With the United States qualifying as the world's fastest-growing market for wind power, Kansas isn't about to be left twisting in the wind.
As Westar Energy and Kansas City Power & Light both shop around for more wind-powered electric generation capacity, and a Michigan company looks to pump private money into installing transmission lines in Kansas, the state's three existing wind farms soon could have some company.
It's an energy evolution unlike anything since nuclear power revved up in the 1970s and hydroelectric power projects surfaced more than a century ago, said Joe Harkins, director of the Kansas Energy Office.
"We're seeing a significant transformation," said Harkins, whose office is part of the Kansas Corporation Commission. "We see this as an area of significant potential economic development in Kansas."
Harkins, a Lawrence resident appointed to the post in January by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, expects Kansas to essentially triple its capacity for wind power by 2010, and then double that by 2020.
Driving the demand are what he calls the "Three E's": energy, economy and the environment.
"Those coming together are creating all kinds of innovations, creativity and businesses that we didn't anticipate five or 10 years ago," Harkins said. "It's a fast-growing industry, and it's absolutely going to be expanding further for at least several more decades."
That's one of the main messages to emerge from the Windpower 2007 conference, a trade show and industry gathering conducted last week in Los Angeles. Among those attending in Southern California was Jim Ploger, director of energy and environmental programs for the Kansas Energy Office.
The gathering came after the industry in 2006 booked its second year of record growth, and executives used the forum to urge attendees to think even bigger.
20 percent by 2030
While wind farms currently supply less than 1 percent of the country's energy needs, industry leaders want such operations to feed 20 percent of the total by 2030.
"It's not a forecast, but it is a plausible scenario," Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association, told attendees at the opening session of the Windpower conference. "(But) it requires a transformation of the electric industry and a whole number of things that we don't have today."
Among the needs considered most crucial for backers of wind energy: an extension of the federal production tax credit that has helped make the United States the fastest-growing wind power market. The on-again, off-again credit is set to expire at the end of next year.
Other obstacles include the rising costs of wind turbines and other equipment and a shortage of electrical transmission lines to carry wind energy to the power grid.
There's also public concern about noise, danger to wildlife and visual intrusion caused by rows of giant white wind turbines that often typify wind farms.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle, Harkins said, is that while Kansas ranks as the third-best state in the country for wind energy - behind only North Dakota and Texas - the very nature of wind makes it impossible to rely upon for the bulk of power filling an energy grid.
Wind isn't constant, he said, and therefore will limit such electrical generation to playing a secondary role in supplying homes and businesses with power.
"The best way to think of wind is it offsets the use of fossil fuels, but it does not replace fossil fuel plants," Harkins said.
Plans for new coal-fired plants in Kansas have stirred opposition from environmental groups and others, and governments around the world are looking to wind energy to help cut carbon emissions, which play a major role in global warming.
"We basically have between now and 2020 to get emissions globally to peak and to start to decline, or we run a serious risk of climate systems spinning out of control," said Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council, based in Belgium. "The next 15 years are critical, and wind is in the best position."
California had been the nation's wind power leader, with 2,376 megawatts of production capacity. The state last year lost its top ranking to Texas, which has 2,739 megawatts of wind energy capacity, Energy Department statistics show.
Kansas checks in with about 360 megawatts of wind energy capacity, Harkins said. The plan is to boost that total to 1,050 megawatts by 2010 and 2,100 megawatts by 2020.
The wind industry added 2,400 megawatts of capacity across the United States last year, putting the nation's total wind energy capacity at nearly 11,700 megawatts. Experts predict bigger increases this year, with wind farms generating 31 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity - enough to power nearly 3 million average homes, according to the U.S. wind power trade group.