Turbines churn with a purpose for western Kansas schools

By Roger Bluhm Staff writer rbluhm@dodgeglobe.com

The wind provides more than electricity for students in the western Kansas schools of Spearville and Cimarron.

Unique agreements have provided long-term solutions for those schools in a time where funding appears questionable in many districts.

USD 381, the Spearville School District, negotiated with Kansas City Power and Light to accept payments in lieu of taxes in the town of fewer than 800 people that's home to Kansas' third-largest wind farm.

"We had a board member who was behind it," said Daryl Stegman, superintendent of Spearville schools, with an enrollment of little more than 350. "It's been a good agreement for us."

Payments from KCPL to USD 381 began in 2011 at $121,974. According to the agreement between the school and the utility company, payments continue until 2041 and increase each of the 30 years.

About 35 miles west on U.S. 400, Cimarron-Ensign USD 102 received about $370,000 this past year from wind-farm developers in Gray County.

USD 102 Superintendent Mike Stegman calls it a "gift" to the district of fewer than 650 students.

"As a gift, it could stop at any time," Mike Stegman said.

USD 381 began receiving payments in 2007 on the first phase of the wind farm. KCPL forged a similar agreement with six other Ford County agencies in 2010 during the second phase of construction at the Spearville wind farm.

The 5,000-acre Kansas City Power & Light Spearville Wind Energy Facility opened in 2006, as a $160 million, 100.5-megawatt wind farm with 67 turbines that produce enough electricity to power 33,000 homes.

Spearville Wind

Grade school children are seen in a picture in the information booth along US 50 highway. USD 381 began receiving payments of $121,974 from Kansas City Power and Light in 2011. Payments to the district will increase each year.

The GE Energy 1.5-megawatt wind turbines are mounted on 80-meter towers and feed an underground electrical collection system.

The turbines at the Spearville Wind Farm are designed to turn on when the wind speed reaches 8 miles per hour, at which point the blades will rotate about 10 times per minute.

In 2010, Ford County approved a proposal from Topeka's Westar Energy to build Spearville's second wind farm, a much larger 500-megawatt facility in a community where where turbines rise up like giants overlooking Main Street and a brick church sits in the shadow of churning blades.

The money received by the schools has literally lit up the district.

"The first thing we did was to change all the lighting throughout the district," Daryl Stegman said. "It's something we needed to do, was to make all the lighting energy-efficient."

Later the payments allowed the district to build its gym, which opened just a couple of years ago.

"It was a big relief knowing the community approved the bonds for the gym," Daryl Stegman said. "We had the money to cover the bonds, so there were no increases for district residents."

While the influx of cash is more immediate for USD 381, it is an agreement with time limits.

"Both of these projects — the lighting and the gymnasium — are long-term fixes for issues we needed to address," Daryl Stegman said. "It's different than tax money, but only for a limited time.

"The best we can do is use this money wisely to address issues the district has now, or will have in the immediate future," he said.

Stegman said the district is looking into a tornado shelter for the elementary school, but may not use wind-farm funds for all of the cost.

The Cimarron-Ensign district is putting the money from the wind farms into a savings account and likely will use it for future capital expenditures to take care of district facilities.

But no specific projects have been identified yet.

"Right now, we're exploring options, but we're not far enough down the road for me to say we're going to do this or do that," Mike Stegman said. "We're trying to determine what will best serve our communities and the kids in the district."

So far, he hasn't heard anyone complain about wind energy in the community.

"I've lived in western Kansas my whole life, and it doesn't bother me to look at windmills, or see the utilization of the wind that we've lived in for years. It's a great resource," Mike Stegman said. "It should be good for us."