Cloud County Revival
Wind Power’s Ascent in Rural Kansas
When the U.S. Postal Service commemorated a century and a half of Kansas statehood, those familiar with the state found it easy to fathom the stamp’s chosen graphic: an array of windmills against a backdrop of broad blue sky. Even the state’s name is drawn from the wind, or more precisely from an Indian tribe that honored the winds sweeping up into the region from the Gulf of Mexico. They were called Kansa, or “people of the South Wind.”
The wind is at times a frighteningly destructive force in Kansas life. Killer tornadoes have leveled entire towns and have made tornado chasing a precarious summer sport for daredevils seeking grim moments of media attention. Yet it also offers a vast and largely untapped source of clean, renewable energy. According to a recent government survey, Kansas could install sufficient wind power to supply almost 90 percent of America’s total present-day power consumption. Wind energy investments in the Sunflower State today have barely scratched the surface of that vast potential. About 8 percent of the state’s electricity came from wind in 2011, with coal providing most of the remainder.
Water-pumping windmills were widely used in Kansas until the late 1940s, when the electric grid finally reached rural sections of the state. Even then, many farmers continued to rely on wind to draw water up out of the ground; their windmills were already in place and, with minor tinkering, offered a free source of power. The remains of these machines still dot the Kansas prairie today. I encountered many of them in my travels across the state: spindly steel-frame obelisks, some standing bladeless, others with a few ragged slices of metal groaning and rattling in the breeze.
A second wave of windmills, or “wind chargers,” brought a thin stream of electric power to rural Kansas in the 1920s. Hooked up to a car battery, these crude machines with their two-blade wooden rotors generated just enough juice to let farmers run a radio—a much-valued novelty at the time—or a few light bulbs. Older Kansans recall how these devices brought the wider world into their lives by opening up the airwaves. Larger wind chargers were also marketed at the time, one of them luring housewives with the promise that with homegrown electricity running their appliances, ironing would become a pleasure and cleaning a joy, but their price—in the hundreds of dollars—was beyond the reach of most farm families. In any case, wired-in electricity to most parts of the state made household-scale wind power obsolete by the late 1940s.
Over the next half-century, cheap electricity from large conventional power plants kept renewable energy at bay in Kansas, as through much of the nation. Kansas missed out on the turbulent years of commercial wind energy experimentation that swept through California in the 1970s and early 1980s. Only after the turn of the millennium did wind energy find new life in Kansas. Spurred on by a property tax exemption adopted in 1999 and further bolstered by federal tax credits for renewable energy-based power, smart developers grasped the wind’s enormous untapped potential and began to exploit its commercial possibilities.
The state’s first large commercial wind facility, the Gray County Wind Energy Center, went on-line in 2001. Its “installed capacity”— the maximum amount of power it can generate at any moment—is 112 megawatts, or 112 million watts. No power plant operates at full capacity on a continuous basis, however. This is especially true for wind farms, which depend on a power source that can vary from hour to hour, day to day, and season to season. The Gray County Wind Energy Center operates, on average, at about 41 percent of its installed capacity—higher than most other wind farms. At that rate, it churns out enough electricity to meet the needs of more than 32,000 Kansas households.
The Gray County project may have been the first big wind farm in the Sunflower State, but others soon followed. One of them was the Meridian Way Wind Farm, sited on a gently rolling stretch of prairie in Cloud County, about 130 miles north of Wichita on Interstate 81. The 67 giant turbines at Meridian Way were dramatic newcomers to a predominantly horizontal landscape. Today they are a transformative force in a community that has been in steady decline ever since mechanization overran the local farm economy decades ago.
Kurt Kocher is the fourth generation in his family to raise cattle and till the soil on the family homestead, about nine miles south of Cloud County’s sleepy administrative seat, Concordia. He fears he may be the last. “There are simpler ways of making a living than farming,” he says, pointing to the trailer where his son Kenton—a high school junior—is sweeping out crop waste. “He thinks it’s forced servitude because it’s spring break this week!”
