MARIENTHAL – On any given day in western Kansas, one can lick his or her finger, stick it straight up in the air and feel which direction the wind’s blowing.
It can be heard through the rustling of wheat. And felt as it travels through hair and clothing.
But on Friday, representatives of the state of Kansas, Westar Energy, Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc., Wichita County Economic Development and others looked puzzled as they tried to figure out where the wind had gone. As Westar’s Vice President for Generation Construction Greg Greenwood stood before the group, preparing to address the crowd during the groundbreaking for the new Central Plains Wind Farm, he jokingly threatened to cancel the event.
“There’s no wind out here,” he said.
But Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson assured Greenwood he’d have no problems with wind performance at the planned 99-megawatt wind farm being constructed east of Marienthal, between the town and the Scott County line and north of Kansas Highway 96.
“This is the least windy day,” said Parkinson, who’s familiar with the area and whose family still owns a farm about 12 miles west of the planned wind farm.
The wind is what brought Westar, which will own and operate the wind farm, and RES, which will construct it, to Kansas. By the time Central Plains is expected to be complete at the end of this year, it will have a total generating capacity of 99 megawatts and have 33 turbines towering more than 300 feet in the air.
Westar estimates Wichita County could see about 100 workers traveling through – currently, there aren’t that many workers at the site because construction still is in the early stages and a local contractor, Sporer Land Development, of Oakley, is handling dirt work. But workers will continue to arrive as construction ramps up.
Representatives of the companies, state government and Legislature and the county and city of Leoti traveled to the wind farm site for the groundbreaking, which included, among others, Parkinson, Greenwood, Westar Executive Vice President Doug Sterbenz and Wichita County Economic Development Director Sharla Krenzel speaking.
It was seven years ago this month that Krenzel made initial contact with RES about the possibility of a wind farm in the county. She and others had tried to attract the dairy industry to the county but with no luck.
So Krenzel started thinking of what industry would be a good fit and that would use the county’s existing assets, not use a lot of water and not be greatly affected by the highs and lows of production agriculture. At the time – June 2001 – there wasn’t a wind farm in the state. The Gray County wind farm was announced, and Krenzel thought that might be the ticket for Wichita County.
So she sent an e-mail to 16 wind developers – RES responded that same day to Krenzel’s e-mail, which stated western Kansas has a strong wind resource and those in Leoti were interested in exploring the possibility of wind power in the county. In a week’s time, RES representatives told Krenzel they wanted to visit the county and three weeks later, they pulled up to the court house, where Krenzel’s office is. It was a windier day than Friday, Krenzel said, adding that when they got out of the car, they said, “I think there’s enough wind here.”
Krenzel always told the landowners she wouldn’t celebrate until she saw dirt move for the project. “We can officially celebrate now.”
Greenwood said those in western Kansas might think the area is seen as “forgotten territory” in eastern Kansas, but Westar sees it as “a jewel” and partner in wind energy.
The Central Plains wind farm was part of an Oct. 1, 2007, announcement by Westar that it had reached tentative agreements – later finalized – with developers to construct three wind farms in Kansas, totaling about 300 megawatts. With wind-generated energy from Central Plains and the other two wind farms, Meridian Way in Cloud County and Flat Ridge in Barber County, Westar will be able to meet the energy needs of about 5 percent of its customers, according to Sterbenz.
“This is the right place to put wind farms,” he said of Kansas and Wichita County. “We want to build wind farms where people want wind farms.”
He said the amount of community support in the county, as well as RES as the developer, made the Central Plains wind farm stand out from the more than 20 proposals Westar received.
Parkinson said Kansas has a wind-generating capacity of about 10,000 megawatts, but the state was only at 364 megawatts at the start of this year.
Within the year, the state should be up to 1,015 megawatts, he said. Kansas will be the seventh state to reach more than 1,000 megawatts in wind generation and to have done so without a state mandate, he said, adding there’s no way getting around the fact the state’s behind where it should be in wind generation.
It should be a leader, he said, adding, “We’re not, but we’re getting there.”
According to Westar Project Manager Don Ford, about 55 percent of the roads built for the wind farm’s construction are done. Crews are currently digging foundations for the towers, and they should start pouring concrete next week for the tower bases.
He said the public might start seeing parts of the towers go up around the end of August or in September.
By Stephanie Farley
21 June 2008