LINCOLN – That “swoosh” sound that windmills make as the big blades pass by their towers is a sweet chord to Richard Plinsky.
“It sounds like ‘cha-ching, cha-ching,’ kinda like a cash register,” he said.
His farm and ranch is situated among the 155 massive turbines in the Smoky Hills Wind Farm in Lincoln and Ellsworth counties. Plinsky, 61, leased land to the Smoky Hills Wind Farm project some eight years ago.
“I was fortunate to be smack dab in the middle of it,” he said.
The wind farm has proven to be just the boon he expected.
“There’s a substantial income stream coming in and little or no expense stream against it,” Plinsky said. “From a landowner perspective, I’m real pleased with how everything is going.”
There are a lot of people connected to the 250-megawatt Smoky Hills Wind Farm located on 20,000 acres of land in Lincoln and Ellsworth counties, and the 201-megawatt Meridian Way Wind Farm in Cloud County, covering about 22,000 acres.
The projects have provided jobs, improved roads and injected money into counties.
“We view that as icing on the cake,” said Kirk Lowell, executive director of CloudCorp, a private sector economic development group in Cloud County.
Not much angst has surfaced lately about the projects, Plinsky said.
“As far as an organized opposition, I think those people crawled under a rock,” he said.
But not all of the opposition has faded away, including farmer-rancher Stephen Donley, who’s located close to the Smoky Hills project.
“They (wind farms) are still the biggest rip-off ever, totally built on a tax subsidy that’s gotten this country in the trouble that it’s in,” Donley said.
Wind’s cash benefits
Since the $350 million Meridian Way wind farm was commissioned in December 2008, the owner, EDP Renewables North America, of Houston, has given Cloud County $250,000 and has committed to another $5.3 million through 2029, County Clerk Linda Bogart said. The development agreement with EDP requires that the money is to be used for community projects.
The Cloud County towns of Aurora, Glasco and Jamestown will soon ask commissioners for a contribution from that fund, Lowell said, with the goal of building city-owned fueling stations in each town, which don’t have gas stations. The towns will provide local matching money.
Meridian Way produces 17 full-time jobs and provides work for local contractors and service providers, Lowell said. Smoky Hill employs four people and an average of 25 contract workers.
Meridian Way also influenced the start of the Wind Energy Technology program in 2006 at Cloud County Community College, Concordia. Some graduates were hired to work at Meridian Way, Kellogg said. Turbines (not part of Meridian Way) just south of the campus serve as a hands-on classroom while at the same time generating much of the power needed for the college’s heating, air conditioning and lighting.
Some bank the money
Ellsworth County will get nearly $2.5 million total in payments over 10 years from Boston-based Enel Green Power North America, which owns Smoky Hills Wind Farm. County Clerk Jan Andrews said $100,000 a year is being distributed to the various taxing agencies in the county, and nearly $150,000 a year goes into the county’s general fund to ease the burden on property taxes.
Lincoln County has received more than $1.8 million of the more than $5 million it will receive from Enel. It’s placing all payments into the Wind Power Economic Benefit Fund, County Clerk Dawn Harlow said, and plans are to spend only the interest that accrues.
Since January, $10,000 in interest income was given to the nonprofit movie theater in Lincoln to upgrade equipment, $18,000 to Lincoln County Economic Development, $19,000 combined went to the Lincoln and Sylvan Grove school districts, and Lincoln County Hospital has received $8,000.
Lincoln County commissioners want the money to provide benefits for longer than the 10 years that the county will be receiving payments, she said, although there have been some residents pushing for property tax relief.
“When you have an influx of a lot of money, you tend to get used to having that money,” Harlow said.
Lincoln, Ellsworth and Rice counties will receive benefits when the Post Rock Wind Farm project is operational as soon as next year, Andrews said.
In addition, Enel added the yearly Smoky Hills Wind Farm Scholarship, worth $2,000 each, to three students.
Plinsky views the payments as easy money for those governments.
“They didn’t have to do squat. They just sat back, allowed landowners to lease land, and let it happen,” he said.
Meridian Way developers told customers that the wind farm could be expected to produce a consistent 40 percent of its capacity, said John Olsen, executive director of bulk power marketing for Westar Energy. In other words, 40 percent of the time it operates at peak capacity.
“I’d say they’re right in line,” Olsen said. “It’s pretty close to what they’ve promised.”
Westar buys roughly half of what the wind farm in Cloud County makes. The other half goes to Empire District Electric Company in Joplin, Mo., through 20-year power purchase agreements.
Running at 40 percent capacity, the wind farm generates just over 38 megawatts for Westar, or roughly enough electricity to power 26,000 homes for a year, according to a “conservative estimate” from Westar spokeswoman Gena Penzig.
Smoky Hills is producing approximately 45 percent of its capacity, Plinsky said. Based on that “capacity factor,” he said, the wind farm is producing about 112.5 megawatts.
