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Leashing the wind

Two wind farms in northwestern
Missouri are expected
to generate enough electricity
for up to 64,000 homes
— a power source Columbia
plans to tap.
Sunday, September 24, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:34 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

[photo]

Imagine a wind farm (IKURU KUWAJIMA/Missourian)

The wind-swept farm fields near King City don’t seem to be a likely place to find a miracle of 21st-century engineering. Cows graze behind barbed-wire fences. Ponds reflect the late-summer sky, and local history is on display at a living history festival just down the road.

A mile north of town, gargantuan white cylinders and sleek, aerodynamic blades rest on the ground beside massive cranes like a collection of NASA spacecraft. The scale of Missouri’s first wind farm has to be seen to be appreciated. Just as impressive is the speed at which this project is coming together.

Only three months ago, Missouri had no utility-scale wind farm. By the end of 2007, 51 wind turbines will begin pumping power into the grid of lines and towers that feeds the Midwest’s hunger for electricity.

Energy prices, increased environmental awareness and concern about dependence on fossil fuels are making “alternative energy” a familiar phrase. Alternative energy projects are growing in the United States, and Missouri is being swept into the world of wind.

The Bluegrass Ridge wind farm near King City in Gentry County is one of two being developed in northwest Missouri by Wind Capital Group in St. Louis.

Bluegrass Ridge is expected to begin producing electricity by early next year. Its 27 turbines are projected to generate 56.7 megawatts of electricity per year, owners say, or enough to power between 15,000 and 34,000 homes. The project is expected to begin producing energy in November and be fully operational early next year.

[photo]

Ken Hensley, director of Wind Capital Group’s Gentry County operations, stands at a construction site for a Suzlon S88 wind turbine near King City. This is just one of 27 windmills to be built in Gentry County.

(IKURU KUWAJIMA/Missourian)

The second project, named Cow Branch, will be located in Atchison County, 50 miles northwest of Bluegrass Ridge. With a scheduled completion date in late 2007, its 24 turbines will have a combined capacity of 50 megawatts — giving the two projects a combined capacity to power up to 64,000 homes, said Wind Capital Group’s company profile.

At the center of the action is Tom Carnahan, president and founder of Wind Capital Group and the son of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. Two years ago, Carnahan said, he was looking at a map of all the wind farms in the United States and realized Missouri was not a player. He formed Wind Capital Group in late 2004, and he said he plans to announce a third Missouri wind farm in the next few months.

“People in Missouri and across the country are tired of relying on hostile foreign governments for energy,” Carnahan said.

There are several reasons for the advent of wind power in Missouri. Neil Fox, a professor of atmospheric science at MU, said improvements in technology — taller towers and more efficient turbines, as well as longer blades — coupled with high oil prices have made it more cost-effective to produce wind energy in Missouri.

Indeed, the wind turbines themselves are something to behold. Each Suzlon S88 turbine that will power the Missouri wind farms sits atop a 286-foot tower. The 144.5-foot blades, nearly half the length of a football field, smoothly slice through the air.

Before the electricity reaches the kitchen toaster, it goes through several steps. The power first travels a short distance in underground cables to an electrical substation where the voltage is increased. The electricity is then fed into power lines owned by NW Electric Power Cooperative.

Some of that power is destined for homes and businesses in the Columbia area through Associated Electric Cooperative, which plans to purchase a portion of the wind power and sell it to Boone Electric Cooperative and the Columbia Water and Light Department.

Associated Electric is in line to purchase electricity from 24 turbines; the city of Columbia will purchase electricity from the other three turbines to help meet its voter-mandated target of using renewable energy for 15 percent of the city’s electric needs by 2023.

Boone Electric Cooperative is committed to buy the wind power, but it is banking on its customers to pay a little more and buy blocks of electricity generated at Bluegrass Ridge. The electric co-op expects that its customers will be interested in the renewable energy, but it is prepared to sell the power to other utilities if necessary.

For farmers, financial benefits

Taking a break from his blacksmith demonstration at the living history festival, here in King City, Mark Jago explained his take on the attraction the wind farm holds for farmers.

“I know of farmers who have in-town jobs and also farm just to make ends meet,” Jago said. “But with what they pay the farmers to have these wind turbines on their land, they can give up their town jobs and go back to farming.” Wind Capital has a three-tiered process when landowners agree to have a turbine on their property. A landowner initially receives $250 to $500 for signing a cooperation agreement. A 20- to 25-year lease brings in an additional $1,000. Finally, a landowner is paid $3,000 to $6,000 per year, per turbine.

The arrangement can be particularly advantageous for farmers because they can lease their land and continue to farm and graze livestock right up to the base of the turbines.

Communities near wind farms also benefit economically. The Bluegrass Ridge wind farm, for example, will generate an estimated $434,000 in tax revenues next year for Gentry County, said County Clerk Carol Reidlinger.

She said that amount represents a 10 percent increase in total tax revenue for the sparsely populated county. Reidlinger also said residents are pleased with the development overall and that the King City School District is especially pleased.

