Cloud County sees boost from wind farm

? Last year, the dusty one-lane road in front of Kurt Kocher’s ranch house turned into an industrial highway as Horizon Wind Energy built one of Kansas’ newest wind farms.

Truck after truck filled with cement passed by the home, and along with them came the cranes needed to lift 145-foot-long blades into place and turbine parts that had been shipped from as far away as Denmark and Germany.

Kocher’s 80-year-old mother watched, enthralled.

“She has just enjoyed all the activity; all the hustle and bustle,” Kocher said. “(Before,) if a car passed once or twice a week that was kind of the only excitement we really had out here in the sticks.”

He told this story recently while standing in the front yard where an old-fashioned windmill stood behind one shoulder and a 410-foot-tall commercial wind turbine loomed over the other.

For many in this north-central Kansas town, the 67-turbine Meridian Way Wind Farm has brought the most excitement and economic promise they have seen in decades.

“It has been a real economic shot in the arm,” Kocher said.

Planting the seeds

Eight miles south of Concordia, the turbines tower over 20,000 acres of wheat fields and pastures. On a clear day, the three-megawatt generating turbines — the largest on-shore models in the United States — can be seen for miles.

At its peak, the wind farm turns out 201 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 60,000 homes a year. Half of that power is purchased by local provider Westar Energy.

The farm is one of four that has come on line in the past 18 months, a combination that has doubled the state’s wind energy output.

Horizon picked the flat, open fields of Cloud County for its steady supply of wind, proximity to high-powered transmission lines and strong community support, said Kirk Lowell, executive director of CloudCorp, a countywide economic development commission.

Miniature replicas of the gleaming wind turbines can be spotted on the countertops of businesses around town.

Wind farms aren’t always greeted with such warmth. In Hays, for example, it dug deep community divides.

But in Concordia, Lowell said the idea was circulated slowly, more than a decade before the first turbine went up.

The only cause for concern Lowell heard was fear that bats might fly into the spinning blades. In fact, some in the town believed bringing wind power to Concordia was the patriotic thing to do.

“Iraq and a lot of the skirmishes we are in are about energy. And I think, to put it in a nutshell, we feel it makes more sense to put wind turbines on our prairie instead of our fine young men and women under the prairie,” Lowell said.


Of course, there was an economic incentive for wind farms as well, something that Cloud County officials realized in the mid-1990s.

Early in the decade, Cloud County leaders attended the state’s first wind energy conference and attended the ribbon cutting of Kansas’ first commercial wind farm in Gray County. They distributed information to prospective builders.

Around 2001, Horizon — formerly Zilkha Renewable Energy — expressed interest, and within six weeks it signed leases for all the land they needed.

It took another five or so years to convince anyone to buy the energy. After signing up Westar and Empire District Electric, construction began in early 2008.

“I was born and raised on the farm, and I am used to planting crops and waiting. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. That is the story of economic development,” Lowell said.

A shot in the arm

More than 200 workers came to Concordia to build the wind farm, sparking spending in local shops and restaurants. Horizon subcontracts with a team of about 20 to maintain and operate the turbines and has two managers on site.

“This community has received some needed help, from what I gathered around town,” said Justin Van Beusekom, assistant operations manager at the farm.

Horizon is working to expand the wind farm by another 100 megawatts.

Lowell sees the wind farm as just the beginning for the potential the industry could bring to Cloud County and Kansas.

He envisions expansion of farms and manufacturers along Interstate 35, similar to how the biotech and animal sciences corridor has blossomed along Interstate 70 between Manhattan and Kansas City.

It also could attract attention from businesses looking for places to relocate, which can be a hard sell for rural Kansas towns.

“If Horizon can put a $340 million project there, (companies will think they) can put a $10 million or $28 million manufacturing plant there,” Lowell said. “I think it is helping us jump the hurdle.”

Even before construction started on the wind farm, Cloud County Community College had secured from the Kansas Board of Regents the right to pursue a program in wind energy technology.

When it started in 2007, the program enrolled four students. This fall, it’s looking at 110 students and 50 more on the waiting list. One student in Alaska is enrolled online.

Pending results

While the town is happy with the wind turbines’ presence, the success of the actual farm is still undetermined. The amount of electricity generated is running below what the company had expected, Van Beusekom said. Gear boxes in the turbines had to be replaced by the manufacturer.

“They are new turbines, new machines. We are working out the kinks. Once we get those out, we will have a pretty good idea of how we compare to production in terms of other sites,” he said.

Greg Greenwood, Westar vice president for construction generation, said that not enough data has been collected in the first few months of operation, but noted issues are common for any new generation facility.

“It’s part of growing pains of being in a technology that continues to improve. You have some steps backwards now and then,” he said.

Reaping benefits

As for Kocher, the north-central Kansas farmer has reaped the economic benefits of all that hustle and bustle. His 4,000-acre farm houses nine of the turbines, which produce three megawatts per year.

“You don’t think too much about them as time goes on,” he said.

He is one of 65 landowners with turbines on their land. While many factors come into play for determining leases, the industry standard is for the landowners to receive $3,000 for every megawatt of electricity the turbines on their land produce each year, American Wind Energy Association spokesperson Christine Real de Azua said.

Horizon took an unfamiliar approach when it decided to dish out payments to all landowners living within the 20,000-acre area, regardless of whether a turbine was on their property. Those with turbines do receive more money, Lowell said.

For Kocher, it’s worth the extra work of having to maneuver around them.

“If things pan out like we plan on it doing,” he said, “it will make a nice retirement at my age.”