Whether Kenton will carry on the family farming tradition is an open question. “He doesn’t know what he wants to do,” his father grumbles as he adjusts the faded red baseball cap that never leaves his close-cropped, graying head. He knows his son will have plenty of company if he ends up leaving the farm. Over the past half-century, young people have streamed away from Cloud County and other rural communities like it. Some search for steadier work, others want less physically demanding jobs, while still others are fleeing the isolation and tedium of life on the farm. It’s not that farming is on the wane. Overall acreage under the plough across Kansas has actually held steady for decades. Yet today, fewer hands are needed to prepare the fields and harvest the wheat, soybeans, sorghum, and sunflowers that have long been the area’s staples.
Farms may have gotten bigger, with fewer people tending them, but not much else has changed in Cloud County for a very long time. Not much, that is, until the U.S. subsidiary of a Portuguese electric utility targeted the county for wind development. Nine of Meridian Way’s wind turbines now soar above the Kochers’ cattle pastures and grain fields, bringing in rent for the placement of each turbine, additional rent for the land where a transformer station now stands, payments for access roads and power-line easements, and a royalty on every kilowatt generated by the project. Kurt didn’t talk numbers, but I could surmise from what I knew about landowner compensation elsewhere that the Kochers’ wind-generated income must be closing in on six digits.
The story of putting the wind to good use could be told with slight variations throughout the Midwest and Great Plains states. As far back as the 1850s, Kansans recognized its value as an economic resource. Water-pumping windmills sprouted alongside farmhouses and in cattle pastures, greatly easing the burdens of frontier homesteaders. Initially made of wood, these early machines were easily repaired by self-sufficient farmers and ranchers. By the turn of the 20th century, steel began to edge out older wooden designs and the maintenance burden gradually shifted to full-time itinerant windmillers. Some wind machines bore whimsical names like Albion, Climax, Eclipse, and Eureka; others had mechanical monikers like the Axtell Ever-Oiled and the I. X. L. Steel. Manufacturers were scattered across the Midwest and Great Plains states, and dozens based their operations in Kansas.
The income stream from wind may or may not help keep Kenton Kocher and his younger brother, Tyler, on the family farm, but it certainly brightens Kurt’s outlook on the future. Crops can fail, cattle prices can plummet, but the wind blows steadily across the Kansas prairie, and Meridian Way’s developers have promised to tap it for at least a quarter-century to come.
Kurt is, above all else, a practical man. You can see it in the soil stains that are ground deeply into his jeans. And you can hear it in the unsentimental way he talks about his prized herd of 150 Red and Black Angus cattle. “These won’t be hamburger,” he tells me as he chases four young calves out of a trailer, setting them out to pasture for the summer. By early fall, they will be sent to a commercial feedlot, and by early winter, the more “efficient” among them will be turned into prime cuts of beef little more than a year after their birth. “They’re not an endangered species,” he assures me.
Kurt regards Meridian Way’s wind turbines in the same unadorned, pragmatic way he thinks about his Angus cattle and his fleet of farm machinery. A slight smile emerges from beneath his graying goatee as we look out over a large pasture where a half-dozen turbines face due south into the wind. “For our business, we like to know which way the wind is blowing if we’re applying weed killer or something along those lines,” he says. He thinks of the wind turbines as very large weathervanes. Each turbine takes up no more than half an acre of ground, so he is free to continue tending his fields and grazing his cattle below them.
Helen Kocher, like her son, is little bothered by the turbines. Her eyesight may be dimmed by cataracts, but her hearing remains sharp enough to register the swishing sound of the turning blades, which she says is especially noticeable in the evening, when all else is quiet. It reminds her of waves brushing up against a ship—an unfamiliar sound on the Kansas prairie, but one she has encountered on her travels over the years. “I don’t know if it’s the speed of the wind or the direction, but you get some pretty big waves sometimes!” Usually, though, she finds the sound just blends in with the sounds of working life on a bustling prairie farm. The steady flow of funds from the wind farm’s developers makes it easier for the Kochers to put up with a few minor annoyances here and there.
