come. I think that it can have the chance to help struggling communities keep their hospitals and their schools and their community going and possibly even bring people back into their communities."

The Oklahoma-based Bergey Windpower company has been making turbines for residential use since the administration of President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.

Now President Barack Obama is extending new subsidies and tax breaks to make wind power more affordable, and business is booming again. Sales representative Scott Merrick feels he is in the right industry at the right time.

"I am attracted to small wind turbines because it is fun," Merrick says. "There is almost a bit of a cowboy-esque type feel to going out and climbing up a 120-foot [about 36 meters], tower and there is an independence, almost a fronteerism, but on a green fronteerism."

University leads the way

The University of Oklahoma is paying a premium to a state electricity provider to ensure that its campus power plant will be 100-percent wind-powered by 2013.

Plant director Bill Henwood says it is nice for a change to work on the good side of wind's potential.

"Anybody who lives in Tornado Alley - Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Missouri - you experience tornadoes on one level or another, and in 2003 we had the opportunity to experience up close and personal, as we lost my house. Thankfully, my wife and son were next-door in a shelter.

"So we have experienced the negative aspects of wind on the Central Plains as well as the positive as we are experiencing with the wind power initiative."

University associate vice president Byron Burr Millsap says the university can become a model for America's greener future.

"I think we are pretty much well agreed that we need to be more and more intense and focused on finding renewable sources of energy and less dependent on foreign oil and outside sources of energy. I think we are very focused on that, and I think we are very focused on making the air cleaner for us to breathe and preserving resources so that our children and your children enjoy the same resources that we do today."

Despite detractors who say wind turbines are not economical and consistent enough for large scale use, there are plenty of Oklahomans ready to see more of these turbines dotting their highways and flat landscapes and eager to lead the trend toward an ever-larger percentage of U.S. electricity coming from the power of the wind.

View more of Nico Colombant's multimedia reports on his blog, "In Their Own Words."