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Kansas Looks To Wind To Meet New Energy Emissions Regulations

Sean Sandefur
KMUW/File photo
The Flat Ridge Wind Farm, in Nashville, Kansas, consists of 40 wind turbines.

Energy experts say that alongside wheat, cattle and basketball, one of Kansas’ top commodities is a strong breeze.

To date, billions of dollars have been spent on wind turbines throughout the state, and there are more are coming online each year. As KMUW’s Sean Sandefur reports, the turbines could help with compliance of strict new carbon regulations announced earlier this month.

As far as natural landmarks go, south-central Kansas is lacking. But set against the rolling green hills and big August skies are manmade landmarks that are hard to miss.

At the Flat Ridge Wind Farm in Nashville Kansas, Wes Mizell pulls up next to a massive, 260-foot tall turbine—one of 40 in the area. Its large blades revolve at a delicate pace, casting a giant rotating shadow on cows grazing nearby.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Gina Penzig, left, and Wes Mizell with Westar say the company has greatly expanded their renewable energy sector in recent years.

Mizell is manager of wind site operations for Westar Energy, Kansas’s largest electricity provider. He oversees the hundreds of wind turbines that Westar runs throughout the state.

Mizell, along with Westar spokesperson Gina Penzig, is providing a tour of the Flat Ridge Wind Farm in Barber County. This is one of company’s first wind farms. Penzig says that since the farm's completion in 2008, the company has greatly expanded its renewable energy sector.

“By the end of 2016, about 25 percent of the electricity that our customers use will be generated by renewable resources, and right now, that’s almost entirely wind energy,” she says.

Kansas is far ahead of other states. As a whole, only about 10 percent of the energy produced in the United States comes from renewable energy, which includes solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectricity.

As wind energy production goes, some states are better equipped than others: States like Kansas, California, Texas, Oklahoma and Iowa all take advantage of consistently strong winds. Mizell says the Flat Ridge Wind Farm is capable of powering up to 30,000 homes.

“At about 27 to 28 miles an hour you would be at full production on a commercial wind turbine like this," he says. 

Credit Sean Sandefur
Westar's Wes Mizell unlocks the door to a turbine at the Flat Ridge Wind Farm.

The installation of thousands of wind turbines throughout Kansas is due in part to a bill approved by the state Legislature in 2009. It mandated that the state’s utility companies either generate or purchase 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. That mandate has since been removed, but Gov. Sam Brownback still emphasizes that wind energy is vital to Kansas.

Gina Penzig says that Westar’s initial investment in wind energy was motivated by both its customers and regulation.

“Customers have shown a lot of interest in having more renewable energy provided to them," she says. "And, of course, with new regulations coming down, having that renewable energy and being able to provide that, is going to be very important.”

Those new regulations coming down are the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which was released earlier this month. President Barack Obama says the goal is to reduce carbon emission levels recorded in 2005 levels by 32 percent before 2030. To do that, the EPA wants cleaner power plants and more renewable energy.

Credit Sean Sandefur
KMUW/File photo

The regulations have been met with strong criticism. The EPA requires that all states submit a plan on how they’ll meet the new standards, and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, along with attorneys-general from 14 other states, have asked for more time.

Penzig says it’s too early to know how Westar will handle the changes.

“There are going to be a lot of things that we have to look at in order to meet the new laws and it’s really too soon to speculate on any given path," she says.

One obvious plan is to use wind energy to replace a single coal-burning power plant. As more turbine parts are manufactured in places like Hutchinson instead of overseas, wind energy is becoming cheaper. Meanwhile, providing cleaner coal energy is proving to be quite expensive.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Turbines in the Flat Ridge Wind Farm are visible in the distance from an old farm.

In 2009, Westar was sued by the federal government for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act. The suit claimed that the company’s Jeffrey Energy Center in St. Mary’s, Kansas—one of the company’s four coal-burning plants—lacked necessary pollution control technology.

The company settled and spent half a billion dollars improving the plant. They’ve also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on updating the company’s other plants. And much of these costs were passed on to Westar’s ratepayers: Since 2009, Westar Energy has increased rates 22 times. Over that same period, energy bills for residential users have increased 40 to 50 percent.

“We have been investing heavily in environmental controls and emission controls on our power plants," Westar's Penzig says. "And we’ve reduced a lot of the emissions really dramatically over the past few years. And part of that, of course, has been what’s driven recent rate increases. But we’ve dropped emissions up to 90 percent in some cases at some of our coal facilities.”

Below is the EPA's fact sheet for what the new regulations will look like in Kansas:

If wind is to significantly offset coal-burning power plants, more wind farms are needed—and more are coming. Westar will soon be utilizing energy from a brand new wind farm being built just across the border in Oklahoma.

But there’s still room for more, and many think that a certain tax credit is key in building them.

“All forms of electric generation or energy in the U.S. receive some sort of subsidy or incentive for development from the federal government," says Kimberly Svaty, Kansas public policy director for the Wind Coalition, a trade association for an eight-state region. “And in the case of wind energy and to a degree solar energy, there was a production tax credit.”

The production tax credit was created in the mid-nineties to spur growth in renewable energy. It provides a roughly 2.5-cent per kilowatt-hour incentive for the first ten years of a renewable energy operation. That means that over the life of the tax credit, the average wind turbine could bring a reimbursement of about $1.4 million dollars for the energy company.

Commercial wind turbines cost about $2 million to build and install. That equation got the attention of a lot of energy companies looking to invest in wind.

“It certainly achieved its objective," Svaty says. "We went from a virtually non-existent portion of the United States’ energy portfolio, to now 4 to 5 percent of the U.S. energy portfolio.”

Wind farms throughout Kansas. Source: Kansas Energy Information Network, U.S. Energy Information Administration

Westar says all of its wind energy endeavors are benefiting from the production tax credit. But for those looking to break in to the wind energy business, you might be out of luck. The tax credit has to be extended by Congress, and it hasn’t been in effect since last year.

“Having the question marks surrounding whether or not this federal incentive was going to be in place created a bit of a boom/bust cycle, if you will," Svaty says. "So one year, you'd see a huge influx of new products that come online. Lots of megawatts in the ground. And then the next year, when congress is debating whether or not they were going to pass the PTC again, or renew it, there was virtually a standstill.”

Congress is still debating whether to bring the production tax credit back; opponents say it’s a $10 billion burden on taxpayers. But whether it comes back or not, Svaty says Kansas needs to capitalize on its wind energy potential. She says Kansans need to start thinking about wind energy for what it is: a commodity.

“We have a top-shelf product that can be used by Kansas consumers, but we can also sell it out of state as well," she says. "And we are, in fact, selling it out of state. Roughly half the electric power generated by wind in the state of Kansas is shipped to Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas and beyond.”

She says continuing to develop wind farms would not only ease the burden of federal regulations within Kansas, but it can also help surrounding states. Westar sells its wind energy to neighboring states at a premium, and Svaty says there’s a lot more where that came from.


Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.