Wind technology has nearly unlimited potential, and the United States needs a long-term policy to support the industry and keep the county competitive, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall said Saturday during a visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's National Wind Technology Center south of Boulder.

Udall's stop at the wind technology center was the first of a yearlong tour of energy sites important to Colorado. Udall called the state's diverse energy portfolio an example for the rest of the nation as it tries to move toward energy independence.

"Colorado is blessed," he said. "We have wind and sun, coal and natural gas."

Saturday's visit also included stops at Boulder's newly renovated eTown studio and at the International Mountain Bicycling Association in Denver.

Udall described the wind technology center south of Boulder, near the intersection of Colo. 93 and Colo. 128, as "a gem."

"I was going to say 'a hidden gem,' and it may be hiding in plain sight," Udall said. "People drive past it and see it, and they might not know the work that is done here."

The wind technology center started as a place to test small wind turbines in the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargoes generated a surge of interest in renewable energy, said Bob Thresher, an NREL research fellow who helped start the center.

At the time, Thresher said he was treated like a "nutty professor" when he approached utilities about using wind power. Today, nearly every utility has at least some wind power, and costs have come down significantly, though natural gas is still cheaper.

And unlike energy from commodities, the cost of wind energy is stable after the initial investment in equipment, Thresher said.

"Things people said we'd never be able to do, we've done," Thresher said.

The extreme wind conditions that would make it a terrible wind farm make it an ideal test site, Thresher said. Winter wind speeds that can exceed 150 miles per hour push the technology to its limits. Periods of dead calm allow researchers time to work on the equipment.

NREL works with numerous private companies, including Siemens Energy, who put up their turbines, evaluate and tweak new designs at the center.

Udall spent nearly an hour at the top of Siemens' 80-meter tall wind turbine. Its 101-meter diameter rotor generates 2.3 megawatts of power, which is sold to Xcel Energy.

Andy Paliszewski, director of Wind R&D for Siemens Energy, said company officials wanted Udall to see the value of the collaboration between NREL and the private sector and the advances that have been made in improving the output of wind turbines and bringing down costs.

They also wanted to express their appreciation for Udall's efforts to extend the wind production tax credit, which gives companies a credit of 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour of wind energy produced. He also was successful in changing the law so that companies can get credit at the start of construction. Though the credit was only extended for one year, energy produced by wind projects spurred by the tax credit should come online for the next one-to-three years because of that provision, said Mike Saccone, Udall's spokesman.

Udall said the wind technology center illustrates the value of public-private partnerships to development of new technology, as well as the energy and job-creation potential of the wind industry.

He said the production tax credit, which was controversial in Washington, is "more than justified," and he pointed to tax policies that have supported coal and gas for more than a century.

But rather than a temporary tax credit, the U.S. needs to look at all of its support for energy technologies and develop a coherent policy, Udall said.

"We can't afford to fall behind the rest of the world," Udall said. "Everyone is investing in wind power. What we need is a permanent policy."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or meltzere@dailycamera.com.