Wind power is gusting in Kansas, though whether the trend blows steady or dies down remains to be seen.
The state’s major utilities are on track to comply with a measure requiring them to get 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, industry members and observers say. Whether they go beyond that point depends on the cost of wind power compared with other energy sources.
“It really is an economic issue," said Don Ford, project manager for Westar Energy, the state’s largest electric company.
“Today, wind power costs more to install and operate than it does to own and operate the existing gas and coal plans that we have. As long as that’s the case, and our customers would prefer not to pay any higher rates than they have to, we’re back to a balanced mix of (power) generation."
Proponents of renewable energy, such as Dorothy Chandler of Climate + Energy Project, a Hutchinson-based nonprofit, argue that government incentives for producers, associated economic benefits for communities and environmental concerns all point toward additional wind power development.
"Even if you’re not concerned about climate change, people in Kansas, generally speaking, support wind and renewable energy," Chandler said. "They understand the economic benefit of it. It’s not a hard sell."
Certainly the state’s famed wind positions Kansas to take advantage of its potential. Kansas’ wind resource is ranked second in the United States behind Texas. Currently, wind accounts for about 7 percent of the power generated in Kansas, ranking it fifth nationally among states in percentage of electricity derived from wind.
That percentage and ranking should rise significantly by the end of 2012. The total capacity of wind farms currently in use is 1,704 megawatts, but projects expected to be completed this year would add more than 1,000 megawatts. Westar, for instance, is adding 168 megawatts near Spearville and 201 near Ellsworth through purchase agreements with providers.
“That should put us between 13 and 14 percent" of total energy coming from wind, Ford said.
Chandler said many electric co-ops, which aren’t required to use wind power, are also investing in the renewable energy source.
Wind power helps Kansas avoid the release of 2.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to the Climate + Energy Project.
It also carries economic benefits for a number of parties, Chandler said, starting with land owners leasing their property to wind farm operators. According to the Climate + Energy Project, wind power employed as many as 1,000 people in the state in 2010, and produced lease payments of $3 million and about the same amount of revenue in lieu of taxes for counties.
Ten counties currently boast wind farms. Chandler said the Flint Hills is about the only part of the state where wind farm proposals have generated opposition. Moratoriums are now in place there, generally supported by environmental groups and developers "because there’s a lot of opportunity for better wind development in the western part of the state and there’s no opposition there," Chandler said. "They’ve seen how prosperous counties have become that host wind farms."
In November 2010, Siemens Energy – a German company that is the world’s third-largest maker of wind turbines – opened a $50 million plant in Hutchinson to produce turbines. The Siemens plant employs 400 people and is working with suppliers around the state.
The higher cost of wind power is currently offset by tax credits for wind farm developers and guaranteed rates of return for utilities. However, the Production Tax Credit is set to expire at the end of this year, and Chandler said there’s been at least one proposal to tie the state’s 20 percent renewable energy requirement to construction of the controversial Holcomb coal plant. Both moves would set back the wind industry, she said.
Ford and Chandler agree that the continued development of wind power in Kansas depends greatly on producers’ ability to sell the energy to out-of-state users. Currently, only one producer is doing so, but the construction of the Prairie Wind Transmission line will allow western Kansas producers to ship more electricity to buyers.
“I would not be surprised to see a substantial amount of wind power developed in Kansas that does not remain in Kansas," Ford said.
“If we’re ever really going to develop our market to the fullest potential," Chandler said, “we’re going to have to be able to export the wind."