Superintendent Kendall Ebersold said the wind farm is good for the environment, good for the country and, of course, good for his school district. He said the district plans to use the extra income to help offset increases in health insurance for employees as well as help pay for fuel and utility costs. He said the district’s fuel bills for buses have increased 98 percent in the past two years and utility bills have increased 43 percent.

Kenneth Hensley, director of operations for Wind Capital Group, has lived in Gentry County all his life, and he has seen the area go through hard times.

“The economy here has been weak since the ’80s,” he said. “There were bank failures and farm failures. Probably half a dozen car dealerships went down in the ’80s.”

Mike Waltemath, another lifelong Gentry County resident who’s running for the Missouri House of Representatives, is the first landowner to participate in Wind Capital Group’s land-lease program. He also has a long history with the Carnahan family.

“I met Russ Carnahan several times in the past. A year ago, Tom (Carnahan) called Kenneth Hensley, and Kenny called me and said, ‘How’d you like to have the first windmill in Missouri on your property?’ I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ ”

One year later, an S88 Suzlon turbine on Waltemath’s property awaits the final stages of construction. Hensley calls the wind turbines the biggest and most technologically advanced in the U.S.

Waltemath is grateful for what the Bluegrass Ridge wind farm will bring to Gentry County.

“It’s going to be about a half-million dollars in taxes for the county,” he said. “There will be between $240,000 and $250,000 annually for the school district.”

Waltemath also remembers harder times: “In the ’80s, it was a train wreck. Farms were selling, and people were losing everything they had. They had to close the bank on Feb. 13, 1987. Me and some of my neighbors watched it happen. The FDIC made everyone who did business with the bank put together lists of what they owned. Before that, we thought we had the world by the tail.”

While the economy remains weak, Wind Capital Group has established itself as a positive force in Gentry County.

“Everything Tom said about the construction is 100 percent right,” Waltemath said. “They told us they would be friendly with the landowners, and they are. They’ve bent over backwards to try not to disturb farm operations.”

Plenty of wind, but what about buyers?

Jill Miller, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club in St. Louis, said the short amount of time needed to develop wind farms and make them operational is one of wind energy’s advantages.

“Coal plants take as many as five years to build, and that doesn’t include all the hurdles with the permit process,” Miller said. “Wind plants, however, go up in a matter of months.”

But even with Wind Capital Group’s expediency, the state has a lot of catching up to do in comparison to the use of wind generation in other states.

If all goes as planned, Missouri will have 100 megawatts of wind-power capacity by the end of 2007. Iowa already has more than eight times that amount. Minnesota has almost as much as Iowa. Texas has the most wind capacity with 2,400 megawatts followed by California with 2,323 megawatts of capacity and another 565 megawatts under construction.

“The possibilities for wind power in the United States are tremendous, especially in Texas, Kansas, North Dakota and western Oklahoma,” Miller said. “Dozens of wind farms are being built on that corridor.”

MU’s Fox said Missouri shares in the potential to develop its wind resources. He is part of a team of atmospheric scientists who are placing wind measurement devices on cell phone towers around the state to measure wind speeds at heights of 220, 330 and 495 feet.

So far, Fox said, the most promising sites in Missouri are in the northwest part of the state. Commercial viability, he said, requires an average wind speed of 15.5 mph.

“There’s plenty of good wind in northwest Missouri,” he said. “The big question is, are there electric companies that are willing to buy the power.”

“Although Missouri doesn’t have as strong of wind as other states like Kansas or Iowa, as technology improves, it becomes more cost-effective to tap into areas that might not be as good,” Fox said.

Rick Anderson, an energy policy analyst for the Department of Natural Resources, said that until electricity prices are much more expensive, it won’t be economically attractive for wind turbines to be developed in Boone County. Right now, it’s better to install turbines in windier terrains and transmit the electricity to places like Columbia.

Wind power has its limitations. One problem, of course, is that the wind comes and goes. And it isn’t yet practical to store wind-generated electricity.

“You have to have the coal plant because there needs to be a reliable base load for when the wind isn’t there,” said Roger Clark, chief executive officer of Boone Electric.

A second hurdle is power transmission.

“The further you have to transport the energy, the more loss you’ll suffer,” Fox said. For this reason, some of the best sites for wind are not attractive for developers.

The site for the Bluegrass Ridge wind farm, for instance, was chosen for its proximity to major transmission lines, even though windier places exist, Fox said.

Another question is the impact of wind turbines on wildlife, specifically birds and bats. Jill Shaffer of the U.S. Geological Survey in North Dakota said that birds are dying in the giant blades, but research is still being done to determine the specifics.

The American Wind Energy Association plays down the threat to birds, noting that cats, buildings, hunters and vehicles are the leading causes of bird kills in the United States. On the other hand, wind power is in its infancy and the number of turbines will continue to increase.

Ultimately, the future of wind energy is largely dependent on economics.

Fox noted that wind-generated electricity is still more expensive than electricity from coal-fired plants.

“But what we’ve seen, and expect to see, is that as technology improves and oil prices rise, the cost of wind power will decrease,” he said.


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