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Harvesting the wind
Windy spot near King City is now Missouri’s largest wind farm

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by Jim McCarty

The sun sets on another day at the Lost Creek Wind Project. Its 100 General Electric wind turbines are spread out across 20,000 acres in northwest Missouri. Buy a print of this photo.

In downtown King City, the wind whips down the main street and turns the mud left by passing farm trucks into dust. Brown remnants of last fall’s leaves spiral into the air. The flag outside Workman Fencing and Construction is coming apart at the seams from the constant effects of the steady gusts.

Once just a nuisance, the constant flow of wind through this northwest Missouri town is now its biggest asset. Like mushrooms after a spring rain, hundreds of giant wind turbines now surround King City, transforming it into the wind energy capital of Missouri and allowing area landowners to harvest the wind.

The state’s first utility scale wind farm, Bluegrass Ridge, came on-line here in 2007. In July 2009, Wind Capital Group broke ground on a second King City project, dubbed the Lost Creek Wind Farm. Located south of town in DeKalb County, the new wind farm is Missouri’s largest, the size of the first three projects built by the St. Louis-based firm combined.

With 100 American-made General Electric turbines and transformers made in a Jefferson City plant, the Lost Creek Wind Farm is a $340 million investment in a region still suffering from the farm crisis of the 1980s. Each turbine is capable of supplying 1.5 megawatts of power. Given the intermittent nature of wind power, it is expected to provide the energy needed to power 55,000 homes.

The flag flying outside Workman Fencing and Construction south of King City has become torn and tattered due to the strong wind that makes the wind farm possible. These state-of-the-art turbines and their transformers are American made. Buy a print of this photo.

And like Wind Capital Group’s Bluegrass Ridge, Conception and Cow Branch wind projects, all of the power from the new wind farm will go to electric cooperative members. Associated Electric Cooperative, which supplies wholesale power to electric co-ops in Missouri and parts of Iowa and Oklahoma, has a 20-year contract to buy the entire output from these wind farms.

“The people of northwest Missouri have really embraced wind energy,” says Tom Carnahan, CEO of the Wind Capital Group. “Back in 2005, there were a few people that said, ‘I’m not sure I understand this, what’s it going to mean for our communities?’ Now that they have seen it they are saying, ‘This is good stuff. This is creating jobs. This is giving our area some much-needed exposure and we’d like to see more of this.’”

He says benefits come to the area in many ways. “Obviously, there’s construction, that’s a huge impact. On any given day, we’ve got over 300 people working on that site. So they are eating, moving around, buying locally. Then there’s landowner payments. Lost Creek, for instance, we’ve got 65 landowners. There’s substantial lease payments going to them.”

Like any other power generation station, the wind farms pay taxes. Because Lost Creek is located in DeKalb County’s enhanced enterprise zone, some tax payments will be abated. “We don’t know the impact of the second wind farm yet,” says King City School Superintendent Bruce Skoglund. “We do know on the first one (Bluegrass Ridge). It definitely had a positive impact financially on the school district. Hopefully the second project will be just as positive.”

He says the district gets 40 percent of its revenue from the state, and those dollars have been frozen for many years. “So when that new farm came in, it did give an influx of money. When a little over 40 percent of your money is coming from the state and they freeze what you get, any new growth helps you a lot. I’m a superintendent — I’ll take any dime you can get me!”

Carnahan cites another benefit from the wind farms that is just getting started. “There is actually some tourism from this,” he says. “People get off the interstate and come over to look at these wind farms. We do tours all the time. You’d be amazed at how many buses go through there.”

According to State Rep. Jim Guest, a King City businessman and resident, the tourism aspect could resonate long after the construction dollars have flowed through the community.

“The thing we are working on now is getting a visitor’s center built,” Guest says. “That could be a real boon to King City. The thing about this new project, when you get off the main highway you can get right up next to them and see them up close.”

A giant crane places the blade and hub assembly onto the nacelle perched 260 feet above the ground. Photo by Jason Jenkins.

