Kansans weigh wind energy merits

Residents in several counties throughout state debate pros, cons

? Interest in generating electricity from the wind is poised to charge ahead in Kansas.

It’s also sparking controversy as folks wonder if the benefits outweigh the costs.

In Ellsworth, the Friends of the Smoky Hills opposes the construction of a wind farm in Ellsworth and Lincoln counties, said member Virgil Huseman, an Ellsworth County farmer and rancher.

Lenexa-based Kansas Wind Power has secured commitments from at least a dozen landowners, involving nearly 20,000 acres, to build 120 to 170 towers in Ellsworth and Lincoln counties that are capable of producing from 1 1/2 to 2 megawatts each.

Kansas Wind Power will lease land for these turbines and pay landowners a minimum of $3,000 for each turbine. That’s $360,000 a year for at least 20 years, said Troy Helming, who chairs the Kansas Wind Power board of directors.

The project would bring 150 to 200 jobs to the area during construction, which is expected to begin in 2005, leaving 10 to 15 full-time jobs when the wind farm is built by the end of 2005.

But keeping that schedule is hinged to securing a market from local utilities for the electricity that’s generated, and passing a federal energy bill that’s stalled in Congress.

The federal legislation carries a production tax credit of 1.8 cents a kilowatt hour for each wind turbine. Helming said the outlook was good for lawmakers to continue the incentive for renewable energy.

“The tax credit for wind has broad, bipartisan support,” he said.

Helming said it “pales in comparison” to tax breaks received by producers of other forms of energy.

An energy bill should pass, or in the interim, a separate bill continuing tax incentives for renewable energy such as wind and ethanol, said Rep Jerry Moran, R-Kan.

“The failure to extend tax credit is causing anybody interested in investing in a wind farm to back off,” Moran said, “waiting for Congress to take action.”

The Hays Republican said folks in Gray County, where a wind farm is online near Montezuma, were giving wind farms good reviews. Landowners there are paid $2,500 each year for land leased for towers.

Cloud County project

Optimism is apparent in Cloud County, said Kirk Lowell, executive director of CloudCorp, a private-sector, economic development organization. CloudCorp is backing a $120 million project being developed by Zilkha Renewable Energy, Houston, and the County Commission has approved a development agreement with the company.

The project involves 59 landowners in a 100- to 150-megawatt wind farm on 20,000-plus acres in the southeastern part of the county. Moving forward depends on the federal production tax credit continuing, he said.

“To date, we’ve had no opposition that I know of,” Lowell said.

CloudCorp has been studying wind energy since 1995.

Zilkha will pay $2,000 to $3,000 a year in land leases per turbine.

It will create 10 to 15 jobs that each pay $40,000 a year. Cloud County Community College is working to offer an associate degree training program for windsmiths, who work on the wind turbines, he said.

Lowell figures he’ll like the look of the windmills east of U.S. Highway 81 near Aurora.

“I think it’s going to make us look like a very positive and progressive community to have this located in our county,” he said.

“Commercial and industrial businesses in the future are going to be very interested in locating near where energy is (generated).”

‘Monstrous things’

But in some areas, such as some regions of the Flint Hills, landowners don’t want their land chewed up and the view obstructed by 300-foot-tall windmills, Huseman said.

“These are monstrous things. They will be seen for I don’t know how many miles,” he said, “especially if they’re placed around the ridges and high parts of our county.”

Helming calls them “graceful dancing ballerinas” on the horizon. He said modern wind farms would use between 2 percent and 3 percent of the total land that is leased, or five to seven turbines on each section.

Moran said the criticism from Kansans involved location of the turbines, which have to be close to transmission lines.

“There are places where we shouldn’t have wind farms. Locally, folks need to decide if this is something they want in their county,” he said. “I just think wind energy is a great opportunity for independence from foreign energy.”

Kansas Wind Energy is involved in projects at Winfield, Augusta, Russell and Larned. The firm also has joint ventures with Padoma Wind Power of San Diego, with projects in Texas and California.

He said costs have dropped 90 percent since 1980, thanks mainly to technology.

“Wind today is the least expensive form of electric generation,” he said, compared with building new coal, natural gas, hydroelectric or nuclear plants.

Driven by subsidies

Tax benefits are a “primary driver” of wind energy, said Steve Miller, senior manager of external affairs for Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp., which has agreed to buy the first 30 megawatts of power from a wind farm that will be built in Wichita County near Marienthal.

Sunflower Electric owns a coal-fired electricity generating plant south of Holcomb in southwestern Kansas. It also produces electricity with natural gas-powered turbines.

Wind turbines are foreign built, Huseman said, and construction crews come from out of state.

“There will be a little bit of local labor to run them,” he said. “Its economic impact on the community, as far as generating jobs and income, will be negligible.”

Tax subsidies, not the environmental benefits, are the motivation behind wind farms, Huseman said. As a source of electric power, he said wind generators were “intermittent and unpredictable,” sort of at the mercy of wind.

“The wind industry just lives on subsidies,” Huseman said. “The people who can make a living are the ones who benefit from the tax credits. It’s the developers who make the money.”

He said the Friends of the Smoky Hill’s goal was to “get out the facts in an honest and friendly way to help people make up their minds.”