The future: Can the industry sustain its momentum?

By Chance Hoener Staff writer

While discussing the development of a 200-turbine wind project, Gov. Sam Brownback joked in 2016 about Kansas becoming the "Saudi Arabia of Wind."

Now it looks like the state may be headed the direction of becoming to wind energy what Arab states are to oil production.

Kansas is second only to Texas in wind-energy growth.

"Right now, wind is the cheapest new energy that can be generated," said Dr. Ruth Douglas Miller, professor of electrical and computer engineering and resident wind expert at Kansas State University. "Utility companies are going where the money is."

But many are still concerned about the impact of wind farms on the state's environment and its people.

One of the biggest concerns is what happens when the wind isn't blowing.

Firming the future

Although extensive work goes into properly siting wind farms — looking at average wind, the impact on the surrounding area and more — fluctuating wind speeds can affect the amount of energy a turbine is able to produce.

This issue has led many projects to look at storing unneeded energy from high winds at night, and using it during peak daytime consumption.

The process, often called "firming" the wind, can be done in a few ways. Common firming techniques include using small, bio-diesel generators to manually turn turbines, or storing excess energy from the night in large batteries.

Criticism of these techniques has come from national anti-wind groups, saying wind energy isn't as clean as it claims. They contend it simply exports fossil-fuel pollution coming from diesel generators and equipment used to mine materials for the batteries.

Joe Spease, president and CEO of WindSoHy — an Overland Park-based renewable energy project firm — and Sierra Club Kansas Chapter energy chair, said wind power stands on the brink of solving its problems.

"Batteries are dominating storage right now, but it's too expensive to have 500 megawatts of storage for a big wind plant," Spease said. "There's an extremely simple and reliable technology called CAES about ready to take off.

"Theoretically, with CAES a wind plant can compete with coal and natural gas on production and have electricity all day."

CAES — or Compressed Air Energy Storage — works by using excess energy from wind at night to produce compressed air.

The air is forced into a geographic fixture like a cavern and stored until the day when electricity is needed. When needed, the compressed air is released through a smaller jet turbine to produce extra electricity.

Spease said with CAES systems, wind farms along the wind corridor — stretching from Minnesota and the Dakotas, through western Kansas and Colorado, to Texas — could produce enough wind energy to power the United States .

"Eventually we are going to run out of cheap coal and gas," Miller said, "so companies are using those while they can to better develop renewable technology."

Miller said it will likely be 20 years before we begin losing access to affordable coal and gas, and by then, cheap, capable batteries will be developed for wind and solar energies.

But for now, coal is still king in Kansas.

Kansas electricity rates — on average — are slightly lower than surrounding states, in large part because of the proximity of the state to Wyoming coal fields.

Coal-fired power plants generated 54 percent of the state's electricity in 2015. The state's single nuclear plant — Wolf Creek — produced 19 percent of the state's electricity, which has raised questions about what power source is the best for the future.

Negative impacts

Critics say wind projects do have an effect on the environment - both the state's people and its wildlife. Wind turbines are noisy and unsightly, they say.

Groups like the Protect the Flint Hills have stated wind development in the Flint Hills region will damage the last remaining tallgrass prairie in the U.S., as well as be a burden to wildlife - killing birds and disrupting the ecosystem.

"The Audubon Society has put out there that climate change is doing more damage to birds and wildlife than wind turbines ever could," Spease said. "And cats kill something like 1,000 times more birds than wind turbines."

Spease also stated said a study done on Pete Ferrell's Ranch in Beaumont, Kansas — which has embraced wind energy — only found one bird over a two-year period that could be confirmed to have died from a collision with a turbine.

Power play

Distributiont provides another issue with wind energy. High-voltage transmission lines are needed to take power from lightly populated areas where wind is plentiful, to more densely populated areas, where electricity is needed.

The V-plan power line connecting Ford County with Wichita and Kansas City, made development for a lot of wind farms possible.

The recently completed Cimarron Bend farm produces 400 megawatts and will supply power not only to the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, but also to Google.

"A lot of the transmission work is being done privately by electric companies that want wind power," Spease said. "If private companies and the state can create a smart plan for development, we can easily power the whole state with the cheapest, cleanest electricity."

Part of the attraction comes from tax credits tied to development in the industry, which could ensure that projects continue for years.

Companies are finding out just how cheap the wind is in Kansas, and they are lining up to sign contracts. Business are paying 2 cents per kilowatt hour — 2 cents cheaper than the average wholesale price, Miller said.

"Kansas has done an excellent job building out with wind, and it has helped that our wind is so much cheaper than anywhere else," Miller said. "Companies like Wal-Mart, Amazon and Google that want to use renewable energy are coming to Kansas because it's the cheapest on the market."