Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
A new wind blowing
Cooperation brings renewable energy to northwest Missouri

by Bob McEowen

Employees watch as blades are lifted into place on Missouri’s first commercial wind turbine. The Bluegrass Ridge project includes 27 wind turbines, each capable of producing 2.1 megawatts of power. All of the power from the project will be sold through Associated Electric Cooperative, though energy from three of the turbines is earmarked for the city of Columbia.

It was inevitable that Tom Carnahan would be compared to Don Quixote, the delusional knight of the 1965 Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha.” Like the play’s protagonist, Carnahan was initially dismissed as tilting at windmills when he set about bringing commercial wind energy to Missouri.

“I like to use the Don Quixote comparison because when I first started talking about this, most people thought I was crazy,” Carnahan says.

“I was calling everyone and talking to anyone who would return my phone calls. They said I could never get it done,” says the son of the late- Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan and U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan. (Carnahan’s political family also includes brother Russ, a U.S. congressman, and sister Robin, Missouri’s Secretary of State.)

The 27 wind turbines currently being installed near King City are proof that Carnahan’s mission was not so quixotic after all. In fact, the 56-megawatt Bluegrass Ridge Wind Farm, scheduled to be operational by January, is the first of three Missouri wind energy projects announced by Carnahan’s Wind Capital Group, John Deere Wind Energy and Associated Electric Cooperative.

The two other wind farms, located near Rockport and Conception, will bring Missouri’s total wind generation capacity to more than 150 megawatts and, theoretically, could provide electricity to more than 45,000 homes.

For the next 20 years, all of the power produced by the state’s first commercial wind farms will be purchased by Associated Electric Cooperative, which supplies energy to local electric co-ops in Missouri, as well as parts of Iowa and Oklahoma.

Workers prepare the giant generating unit, called a nacelle, for lift onto a 260-foot-tall tower. The turbines being installed near King City are engineered in Europe and assembled in Indian. Suzlon, the manufacturer of the turbines, has announced a new U.S. facility, which will produce turbine blades.

The Suzlon S-88 turbines being erected near King City are among the largest and most powerful in America. Each with a generating capacity of 2.1 megawatts, these turbines will rise nearly 260 feet into the Gentry County skyline. With three 140-foot- long blades, the rotor diameter of each turbine is 289 feet, nearly the length of a football field.

Sixteen turbines are expected to be operational in Janu-ary with the remainder to follow soon after. The two additional wind farms planned for northwest Missouri are expected to be completed by the end of 2007.

The sight of all these glistening white turbines is the direct result of Carnahan’s determination.

“As a lifelong Missouri resident, and growing up on a farm in rural Missouri, this was kind of a labor of love,” Carnahan says. “I saw that we were being left behind by our neighboring states. We had wind projects in Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Oklahoma and none in Missouri.

Tom Carnahan announced plans for a third Missouri wind farm during a tour of the Bluegrass Ridge project held for lawmakers, community leaders and the press.

“I just knew that the wind didn’t realize there was a state border up there,” he says. “Surely it must come across into Missouri.”

Refusing to accept that wind energy was an impossible dream in Missouri, Carnahan turned to Don McQuitty, CEO of N.W. Electric Power Cooperative of Cameron. A former state lawmaker, McQuitty is a longtime friend of the Carnahan family. As head of the cooperative that transmits wholesale power to distribution co-ops in northwest Missouri, McQuitty offered the connection to Missouri’s electrical infrastructure Carnahan would need to allow his dream to succeed.

“Tom knew a project like this took three things,” McQuitty says. “It took a willing investor. It took people willing to let you install turbines on their property, and it took an interconnect with the transmission line. The transmission is the key.”

A wind turbine is of little use unless the power it produces can enter the nation’s energy grid. Missouri’s electric cooperatives have a strong transmission network that crisscrosses the rural areas of our state — precisely the area where wind power is likely to be produced. But a connection to the transmission grid isn’t enough. Someone has to want to buy the power.

Enter Associated Electric Cooperative. After just two months of discussions, Associated agreed to buy all the power Carnahan’s proposed wind turbines could produce.

Additional power supply could not come at a better time. Demand for electricity by Missouri electric cooperative members is growing at a rate of about 100 megawatts each year and Associated is constantly looking for new generation resources. So-called “green power” has been part of Asso-ciated’s generation mix since 2003, primarily in the form of biomass and out-of-state wind energy, but those sources don’t begin to meet the state’s insatiable appetite for electricity.