Guest expects 10 to 12 permanent jobs to be created from the Lost Creek project. “That’s not a lot, but in the long term that will sure help us. The taxes are good for the schools and for the counties. Plus the lease payments, it’s a lot of money for very little inconvenience and it takes little land out of production.”

Heading into King City from the south, the Lost Creek project is a stunning site. The light gray windmills jut 400 feet into the sky, some standing close to rusting windmills once used by farmers to pump water in the days before rural electrification.

Since the July 2009 groundbreaking, contractors on the project have made record progress in the all-out effort to get it constructed. They built access roads, dug huge holes for the foundations and poured thousands of yards of concrete.

In November the first nacelle, the covering that houses the moving machinery on the top, was placed atop a tower. Despite the bitter cold, crews worked through the winter setting more of the nacelles, which are the size of a small school bus and weigh about 60 tons. The final step was installing the three-bladed hubs.

Ninety-nine of the 100 turbines are complete and electricity is flowing. The final turbine will be completed in the fall and will be used to test new software and controls designed by GE to make wind power more efficient.

“We started receiving energy from that project the last day of January,” says Roger Clark, director of engineering and operations at Associated Electric Cooperative.

Clark says the original timetable for the project called for a new substation and 7 miles of transmission line to be completed by August 2010. Instead, N.W. Electric Power Cooperative, a Cameron-based transmission co-op that moves power generated by Associated to distribution co-ops, had the connection ready eight months early.
That allowed the power to flow as soon as the first turbine was commissioned. About half of the turbines are now operational, with the entire project expected to be ready in June.

A worker opens the hatch on one of the three blades before it is affixed to the hub. Work on the Lost Creek Wind Project continued at a record pace despite the bitter cold weather in northwest Missouri this winter. Photo by Jason Jenkins.

Carnahan says the electric cooperative involvement was the missing link that made Lost Creek and Wind Capital’s other Missouri wind projects possible. “To date, 99 percent of the wind energy in Missouri is due to what Associated Electric has done. It is clear the electric co-ops paved the way for this. They are the ones that saw the future and made it happen.”

Besides agreeing to purchase the entire output of these projects (except for a small amount of energy going to Columbia), the electric co-ops provided another critical link — transmission. In order to get the power from the sparsely populated areas where it is generated, a wind farm needs access to transmission lines.

Clark says any future wind projects will have to address this aspect before they will be built. “In the absence of transmission, wind projects would never be developed,” he says. “The transmission we have in these areas allowed these projects to be built, but there’s not room for a whole lot more. For the next guy to come in and build, we will have to make some transmission upgrades that will allow them to take power.”

Wind farms like Lost Creek are an important piece of the nation’s energy puzzle, both Clark and Carnahan agree. “Some people think wind energy is trying to be 100 percent of the energy in America and that simply isn’t true,” says Carnahan. “I think a reasonable target would be for us to try to get to 20 percent wind and other renewables in the next 10 to 15 years or so.”

Clark points out that because wind energy can’t be ramped up or down as the demand rises and falls, it can’t meet the commitment to power required by electric co-op members. “We’ve always viewed it as something that can replace (natural) gas. It’s actually a hedge for gas and it’s bringing energy on to the system that can displace a higher-cost generation.”

The Lost Creek Wind Farm has changed the landscape and the economic prospects of northwest Missouri, giving farmers a new “crop” to harvest.

He says current decreases in natural gas prices make wind energy from Lost Creek more expensive than gas. But in the life of the 20-year contract, fluctuations in gas prices will make wind energy a valuable asset for Associated and its member systems.

As Congress debates putting restrictions on releases of carbon dioxide, wind power could become even more important, whatever its price. “We are doing this because it’s the right thing to do,” Clark says. “And we are going to continue to make smart decisions, which include renewable resources.”

To learn more about Missouri’s wind farms, log on to www.windcapitalgroup.com or call 314-685-3000.

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