Company finds one of the answers for the energy crisis is Blowing in the wind

Article By TIM UNRUH ~ Salina Journal
Photo by Jeff Cooper

CONCORDIA -- A big vinyl banner tied to a wind turbine blade was coming down when farmer Kurt Kocher pulled in with his tractor and wheat drill.

Most of the 200 people attending the ribbon cutting for the Meridian Way Wind Farm had signed the blade that will be installed at the wind farm in southern Cloud County, and Kocher wanted to etch his name in history.

The $340 million farm is being built by Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy.

"It's a big day for Horizon, a big day for the community and for north-central Kansas," Kocher said.

A stiff, cool wind flapped the large tent where a small country band and cowboy poet flavored the event.

"It's windy, but it's a wind farm," said Jim Roberts, Concordia, Horizon senior project manager. "We're very proud to be bringing this farm to Cloud County."

The turnout was a celebration for the Cloud County community. It represented a positive result to Rep. Elaine Bowers, R-Concordia, who recalled the perils of Kansas gales while riding her bicycle and throwing the discus at track meets.

Now the wind is producing jobs and wealth in her district, which includes part of the Smoky Hills wind farm in Lincoln and Ellsworth counties.

"Just let that Kansas wind blow," Bowers said.

The state ranks third in wind potential and 12th in development, said Antonio Coutinho, Horizon's chief energy officer.

"There's a lot of room to grow," he said. "This reduces the fuel dependency of the country and stabilizes the (power) cost to consumers."

By the end of this week or early next week, the first wind turbines will begin turning in Cloud County, Roberts said, but it will be November before the farm is producing electricity for Meridian's two customers -- Westar Energy, Topeka, and Empire District Electric, Joplin, Mo.

Producing 201 megawatts

When all 67 turbines are operational by the end of this year, the farm will have the capacity to produce 201 megawatts -- 96 megawatts for Westar and 105 for Empire -- enough to power 60,000 average Kansas homes.

Because fossil fuels are not needed to make electricity at the wind farm, the amount of pollution prevented is like taking 60,000 cars of the road, according to company literature.

The construction phase, from late March through the end of this year, produced about 200 jobs, and the wind farm will create at least 20 full-time jobs. A training program is ongoing at Cloud County Community College, Concordia, Roberts said, and students are being offered full-time jobs with Vestas, the Danish company that makes the turbines for Horizon. He said Horizon also will hire from the program.

"It seems like yesterday when we stood in the cold and wind at the groundbreaking," said Johnita Crawford, chairwoman of the Cloud County Commission.

Several Meridian wind turbines are located on the Kocher family's property, one of 65 landowners who are leasing their land for turbines, access roads, transmission line corridors and wind access (requiring unobstructed wind access).

Money for landowners

The project will produce significant income for some landowners or supplemental income for others, Kocher said, depending on how many turbines are on their land.

Payments can range from $4,000 to $8,000 a year for each turbine, Roberts said.

John Peckham, Salina, bought land to hunt on in early 2007, and ended up leasing one turbine site to the wind farm. Six or seven more leases would be nice, he said, but "the one (lease) is going to subsidize my hunting."

The turbines are kind of like having an oil well on your property, Kocher said. "I bet it'll be cleaner."

There is no downside, said Ken Anderson, Fort Scott, who leased a spot of a pasture to the project.

"It's great. It supports the environment and it's good income we can count on year after year," Anderson said.

Part of the portfolio

Wind energy should be part of any electric company's "portfolio," balanced with other generation from fuels such as coal, natural gas and nuclear, said Bill Moore, Westar president and chief executive officer.

With renewable energy from wind farms near Medicine Lodge and in Wichita County, Westar will be buying 300 megawatts of wind power, he said. To meet Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' recommendation that Kansas reach the level of producing 10 percent of its energy needs from wind by 2010, Westar would need to purchase a total of 500 megawatts.

Moore said the company is not committed to any more wind power purchases.

Fossil fuels are necessary to meeting growing demand, said Bradley Beecher, Empire vice president and chief operations officer. Next year, wind will produce 15 percent of the energy that Empire sends to the power grid.

"The more wind energy we buy, the less natural gas we burn," he said.

Key to the industry development is the federal production tax credit that lowered the cost to purchase wind power by $18 a megawatt, Beecher said. He would not say what Empire is paying for wind power.

"Without that, we wouldn't have bought it," he said.

Congress just continued the tax credit for another year, which is important for wind, Moore said, because it makes the cost compatible with other forms of energy. But, he said, the tax credit should linger longer before needing more federal approval.

"We need an energy policy that will give us an idea of where we should be headed," he said. "Just renewing it a year at a time isn't the way to do it."