Employees of N.W. Electric Power Cooperative position a transformer at a substation being built to connect wind turbines to Missouri’s electric cooperative transmission system. Missouri’s first commercial wind project, is currently under construction near King City.

The cooperative has a new 600-megawatt coal plant on the drawing board but completion is years away. In the meantime, power plants fueled by expensive natural gas are filling some of the void. Wind energy offers environmentally benign generation at a cost lower than gas plants.

“It’s a valuable cost-effective resource for our growing system,” says Associated Electric’s CEO Jim Jura. “We’ve got a need to meet our load growth. We’re interested in any project that is reliable and cost effective.”

The reason wind energy is cost-effective is the availability of tax incentives from the federal government. But tax credits don’t benefit electric cooperatives, which operate on a not-for-profit basis. Instead, Carnahan turned to the Wind Energy Group of John Deere Credit, a subsidiary of the agricultural equipment giant, to make wind energy in Missouri a reality.

Crews position one of the massive 140-foot-long turbine blades. The Bluegrass Ridge Wind Farms brings together a number of experienced contractors in the wind industry, plus a few newcomers. The Wind Capital Group, headed by Tom Carnahan, is spearheading the project. John Deere Credit is financing the project while Alliant Energy is responsible for engineering and construction. Associated Electric Cooperative will purchase and market power from the project, while N.W. Electric Power Cooperative provides the transmission connection.

A close partnership soon formed, with Carnahan providing the vision, John Deere bringing the capital and Missouri’s electric cooperatives contributing their transmission network and consumers at the end of the lines. The partnership highlights the effectiveness of federal incentives to encourage renewable energy — an approach electric co-ops favor over laws requiring a certain percentage of renewable energy.

“What this shows is that with government actions in the form of the right incentives, this can work,” Jura says. “We think we can develop renewables this way, rather than by a mandated renewable fuels portfolio standard.”

To help drive that point home, participants in the Bluegrass Ridge Wind Farm gathered in King City in October to show off progress at the $80 million project. With legislators, community leaders, landowners and the media in attendance, Carnahan spoke of the natural alliance between rural organizations that made the project possible.

“We all thought there was some magic in getting the rural electric cooperatives and John Deere working together on a project. Something in our gut just felt right about that,” Carnahan said at the event. “It worked because these are two institutions with a long history of transforming rural America and making it better.”

Karl Delooff, construction manager for RMT, Inc., which is erecting the turbines, discusses the process of lifting turbine blades more than 260 feet into place.

With that, Carnahan thrilled the audience by announcing the group’s third project. “If anyone doubts wind power is real and going to happen, put that thought to rest today,” he said. “John Deere and Missouri’s electric cooperatives are transforming rural America again, and for the better.”

Already, Carnahan’s wind energy projects are making rural Missouri a better place, locals say.

“This part of the country was kind of stagnant,” says John McKinnon, a landowner who will host turbine No. 21 on his property. “There wasn’t much for the young kids to even say about the area. But now this is a big deal. It’s quite an honor.”

Like other turbine hosts, Mike Waltemath will receive lease payments based on the energy the turbines on his land produce each year. More important, he says, is the impact the project will have on a community once known as a top producer of bluegrass seed before falling on hard times in recent years.

A tractor trailer rig carrying two of the 140-foot long turbine blades negotiates a turn off of Highway 36. Most of the components for the wind turbines were shipped to the United States from India and then trucked to Missouri from a port in Houston, Texas.

“It’s been great for our restaurants and convenience stores,” he says. “It’s brought a lot of money into town.”

Waltemath, who is president of the local school board, says tax revenue from the Bluegrass Ridge project will be a boon for the local school and the county. But as much as anything, he says he’s proud simply to be involved in something new.

“I’m just an old diehard Missourian, and it had never been done here. I want to participate in the first one and get things going,” Waltemath says. “Hopefully, it will spread around the state.”

Workers position the hub onto the generator portion of the turbine.

With plans in place for two more projects, wind energy is definitely spreading across Missouri. It’s a welcome development for the communities that will benefit and for consumers concerned with how their energy is produced.

Ultimately though, these projects have come to fruition because they continue the long rural electric cooperative tradition of providing reliable power to members at the lowest possible costs, McQuitty says.

“The feel-good part is a big bonus,” he says. “Yes, we feel great about it because it’s not a gallon of gas or a pound of coal. It’s clean. It’s wind. It’s bringing money back to our farmers and our businesses.

“But at the end of the day, these projects make good business sense.”

For more information, log onto www.windcapitalgroup.com. Additional photographs and details about Associated Electric Cooperative's role in the project can be seen at http://www.aeci.org.

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