Ray Mason is another landowner who has made an easy adjustment to wind energy’s arrival in Cloud County. Now in his early 60s, Ray works part time managing the American Legion men’s club in Concordia. It was about ten o’clock on a Thursday morning when I arrived at the Legion’s club hall, a building clad with sky-blue aluminum siding just off West Sixth Street, the spine of Concordia’s four-block downtown business district. Toward the back of a dimly lit barroom, acrid from years of accumulated tobacco smoke, a few older men in checkered shirts and blue jeans sat playing cards at a small table. They looked up briefly as I entered. Ray, who stood beside them, gave me a warm smile before offering me his firm farmer’s handshake. He then led me around the bar to a game room, slightly better lit, where we pulled two chairs up to an empty poker table.
Born in Concordia, Ray grew up on a farm just east of town and worked as a farmer and rancher until a few years ago, when he decided he needed a rest. He first encountered Meridian Way’s developers back in 2003, and it quickly became clear that about 500 acres of the family’s upland pasture were good prospects for wind turbines. When he was offered several dollars an acre for a five-year option to develop wind on the land, the whole project seemed so far-fetched that Ray doubted it would ever happen. He spoke with a few neighbors, though, and together, they agreed to get on board. Then they waited.
A few years into the option period, Ray began to get itchy. Next time the “wind boys” came to town, he laid the bait. “I’ve been waiting on you guys for so long,” he told them. “Hell, I’m just gonna sell that damn ground down there. I’m not gonna mess around any longer.”
His ploy worked. “One younger guy got out his map, and I showed him where I was. He folded the map and looked at me, and he said, ‘Don’t you sell that land to anybody unless you sell it to me!’ So I knew right then that we was gonna get at least one turbine.”
In fact, Ray ended up with five. “I was probably as shocked as anybody,” he told me. Of the five turbines slated for his property, two were on 120 acres of marginal grazing land that his father bought for only $25 an acre back in 1957.“It was a rough old farm, you know, with rocks kinda close to the top of the ground and short grass, overgrazed.” Ray shook his head, and his eyes welled with tears as he thought of how pleased his father would be if he knew that rugged patch of land would one day bring in $20,000 a year, most of it from wind. “He wouldn’t believe it,” Ray sighed.
Combining his per-turbine earnings with other payments for access roads, Ray’s annual cash flow from the wind farm must be close to $50,000, a welcome subsidy that will eventually benefit his children and—if the wind farm stays in service long enough—his grandchildren. Ray’s family is a strong advertisement for community continuity, defying the trends driving younger people out of Cloud County and into areas with richer job prospects. All of his children live in Concordia, where his son works in a local metal shop and one of his daughters is a registered nurse.
While he can’t force his children or grandchildren to work the land, Ray is doing what he can to keep them tied to the family homestead, as landlords if not as farmers. “I seen my folks work for that sucker pretty hard. I worked pretty hard too, so I don’t want someone to just piss it away.” He recently created a trust to maintain his family’s ties to the land, at least for another generation or two. “I got it set up so they can never mortgage the land or sell it,” he says. “So it’ll pass on to my kids, and then to my grandkids. Then I quit.”
Meanwhile, Ray is happy to have the extra income that the wind farm is sending his way. “Two months from now, I’ll be 62, and it fits in good to my retirement, y’know.”
The man responsible for lining up the land deals for Meridian Way was Jim Roberts. An Oklahoma native, Jim was first dispatched to Cloud County in the spring of 2003 by Selim Zilkha and his son Michael, co-owners of Zilkha Renewable Energy in Houston. The Zilkhas had already proven themselves as highly successful energy entrepreneurs. When they sold their oil and gas holdings in the Gulf of Mexico for a billion dollars in 1998, the acreage they held reportedly surpassed all other prospectors operating on the Gulf ’s continental shelf. Their smart use of 3-D seismic data had yielded a drilling strike rate that was double the industry average. And now the Zilkhas were looking to get into wind.
