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Kansas moves up in wind-energy ranking

Updated: 2013-04-12T14:37:44Z

By STEVE EVERLY

The Kansas City Star

Kansas wind energy, which has struggled to deliver its potential, is finally flexing its muscles.

The American Wind Energy Association in a report released Thursday said that in 2012 only two other states — Texas and California — built more wind generation. Kansas more than doubled its production capacity during the year.

That pushed it from 14th to ninth place in the total amount of electricity the state could generate from wind among the 39 states and Puerto Rico that have wind power.

Last year, Kansas wind farms genarated 2,713 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power more than 800,000 homes.

In 2012, the eight wind farms completed in the state added 1,441 megawatts of capacity. The additional capacity cost $3 billion to build, with much of that cash rippling through Kansas. About 4,000 jobs in the state are credited to wind energy.

“It’s one of the really great stories,” said Emily Williams, a senior policy analyst for the wind association, a trade group.

With its near-constant prairie winds, Kansas has long boasted about its rank as the second-best state in the country to generate electricity from wind turbines. But the state has watched as other states such as Oklahoma and Iowa with less potential produced more wind energy.

The trade group’s annual report, widely followed by the renewable energy industry, shows that Kansas is gaining traction and closing the gap. Kansas has also joined just a handful of states where more than 10 percent of the state’s generation of electricity comes from wind.

Gov. Sam Brownback, a big supporter of wind energy, said the report confirms Kansas’ place as a wind-energy leader.

“We had a tremendously strong year in 2012 and will continue to take full advantage of this opportunity to create jobs and grow the economy of Kansas,” he said.

Missouri by comparison saw no additions last year to its 459 megawatts of wind energy. The state’s winds are generally not as good as in Kansas, but improvements in turbine technology and taller towers could improve its situation in the future.

The improvement in Kansas’ wind-energy fortunes comes as the state is also seeing more oil and natural gas recovered from underground rock formations in the southwest part of the state, raising hopes of a big boost to the state’s economy. In fact, many farmers are now receiving payments for drilling rights for oil and gas and for leasing land for wind turbines.

Wind energy stumbled along for several years in Kansas, in part because unlike many other states there was no requirement for electric utilities to use renewable energy.

That changed in 2009, and wind-energy projects began to enter the pipeline, which contributed to last year’s banner results, said Kimberly Svaty, public policy director in Kansas for the Wind Coalition, a non-profit group that promotes the renewable energy.

The state also sells about 40 percent of its wind energy to other states, and with upgrades to transmission lines that is expected to grow. A wind-energy project expected to be completed in Kansas this year has a 20-year contract to sell its power to an Alabama utility.

“It’s a pure export play,” Svaty said.

Wind energy overall in U.S. had a big year in 2012. Capacity grew 28 percent, although some of that was due to rushing projects because of concerns that a federal tax incentive wouldn’t be renewed.

Wind energy met 3.5 percent of U.S. demand for electricity in 2012 and was the top option for new generation built during the year.

The prospects for this year, however, in the U.S. and in Kansas aren’t as bright.

Both Westar Energy and Kansas City Power & Light either built wind farms or committed to buying wind energy from others who built them in 2012. But they have satisfied for a few years their requirements to buy renewable energy.

That would put more emphasis on projects that export energy to other states. But the concerns last year about the end of the federal tax credit stalled plans for projects this year. Among other things, that caused layoffs at the Siemens wind turbine plant in Hutchinson because of a lack of orders.

The tax credit was salvaged for projects started this year and completed no later than 2014, although details are still being worked out. And that is creating further uncertainty and delays, according to wind-energy companies.

“I expect that 2013 will be a down year for wind energy projects, and then I expect 2014 will likely be a strong year again, given it is another sunset year for wind tax credits,” said Rob Freeman, CEO of TradeWind Energy Inc. of Lenexa. The firm is developing the wind-energy project scheduled to open this year in Kansas and sell its power to Alabama.

Bryan Uhlmansiek, manager of wind energy for Black & Veatch, the engineering firm based in Overland Park, said the company’s clients were waiting for details of the renewal of tax incentives to be released. But once that is done he expects them to commit to new projects.

“They’re in a holding pattern,” he said.

To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send email to severly@kcstar.com.

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