Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series on the impact of Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies on Kansas. The first story examined his re-election race, and the second looked at cuts to the state education budget.
SALINA, Kan. — Throughout most of Kansas’ history, some things have been true: The wheat is tall. The cattle are strong. And the wind has been mostly annoying. “Kansas is herself again,” a newspaperman from this central town snarked on a blustery day in April 1880. “A newcomer asked one of our fellow townsmen if it always blew this way in Kansas.” (The answer, in short, was yes.)
Today the wind still rolls off the Rocky Mountains and barrels across the Great Plains, kicking up dust, ruffling fields and ruining cellphone conversations. But increasingly, Kansans are finding that wind from the west may be yet another golden resource of the state — able to generate huge amounts of electricity and make them money in the process. A growing awareness of that windfall is cutting across partisan lines, winning adherents to a green energy source in a state otherwise dominated by deep red oil and cattle conservatives.
“The wind goes by. You just might as well use it,” said Jim Warta, a 70-year-old rancher whose family has been farming in Kansas’ central Ellsworth County for five generations. In 2008 he and his wife, Laura, opened part of their 1,500 acres to Massachusetts-based Enel Green Power, which built 11 wind turbines there — some of the roughly 150 turbines producing 250 megawatts of electricity across the Smoky Hills region, where they live.
The Wartas still make most of their money from wheat, soybeans and their herd of muscular black-and-brown beef cattle. But the extra money from the electricity generated on his land (about 3 percent of the cost per megawatt), is a welcome addition each month. The turbines also drive up the value of the land, Warta says — land he can continue to use for grazing and crops, unlike property given over to oil drilling. “I’ve been to a couple sales since then and tried to buy property that had the turbines on them. It’s unbelievable what it brings.”
The demand reflects a growing realization of Kansas’ potential as a leader in renewable energy. At full capacity it would generate more wind energy than any other state except Texas, according to the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which says Kansas wind could produce 3.1 million gigawatt hours annually. That’s equivalent to three-quarters of the total electricity generated by all energy sources in the United States last year. Despite growing investment that has nearly tripled Kansas wind-energy production since 2010, the state’s producers generated only 9,430 gigawatt hours last year — 0.3 percent of the potential.