Wind farm a boon for nearby Elk County

10/09/2010 12:00 AM

10/09/2010 12:52 AM

Developers announced Friday that they will build a $350 million wind farm in Elk County, about 50 miles east of Wichita.

Lenexa-based TradeWind Energy is developing the 200 megawatt Caney River Wind Project — 111 turbines of 1.8 megawatts each — on nearly 14,000 acres in western Elk County, about eight miles from the wind farm at Beaumont in Butler County.

The installation will be built, owned and operated by its partner, Enel North America, a subsidiary of Enel Green Power.

The partners will sell the electricity to the Tennessee Valley Authority to power the equivalent of 60,000 homes in the Southeast. Commercial operation is expected to start around Jan. 1, 2012.

Selling electricity to customers hundreds of miles away will become typical of Kansas wind farms, said Matt Gilhousen, senior vice president for development at TradeWind Energy.

"The bulk of it will be for export to out-of-state utilities," he said. "There is limited capacity in Kansas to absorb what will be generated here, but with the expansion of that system, we can continue to move it to where it's needed."

That export market — which will require additional upgrades to the nation's power grid — will drive demand for Kansas wind farms, particularly if the federal government sets a national Renewable Energy Standard, essentially a mandate that utilities buy a set amount of power from alternative sources.

Kansas will be one of the big beneficiaries of this export market because it is the second-windiest state, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

"The state of Kansas is poised to gain in a big, big way," Gilhousen said. "This industry had quietly invested billions (of dollars) over the last few years in the state, but now we're looking at tens of billions."

For some parts of Kansas. land is just too valuable to be turned over to wind turbines for 30 years. But for Elk County, the project is a tremendous economic development boon, said Lawrence Jontra, chairman of the county commission.

The project will create about 200 construction jobs and 15 full-time maintenance jobs.

Just as importantly, the wind farm will contribute $3 million a year to the local economy through lease agreements with landowners and payments to the county government in lieu of taxes.

The roughly $1 million a year in payments to the county government is equal to nearly 50 percent of the county budget, Jontra said. It will give commissioners the money to improve services and lower taxes.

"This is an extremely welcome thing as far as Elk County is concerned," he said.

There was a little opposition from landowners who didn't live in the county, he said. But local residents can't wait for it to be built.

Jontra said another wind farm, about the same size, is being planned for the east side of Howard, but it is still in process.

With two wind farms, Elk County will have the tools to really help its hard-pressed citizens, he said.

"We got 3,000 nice people and lot of wind over here," he said.

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