Utility officials broke ground Wednesday in Colwich on what they proclaimed will be a key piece of economic development for Kansas.
Representatives from Westar and its partners and state officials turned several shovels full of ceremonial dirt in a field outside the Gordon Evans Energy Center near Colwich to mark the start of construction of 108-mile-long twin 345-kilovolt power lines. The line will run from the Westar power station to the Medicine Lodge area, where it will connect to a similar-sized line being built by another group, ITC Great Plains.
The ITC/Great Plains line will run west from Medicine Lodge to Spearville, near Dodge City. Construction is expected to begin in Barber County in the fourth quarter, the company said.
Prairie Wind Transmission line will also extend a line south from Medicine Lodge to connect to major transmission lines at Woodward, Okla.
Although the new lines will make the regional power grid more efficient and reliable, it’s also intended to encourage development of wind farms in central and western Kansas, said Doug Sterbenz, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Westar.
Wind farm developers are set to build about $2 billion in wind farms in Kansas this year, doubling the wind energy generated in the state. Westar has been one of the nation’s leading utilities in pushing for wind power.
“We are not just building a new transmission line, we are shaping our energy future,” Sterbenz said.
Steve Kelly, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce, echoed that sentiment, saying the Kansas economy depends on having transportation to get its products to market, whether it’s grain hauled by train, oil by pipeline or manufactured goods by truck. This transmission line is just another way of exporting a Kansas-made product — electricity generated in western Kansas — to markets farther east. More than half of Kansas wind power generated by the end of 2012 will be exported outside the state.
“Kansas is poised to be a leader in renewable energy production, not just in this country, but worldwide, now that we have the means of getting it to market,” he said.
While wind farms create only a few new jobs after construction, a typical wind farm contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to landowners and local governments, say local officials.
Kelly Harrison, president of Prairie Wind and a vice president for Westar, acknowledged that all of that economic development isn’t cheap. Not only is wind power slightly more expensive than the cheapest fossil fuel, requiring a government subsidy to make it competitive, but building the required transmission lines is costly.
But Harrison said the line from Wichita to Medicine Lodge to Woodward, originally estimated at $225 million, is expected to cost $180 million because of a downturn in construction costs.
The cost is being spread across electrical customers in parts of Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Harrison said Westar customers will bear 14 percent of the cost.
Prairie Wind Transmission is a joint venture of Westar Energy and Electric Transmission America, itself a joint venture of subsidiaries of American Electric Power and MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company.