Technological advances, transmission upgrades and numerous investors have unlocked the potential of wind-generated electricity in Kansas, driving down the power's price, creating jobs and helping companies diversify their portfolios.
The industry in Kansas has grown from a single wind farm in 2001 to 39 operations today, with eight more under construction, says Kimberly Svaty, the policy director for the Advanced Power Alliance. About 35 percent of the energy produced in Kansas now comes from wind.
In an appearance on The Topeka Capital-Journal's Capitol Insider podcast, Svaty and her husband, former state agriculture secretary Josh Svaty, address controversy about the proliferation of industrial wind farms and the value of so many developers harnessing a renewable energy source.
"They knew what all of our farmers have known for a long time, which is Kansas has a great wind resource," Kimberly Svaty said. "It blows often and it blows hard here in Kansas."
Part of the industry's success story in Kansas, she said, is the addition of 12,000 jobs.
Half of those jobs are tied directly to a wind developer or operator. Some wind turbine components are manufactured in Kansas, and the industry also needs cement for bases, meteorologists to forecast wind, biologists and botanists to conduct environmental studies, engineers, and people to climb towers and work on power lines.
"There are a host of jobs that you don't always think are associated with the wind industry," Kimberly Svaty said.
Josh Svaty, an Ellsworth County farmer, said the industry has benefited farmers who have land that historically presented challenges because of high, windy locations or rocky terrain. For those farmers, especially in predominantly rural areas of the state, payments for the location of wind turbines is a relief.
But as development has pressed into areas that are less sparse, more residents are speaking out about the placement of massive wind turbines near their homes.
"There are more people moving out to a five- or a 10-acre ranch because they want the rural experience, which is a wonderful thing," Josh Svaty said, "but they're the ones that are like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, I moved out here because I didn't want anything around me, and now you're going to stick turbines around me.' "
Opponents of industrial wind developments packed a legislative hearing on the subject earlier this year. Some were frustrated with having their voices drowned out by aggressive corporations, and others raised alarm about unproven health risks.
Lafe Bailey, who owns property in Nemaha and Brown counties, urged lawmakers to adopt legislation that would have severely restricted new wind developments statewide.
"I take no issue with industrial wind energy development in western Kansas, and I know directly the benefit it has so often brought to those very sparsely populated counties," Bailey said. "Eastern Kansas, however, is markedly different in many fundamental ways. Population density — even of rural areas — is but one."
Kimberly Svaty said everyone should have a voice in the conversation when a company considers development of a wind farm. Those conversations take several years and involve a robust permit process, she said.
"This does not just happen overnight," Kimberly Svaty sad. "It takes years."
First, the company determines wind capacity and transmission availability in the area. The next step involves putting up a meteorological tower to collect wind speed data for a year or two.
Then, Kimberly Svaty said, the company will talk to landowners about leasing space for turbines, a process that can take several years.
In addition to having conversations about zoning and planning at the local level, the company has to secure permission from the state, which is concerned with historical designations, railroads and other issues.
At the federal level, the company needs to clear hurdles for airports, landing strips and flight patterns, in addition to any military concerns.
"These projects that actually come to fruition are projects that have been exceptionally well vetted by a vast number of scientists," Kimberly Svaty said, including "biologists, archeologists, water quality experts, transportation experts."