Before joining up with the Zilkhas in 2001, Jim had worked for many years in the oil and gas industry. There he honed the diverse and subtle deal-making skills that are essential to negotiating leases for energy projects. His wife and family live in Edmond, Oklahoma, but Jim spends much of his time on the road. As soon as the land needs for one project are nailed down, he’s on to the next, living out of motel rooms and trailers and eating most of his meals far from the family dinner table. He loves his job, though, and is happy to be promoting an alternative to the fossil fuels that he helped suck out of the ground for so many years. “I believe in the need for clean, renewable energy,” he told me as he began to recount his role in moving the Meridian Way Wind Farm from dream to reality. “I’m very proud about my work in this industry.”
The first wind project that Jim lined up for Zilkha Renewable Energy was the Blue Canyon project, now the largest in his home state. The company then sent him to scope out prospects for a wind farm in the Flint Hills of Kansas. To Jim and other wind developers, the Flint Hills were alluring. Located in the eastern part of the state, they are relatively close to Kansas City and other population centers. Just as important, winds in the Flint Hills are the strongest in the state. But Jim and his Zilkha colleagues were in for a beating. An alliance of ranchers and conservationists soon made it very clear that wind turbines were a bad match for one of the state’s rare remaining expanses of untrammeled tallgrass prairie. Audubon of Kansas stood firmly against any wind farms in the area, and it was joined by state leaders of another leading conservation organization, the Nature Conservancy.
Jim’s normally soft Oklahoma drawl took on a sharper edge when speaking about Flint Hills anti-wind organizers, whom he pegged as NIMBY, or “not-in-my-backyard” activists. One of those opponents was a professor of English at nearby Emporia State University, Jim Hoy. Professor Hoy is an expert in Great Plains folklore, with a special passion for the history of Flint Hills cowboys. When one wind supporter likened the proposed wind turbines to ballerinas, Hoy derided the idea of “scores of 350-foot-tall ballerinas desecrating the native prairie grass that has covered the Flint Hills since the last Ice Age.” In January 2004, as public pressures mounted to keep wind farms out of the area, Governor Kathleen Sebelius created a Wind and Prairie Task Force to try to resolve the controversy. While other wind developers put their project plans in neutral and waited for the task force’s recommendations, the Zilkha team decided to look elsewhere for a community more welcoming to the company’s ambitions. It didn’t take long to find friendlier terrain about a hundred miles northwest of the Flint Hills.
Cloud County seemed like a great fit from the start. First, there were the southerly winds that the Kansa tribe had immortalized. Jim Roberts knew those winds would get an extra boost from the updraft off a long, south-facing ridgeline. He also knew that the area’s higher elevation, about 1,600 feet above sea level, would give the winds yet a further push. Even before he set up equipment to do more precise measurements, it was clear that the area’s climate and topography were in near-perfect alignment.
The land was favorable, too. Well over a century of continuous farming had transformed virtually all of Cloud County into a working landscape. Where the hills were too rugged for row crops, multiple generations of cattle had been set to graze. Greater prairie chickens—grassland birds whose habitat has been decimated throughout most of the Midwest—were still sighted occasionally, but Jim felt confident that measures to protect the breeding and roosting grounds for these birds could be developed.
Every bit as encouraging as the land and the winds were the people. The locals struck Jim as “salt of the earth”—plainspoken and straightforward, with a no-nonsense agrarian pragmatism and a hands-off attitude toward government regulation. Unlike many other Kansas counties, Cloud County has no rural zoning, giving landowners a relatively free hand in deciding what to allow on their property. “From the time we got there, we knew we were going to be accepted,” he recalls.
