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Kansas wind energy turns 20, braces for quarter-life crisis


Kansas Highway 23 divides the Gray County Wind Farm from the Ensign Wind Farm in Gray County. Brian Grimmett / Kansas News Service
Kansas Highway 23 divides the Gray County Wind Farm from the Ensign Wind Farm in Gray County. Brian Grimmett / Kansas News Service

By BRIAN GRIMMETT
Kansas News Service

MINEOLA — The wind farm business in Kansas has hit its
awkward adolescence. It’s still growing 20 years in, but unsure what
the near future might hold.

If it wants to get through those tough
years and continue to grow, it needs to find more workers, to figure
out what to do with the dated-but-not-obsolete turbines erected two
decades ago and to sort out a way to carry all that wind-harvesting
muscle beyond the state’s borders.

This is part 2 of a two-part series on the impact of 20 years of harvesting wind energy in Kansas. Crysta Henthorne
This is part 2 of a two-part series on the impact of 20 years of harvesting wind energy in Kansas. Crysta Henthorne

Consider the burly, newest version of wind farming at the Cimarron Bend wind farm south of Dodge City.

“We
just watch and listen to the towers,” said project supervisor Dewain
Pfaff, who’s responsible for keeping about 300 turbines up and running.
“If you can hear a noise we want to mitigate those issues as soon as
possible.”

Standing at the base of one of the newest turbines on
the site, he’s dwarfed by the tower that rises 300 feet into the air.
That’s almost as tall as the Kansas State Capitol. Add in the blade when
pointing straight up and it’s taller than the tallest building in the
state.

That mammoth size is one way wind turbines have changed
over the past 20 years. While the turbine is nearly 300 feet tall, the
turbines at the very first large-scale wind farm in the state stretched
only 200 feet above the ground.

Transporting larger towers and blades is trickier, but inevitable.

Trucks transport blades for wind turbines in Gray County. Brian Grimmett
Trucks transport blades for wind turbines in Gray County. Brian Grimmett

Wind turbines are relatively simple devices with only a few moving
parts. But like all machines, they still require maintenance and
repairs. About 35 people are on site daily at the Cimarron Bend
projects.

Stand close to one of the turbines and the woosh of the
blades traveling as fast as 150 mph at the tip is quite loud. Walk a
half-mile away and you can barely hear one.

Inside the giant
structures, once the turbines are shut down, technicians can grease
bearings, patch blades and inspect for other mechanical or electrical
faults.

Last year, almost 450 new wind turbines were erected in Kansas. Nearly as many will go up this year.

“It’s
not just that the industry needs to hire a lot of new technicians,”
said Kit Thompson, chair of the renewable energy program at Cloud County
Community College, “they’re offering very, very good pay.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics
says the median pay for a wind tech in 2020 was $56,000 a year. Wind
technician is also expected to be one of the fastest-growing jobs over
the next 10 years.

Part of thinking about the future of the
industry is figuring out what to do when turbines start to age. Turbines
are typically built to last 20 to 25 years, but that lifespan can be
extended by decades through changing out parts and replacing blades. The
energy company ENEL recently went through the process, known as
repowering, at its wind farm in Ellsworth County.

ENEL’s head of
sustainability, Marcus Krembs said about 85% of wind turbine components
are fully recyclable. The giant blades, however, are not. Krembs said
the company has committed to make sure old blades don’t end up in
landfills.

“We’re using a handful of blades from (that project)
and partnering with an academic consortium to utilize those blades as
transmission poles,” he said.

Wind turbine and blade manufacturers
are also working on ways to make the blades easier and cheaper to
recycle. Siemens Gamesa just launched what it’s calling the world’s first fully recyclable blade. It will be used on turbines being built off the shore of Germany.

But there’s another major obstacle to continued growth in the wind industry.

“There’s one word and it’s transmission,” Krembs said.

Transmission
cables are the large wires used to transport high-voltage electricity
from places where energy is produced, like Kansas, to the population
centers to the east and west where it’s needed.

The base of a tower at the Cimarron Bend III wind farm south of Dodge City. Brian Grimmett
The base of a tower at the Cimarron Bend III wind farm south of Dodge City. Brian Grimmett

Alan Anderson is an attorney who helps represent renewable energy
projects, including the proposed 800-mile-long multi-state transmission
project known as the Grain Belt Express.

“Similar
to corn, beans and wheat, where we export,” he said, “it would be great
if we could get the same with our renewable resources, that we can
harvest it and get it to the marketplace to the benefit of Kansans.”

The
Grain Belt Express has been in the works for more than a decade while
it’s sought government approval. When completed, Anderson said, it will
be key to unlocking more of Kansas’ renewable potential by expanding the
potential list of buyers for the state’s wind energy.

Even with
more transmission, he said wind energy growth in Kansas will eventually
slow. Especially as solar and battery storage becomes more affordable.

But
he said as long as the wind still blows in Kansas, there will be plenty
of opportunities left to take advantage of one of the state’s most
desired natural resources.

Brian Grimmett reports on the
environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the
Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at [email protected]





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