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Wind energy the new ‘cash crop’ for Colorado farmers

For more than a century, Jan and Virgil Kochis’ family has farmed wheat, corn and other cash crops on 10,000 acres of pasture and farmland near Matheson in Elbert County.

It’s the only lifestyle they know, they said. So when crop prices started to plummet, the Kochises turned to a resource that is breathing new economic life into eastern Colorado: wind turbines.

“It doesn’t matter if there is hail, rain, lightning,” Jan said. “As long as the wind blows, we’re producing energy that we’re able to profit from. It is our new cash crop.”

Leading the charge toward a wind-driven energy grid in Colorado is Xcel Energy, which owns the 30 wind turbines on the Kochises’ farm and an additional 270 in Elbert, Cheyenne, Lincoln and Kit Carson counties as part of the Rush Creek Wind Project.

Once completed in October, the project will be the largest wind-generating facility in the state, distributing 600 megawatts of energy to an estimated 325,000 homes. It’s projected to pump $1 billion into the Colorado economy and will help Xcel Energy reach 55 percent renewable energy by 2026.

“It’s a bright day for conservation and energy production in Colorado,” said Greg Brophy, the Colorado director of The Western Way, a self-described right-leaning conservation group.

Becoming a wind farmer

Virgil’s grandfather came to the United States from Czechoslovakia more than 100 years ago. After working in the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Boulder, he bought 160 acres of farmland near Matheson in Elbert County through the Homestead Act.

The farm has grown to 10,000 acres, half of which is used to grow crops. Beef cattle graze on the other half. In 2016, the Kochises received a Centennial Farms & Ranches designation, marking the 100th year of the farm’s life.

“We were very proud of that,” Jan said.

In the past 10 years, the Kochises have seen their profits slip dramatically due to a saturation of the cash crop market in the U.S. and overseas. Wheat, for example, is listed at $4.88 per bushel, less than the $5 per bushel it Virgil says it costs to produce.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated in May that farmers lose $134.95 for every acre of wheat in the Prairie Gateway, which includes Colorado.

Weather can be detrimental, too. A hailstorm in early June destroyed $80,000 to $90,000 worth of crops, Virgil said, and the low snowpack this year left his fields brown and parched until a rainstorm last week.

“It’s a tough business to be a farmer right now,” he said. “But it’s all I know, and I can’t just stop it. I make no money, but by God is it nice out here.”

The Kochises aren’t the only one struggling to make a living from farming.

“Small towns in eastern Colorado are drying up and blowing away,” said Brophy, a former Republican state senator who represented Elbert and surrounding counties. “The only thing we have here is agriculture and energy. Since agriculture is suffering right now, the growth of wind is pumping development into areas that desperately need it.”

Those with turbines on their land receive lease payments and damage compensation during construction. Once the turbines are up and running, landowners receive royalties for the electricity that’s generated.

Each turbine generates $4,000 in property taxes. In Lincoln County, more than $2 million will be pumped into the county budget once the turbines are operating, Limon Chamber of Commerce Vice President Linda Olsen said.

Hundreds of workers have been employed to install the 260-foot tall turbines, which were manufactured at one of three Colorado plants. Thirty-two will be employed full time once the farm is producing energy.

“Rush Creek is a terrific project that has employed hundreds during construction and will continue to employ wind technicians, many of which are from our local communities,” said state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. “Rather than continuing to export our best local resource – our children – the growing wind industry is providing new opportunities that are allowing more of them to stay local.”

Leading the nation

Colorado was dubbed a national leader in the wind energy industry by the America Wind Energy Association’s annual report. The industry employed more than 5,000 people in Colorado, the fourth highest in the nation. Capital investments hit $6 billion, and annual lease payments to landowners like the Kochises were between $5 million and $10 million.

From an environmental standpoint, Colorado’s wind power generation saved 4 billion gallons of water that coal and gas plants would have used and avoided 8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to 30.4 billion water bottles and 1.7 million cars’ worth of emissions.

“We’re able to do major shifts in the energy system without increasing the cost to customers,” said Xcel Energy’s Executive Vice President for Utilities David Eves in January. “In the words of Gov. (John) Hickenlooper, ‘I don’t know what people are opposed to, cleaner air or lower cost.’ Truthfully, that’s where we are.”

Many in Colorado Springs are frustrated that Colorado Springs Utilities isn’t following Xcel’s lead. Utilities uses 9 percent renewable energy, a mix of mostly solar and hydropower. A solar project approved by the board last fall that is expected to be up and running by 2019 will increase its production to 15.6 percent, short of its 20 percent by 2020 goal.

“It’s been very disappointing that Utilities hasn’t taken advantage of the cheap wind that is available right now,” said local clean-air advocate Jacquie Ostrom.

“We’re seeing Xcel getting proposals back on wind plus battery storage that’s cheaper than running (Martin Drake Power Plant). It’s hard to fathom why we aren’t following their lead.”

For some living in the wind farm hub, the change is not easy.

Tim Brown, who is on the State board of directors of the Colorado Farm Bureau, is one of the “last holdouts” in his neighborhood.

“I’m all for wind farms in the county, but my dad taught me to never take the first offer that I’m given,” he said. “I’ve been approached by plenty of wind and solar companies about leasing my land, but I’m just not in enough of a hurry to take that risk on my land.”

The transition also involves reimagining what the horizon of eastern Colorado will look like. Brown said he had an unobstructed view of Pikes Peak from his home until his neighbor put up turbines.

“I’ve lived here for almost 50 years, and suddenly the landscape has changed,” he said. “I don’t really like change, but I just have to get used to the idea.”

In El Paso County, three families have blamed a wind farm with 145 turbines built by NextEra Energy for health problems and the deaths of more than a dozen of their animals since the turbines began rotating in 2015.

The human health impacts vary in severity, from nausea and headaches to cardiovascular problems, said Sandra Wolfe, who lives near the wind farm.

El Paso County has asked NextEra for clarification on a report the company commissioned on the wind farm’s sound levels, spokesman Matt Steiner said.

The report, presented to commissioners at a March 2017 public meeting, concluded that the turbines do not exceed the noise limit set by county ordinance.

Once the company provides the county with additional information, it will hold another public meeting for residents concerned about the wind farm’s effects, Steiner said.

But Jan and Virgil said the disturbances caused by the turbines to their land and cattle have been minimal and that the damage to crops, roads and other parts of their farm was paid for by Xcel Energy.

“The worst part was the number of trucks driving around, but once they’re up and running, that should go away,” Jan said.

Each turbine will occupy 1 acre and will have a lifespan of about 25 years, said the Rush Creek project’s manager, Jerry Kelly.

It’s a small price to pay for the Kochises, who otherwise might have to shut down their farm.

“This makes it possible for our farm to hopefully run for another 100 years,” Jan said, “because if you’re not diversified, you can’t make it. Diversified is better for the land and better for the people.”

The Gazette’s Rachel Riley contributed to this story.