“The developer pretty well had it pegged,” he said. “That 45 percent in the wind industry is phenomenal. I’m thinking 50 percent is an attainable number.”
In an average year, the Smoky Hill Wind Farm supplies enough energy to meet the needs of 85,000 American households for a year. Conventional production of that amount of electricity – from coal, for example – would release into the atmosphere about 750,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, as well as consume more than the equivalent of 175,000 metric tons of oil a year, according to information supplied from Enel.
The energy is being delivered to five local utilities ¬– Sunflower Electric Power Corporation, Midwest Energy Inc., the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, the City of Independence, Mo, and the City of Springfield, Mo. – based on long-term power purchase agreements. A small portion of the electricity produced is also sold into the wholesale power market established by the Southwest Power Pool.
Wind energy is pure profit
The income Plinsky receives – a combination of royalties from production and land rent for other infrastructure, such as transmission lines – is “pure profit” as opposed to agricultural pursuits.
“Anymore in the ag community, we turn big numbers, but there are big expenses associated with it,” he said. Profit margins are often thin after crops are harvested and livestock are sold.
Tom Cunningham likened the three turbines on his property in Cloud County to a second income.
“It’s just like having a wife in town working,” he said.
Tom and his wife, Carmen, are among more than 65 landowners who are paid under long-term lease and/or easement arrangements with EDP.
“They’ve done everything they said they were going to do,” Tom said. “They’re a little more than fair.”
Aside from the money, he said, the wind farm represents an effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
“Oil production is on a downslope, and wind energy is part of the solution to that,” Cunningham said.
The next hurdle for wind power is “figuring out how to store it economically,” he said. “Solar and wind power together work fairly well together, but there are some gaps.”
The bovine sun dial
As the Smoky Hill Wind Farm was being planned, complaints surfaced from some of Plinsky’s neighbors and others opposed to dotting the landscape with windmills.
Some warned that the pristine prairie landscape would be violated; that the windmill blades passing in front of the sun would cause headaches; that birds would die and cattle would be scared, just to name a few.
That’s all “smoke and mirrors” to Plinsky.
“I’ve yet to find the first dead bird. It hasn’t affected the prairie chicken population,” he said.
Living less than a half mile of the closest tower, Plinksy said he notices only the sound from traffic on nearby Kansas Highway 14.
“The wind makes more noise running across your ears,” Plinsky said.
During hot days, his cattle line up along the shadows cast by the 270-foot towers and move with the shadows.
“It’s like a bovine sun dial,” Plinsky said.
Destroys native grassland
Wind farms receive a federal production tax credit, which amount to 2 cents per kilowatt hour, Kellogg said.
As technology improves, Lowell said, wind energy generation will become sustainable, but that subsidy is needed in the short-term.
But farmer-rancher Donley objects to the subsidy, and said he “never” would allow a wind turbine on his property. He wonders why we make electricity with wind “when we can produce a kilowatt five times cheaper” through other means.
Donley is also concerned about the prairie that was disturbed by the windmill construction.
“It’s native grassland. There’s very little of that left anymore,” he said. “Once you destroy it, you don’t ever get it back.”
Plinsky said he was a stickler on restoration when the windmills were going up on his property and ended up with a good all-weather road through his pastures. The pasture grass he lost for the road averages 1.94 acres a section (640 acres). Each tower requires less than 200 square feet, which cost him “miniscule grazing potential.”
“I haven’t had to adjust my grazing patterns,” Plinsky said. “The footprint that the turbines create on my property, represents the most productive real estate I own. The income far exceeds what crops and cattle can do.”
Controversy has been minimal at Meridian Way, CloudCorp’s Lowell said, in part because local promoters eased into presenting the idea to the people.
CloudCorp began researching wind in 1995, five years before any corporate stumping ensued.
“We didn’t have the pressure of a developer,” he said. “Our citizens just came to a comfort level with it.”
Once the deal was inked, benefits surfaced in a hurry. During construction, with 300 to 400 visiting workers in Cloud County, he said, sales tax revenue swelled.
Kansas power companies are mandated by the state to produce 20 percent of their average peak electricity load from renewable sources by 2020, Penzig said, 15 percent by 2016.
To meet the earlier deadline Westar needs 720 megawatts from wind and other sources, and by the end of 2012, the company will be at 664, Penzig said. Westar’s requirement by 2020 will be 1,000 megawatts.
“Does that mean more wind or some other type of renewable resource? We have a few years to make that final determination,” Olsen said.
More phases are possible in Cloud County, Lowell said, and still more wind farms are possible in Kansas.
But there is a big hitch.
“We need more transmission capacity before we can do more at Meridian Way,” Lowell said.
While more wind power evolves, he and Plinsky are pleased with the present.
“Most people are standing in line, wanting to know how they can get involved,” Plinsky said. “There is a really big plus side to this.”
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