Despite his initial enthusiasm, Jim proceeded with the canniness and caution that are the stock of the land man’s trade. “Stealth” is the word he uses to characterize his first steps in scoping out a possible wind farm site in the county. Having just retreated from the Flint Hills melee, he wanted to be sure he had core supporters among local landowners before going public with the project. He was also wary of competitors, one of whom had already put up a meteorological tower to collect more precise wind-quality data. “We’re not going to go in there with flags flying and whistles and alarms going off because it’s a very competitive industry,” he acknowledges.
Describing his next steps, Jim reveals no sources and names no names. “We first made contact with a landowner,” he tells me. “We had strategically selected this person because of the land mass that this gentleman had, and we did some research and found he was kind of a ringleader.” From that initial contact, the circles of consultation grew—quietly and selectively. The landowner whom Jim had targeted for his opening gambit soon brought in just the catalyst Jim needed for the next stage: Kirk Lowell, a farmer-turned-business-booster who heads up CloudCorp, the county’s economic development corporation. Kirk had already identified wind as a major economic growth prospect for the county, so he was more than willing to help out. A wind energy steering committee checked out Zilkha’s credentials at Kirk’s behest. When word came back that the company was legit, Jim knew it was time to reach out to other landowners.
Jim called a meeting for invited landowners only. He laid out a preliminary proposal for developing a wind farm on agricultural land about eight miles south of Concordia. Initially, he explained, participating property holders would be paid to give Zilkha a multiyear exclusive option to explore wind energy prospects on their land. If all went well, smaller parcels would later be leased for wind turbines, access roads, underground cables, and other infrastructure associated with the farm.
Jim teamed up with another Zilkha land agent. Working with a rapidly growing circle of landowners, the two of them assembled a huge swath of land for possible development: 22,000 acres in all. In six weeks’ time, they had 70 landowners on board.
The Zilkha crew then geared up for the next stage of development: working their way through a dizzying array of studies and permit applications. Meteorological towers were erected to get a more accurate read on local wind patterns and climate conditions. The Federal Aviation Administration needed to sign off on the project, ensuring that the turbines would not endanger planes taking off and landing at Concordia’s airstrip. The Department of Defense had to be satisfied that its radar installations in the area would continue to function unimpeded. The Federal Communications Commission was involved in protecting local radio airwaves.
On top of those issues, there was a lot of work to be done to protect the local environment. A joint project was launched with state conservation groups to set aside land for the mating and roosting of greater prairie chickens; protocols were prepared to protect the area’s dung beetle population; and measures were developed to preserve low-lying wetlands in compliance with state and federal law.
Jim knew it was time to name the baby. A four-lane divided highway may seem an improbable inspiration for the naming of a forward-looking renewable energy project, but Interstate Highway 81 was exactly that. The highway runs right through the project area; its precursor was a dirt road that tracked just west of the Sixth Principal Meridian, the north-south map line used by government surveyors to lay out U.S. territories under the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. That old thoroughfare was a lifeline connecting Cloud County farmers and ranchers to southern markets in Salina, Wichita, and beyond—much the same role that Highway 81 serves today. People called it Meridian Road.
“Meridian Way” was the name Jim and his team gave to the wind farm. In crafting the project’s logo, artists were asked to link the excitement and promise of 21st century technology to the aura of this historic road. They came up with a simple green graphic showing a highway with a dotted median converging on two tall wind turbines in the distance.
With the project named and the permitting process well under way, most of the pieces were falling into place. Before the wind farm could be built, though, two major challenges remained: finding a guaranteed buyer for the wind farm’s electricity and raising the capital to build it.
The day was fast approaching when Zilkha would have to put real money on the table to buy and install the turbines and other equipment needed to turn nature’s gift into a marketable commodity. In the old days, farmers might spend a few dozen to a few hundred dollars to buy a windmill. Today’s giant wind turbines are in a different league entirely. Meridian Way ended up costing the developers $340 million—an average of $1.7 million per installed megawatt for the 201-megawatt wind farm.
