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Sprawling solar farm built west of Cyril

CYRIL  The future of clean, renewable energy can be found in Southwest Oklahoma's backyard. 

Heading west on Oklahoma 19 from Cyril, it's hard to miss  a field on the south side of the road filled with seemingly endless rows of solar panels facing the sun overhead. Row after row, 20,000 panels fill a 44-acre field purchased by Western Farmers Electric Cooperative. It's the vision of the co-op that made the Cyril solar farm a reality.

"We want to understand the long-term life cycle cost of solar energy," said Brian Hobbs, vice president of legal and corporate services for WFEC. "We built this so that we can start to understand how solar and wind energy can support each other."

Construction on the solar farm began last year, but the search for a site began much earlier. The Cyril farm is one of five sites of comparable size and scale. The others are in Tuttle, Hinton, Marietta and Pine Ridge, south of Fort Cobb. When searching for an area to build such a sprawling farm, Hobbs said Western Farmers compiled a list of requirements for its "Goldilocks" sites. 

"We wanted to concentrate in the southwestern part of the state, south of Interstate 40 and west of Interstate 35," Hobbs said. "We needed sites that were close to substations so that we can feed the electricity onto the grid and where it can handle the load. And, as you can see, it takes quite a bit of land. We wanted something generally flat and open, so that led us here."

With an output of 5 megawatts, the Cyril site is the largest of the five solar farms being built in Oklahoma. However, it pales in comparison to a completed farm owned by Western Farmers south of Tucumcari, N.M. The co-op is also in the midst of construction of another 3.55 megawatts of smaller solar farms for 11 member cooperatives in the area, including Cotton Electric Cooperative, Harmon Electric Association and Southwest Rural Electric Association. 

John Toland, principal resource planning engineer, said work is nearing completion on the Cyril farm and testing could begin in the coming weeks. 

"We're about two weeks until everyone here at the site is ready to move forward with tests," he said. "Hopefully, by the end of the month, or no later than the middle of March, we'll know where it stands."

Even with such a large investment of capital, don't expect to see any change in electric rates. Hobbs estimates the total power of the cumulative solar farm projects in Southwest Oklahoma will only provide 0.5 of a percent of the energy needed on a daily basis. During the winter months, the ability of each solar farm to generate energy is severely hindered. Windmills can generate energy day or night, but solar farms are dependent on the sun. Hobbs said the farms' peak energy production is from 9 a.m. to noon. It starts dropping steadily throughout the afternoon, cratering even more significantly after 3 p.m. By 6 p.m., all production has ceased for the day. That doesn't even take into account second-to-second variables throughout the day.

"When you look at the production, it's not a steady line throughout the whole day," Hobbs said. "It's constantly going up and down, depending on what the sky looks like. Even a cloud passing in front of the sun can have a significant impact on the production. You're not going to want to be running your air conditioner in the middle of the summer and the power goes out because a cloud passes in front of the sun for a few seconds."

Solar energy still has its fair share of challenges  challenges Western Farmers wants to study and overcome. The cooperative is in the midst of an ongoing mission to diversify the sources of its energy offerings. It already has a diversified energy portfolio with natural gas, significant wind investments, coal and hydroelectric generation, but the cooperative wants to do more. It started in 2003 when the co-op signed a power purchase agreement with a wind farm developer  the first of any electric provider or cooperative in the state. Nearly 15 years later, the investment in wind energy has paid dividends as the technology continues to progress and become more economical. Hobbs said solar energy is following a similar path.

The Lawton Constitution

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