Facing that anticipated financial burden while carrying the costs of several other wind farms, the Zilkhas decided they needed deeper pockets to carry the company’s mission forward. In March 2005, they sold a controlling interest in Zilkha Renewable Energy to the then-robust global investment banking house, Goldman Sachs, which changed the company’s name to Horizon Wind Energy. Only two years later, Goldman flipped its investment, selling the company— valued at $2.2 billion—to Energias de Portugal (EDP), the leading electric utility in Portugal and a huge player in the Iberian peninsula’s natural gas sector. EDP, in turn, assigned Horizon to its renewable energy division, headquartered in Madrid.
With the substantial backing of Goldman Sachs and then of EDP Renewables, Horizon was able to take the next crucial step in advancing the Meridian Way project: finding a long-term buyer for the wind farm’s electricity. Converting wind energy to electricity was one thing—that was Horizon’s job. Carrying the electricity to the households and businesses that needed it was a whole different story. For that, Horizon needed buy-in from a utility, ideally one with transmission lines already in the area. Lining up a power purchase agreement is the final threshold that shifts a wind farm’s developers from paper-pushing to earth-moving.
The quest for a power purchaser led to a surprise development. In the fall of 2007, just as Empire District Electric, a Missouri-based utility, declared its willingness to buy 105 megawatts of Meridian Way’s power, a second prospective energy buyer emerged: Westar, the largest electricity distributor in Kansas. Jim Roberts jumped at the challenge, shifting into super-high speed to assemble a second land package that could double Meridian Way’s output.
Once again, Jim needed a ringleader who could help him work with landowners to put together another large, contiguous land parcel. Kurt Kocher was his man. Kurt commanded the respect among his peers that was vital to Jim’s success. “He kind of became the trumpeter of our praises,” Jim recalls. “He farms and ranches responsibly. He’s a hard worker. He’s got a good operation. He’s well-known. . . . You like to get those people in your project up front.” Jim pauses. “I’m kinda giving away a little of our strategy here, but it’s a no-brainer for any wind company. You’re going to try to get your best landowners first.”
Within just a few months, Jim’s alliances with Kurt and others landed Horizon just what it needed to bring Westar into the deal. Wind development rights on another 12,000 acres were now in the company’s hands.
By December 2007, Horizon had all the important preliminaries in place: the wind, the permits, more than a hundred local landowners on board, and commitments from not one but two power purchasers. The company now geared up for the final phase of project development: building the wind farm itself. Horizon wanted the wind farm up and running by the end of 2008, which was essential if it was to tap a 30 percent federal production tax credit that was due to expire on December 31 of that year.
Enter Carole Engelder, a highly skilled, no-nonsense project manager who exemplifies many of the workers who have recently joined this frontier industry. A former employee of Amoco, BP, and a chemical startup, Carole came with a quarter-century of experience overseeing engineering, logistics, and procurement for major projects in the more traditional oil and chemical sectors. She had no wind industry background before joining Horizon in 2007, and she was unmoved by any high-minded idealism about freeing America from the stranglehold of foreign oil or the ravages of climate change. In brisk conversation, she sums up the attraction that wind held for her: “It’s fast-paced, it’s cutting-edge, it’s new in this country. . . . The fact that it’s wind, I have to admit, doesn’t have anything to do with it.” What drew Carole to wind was the adrenaline rush of moving a new industry forward.
Moving this particular project forward meant getting 67 wind turbines in place and hooked up to the grid by Christmas 2008. Given the sheer size of these behemoths, this was no small feat. Horizon chose to use three-megawatt turbines manufactured by Vestas Wind Systems, a Danish company that is well established as a world leader in wind energy technology. The Vestas V90 has a three-bladed rotor whose diameter is the length of a football field. Each tower, transported in four segments, is nearly 260 feet tall and weighs 344,000 pounds. It is topped by a hefty mechanical chamber, or nacelle, weighing 154,000 pounds and containing the turbine’s gearbox, generator, transformer, and control systems. With blades spinning, the V90 reaches 410 feet in the air—just about the height of a 40-story building.
Fitting together the many pieces of the Meridian Way puzzle in just ten months required what Carole describes as “choreography.” Like a stage manager scrambling before the curtain goes up, she and on-site project manager Alvin Cargill had to make many big decisions and a myriad of smaller ones. They needed to recruit a full complement of contractors and subcontractors, some 300 workers in all, each with their specialized trade, all of them demanding careful sitewide coordination. They needed precise locations for every tower, transformer, and power distribution line. They needed a long list of crucial components delivered to each turbine site. Access roads were a challenge in themselves. Some had to be planned and surfaced from scratch. Many of Cloud County’s existing roads had to be widened and reinforced with concrete to withstand the weight of the massive, specially engineered semitrailers with their giant cargo of towers, gearbox assemblies, blades, and transformers.
The work required not only precision but flexibility. If a weather report showed an approaching thunderstorm, the dozen people poised to lift a multi-ton turbine tower segment into place would have to set down tools and stand clear of their 300-foot-high crane. With no grounding, this machine is its own lightning rod. “Perfect planning isn’t about planning the perfect project,” Carole tells me. “It’s about perfect contingency planning.”
With so much happening in a few short months, disruptions to the daily routines of local farmers and ranchers were inevitable. Skilled at orchestrating the logistics of a complicated and fast-paced construction job, Carole was less patient in dealing with disgruntled neighbors. “Gnats,” she calls them.
“N-A-T-S?” I echo, thinking this is a wind industry acronym.
“G–n–a–t–s,” Carole spells out. “Annoyances. Alvin takes care of them so I don’t have to hear about it.”
One of the “gnats” Jim Roberts and Alvin Cargill had to contend with was Bonnie Sporer, a landowner who signed up to allow wind towers on her property. Bonnie, a seasoned rancher in her 80s, is a canny businesswoman. She’s a Daughter of the American Revolution, proud of it, and equally proud to be the descendant of a Civil War doctor who brought his family to Cloud County in a covered wagon shortly after the Union victory. Farming and crop management have run in Bonnie’s family for generations. Her family has farmed rich bottomland in the Republican River valley, just north of Concordia, for as long as anyone can remember. She grew up on that farm and continued to manage it as an adult, together with other family members. She also spent many years working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, running the government’s crop insurance program in Cloud County and points west—the largest crop insurance program in Kansas, she boasts. She served, too, as the first woman on the county’s Soil Conservation Board, and she made sure I knew it.
Bonnie began her relationship with the wind farm developers by driving a hard bargain with Jim Roberts and his land team back in 2003.“They asked if I was interested in leasing some land,” she says. “I made them take all of it.” That amounted to 1,800 acres of ranchland, for which the company paid her several dollars per acre for the option to tap the available wind. Once the wind farm’s layout was finalized, she says she received close to $80,000 for an easement to accommodate underground electric cables, plus payments of over $16,000 a year for two wind turbines sited on her property. On top of that, she is paid rent for access roads to the turbines that have been erected on her land.
Jim won’t discuss the specifics of Horizon’s payments to Meridian Way landowners, though he allows that Bonnie can sometimes be a little loose with the details. “One minute you’ll be having a conversation with her, telling her that it looks like she’ll have five wind turbines on her property. (He stresses that this is a hypothetical number.) A half-hour later, someone calls and says, ‘We didn’t know Bonnie was getting ten turbines!’”
I first encountered Bonnie when she strode into Meridian Way’s field office on a warm afternoon in May 2009, on my second visit to Cloud County. She wore rubber boots up to the knee and left a boisterous border collie barking outside the door. Bursting with energy, she reeled off a long list of complaints with the way the construction process had unfolded. In one instance, a construction worker left one of her cattle gates open, she said, and her entire herd had wandered out before anyone noticed. Then those out-of-town greenhorns went racing around in their pickup trucks, trying to round up the creatures as they wandered off in all directions. “That never works!” she exclaimed, shaking her arms in the air for effect. “It only panics the animals.” One of the cows—Number 41, she specifically recalls—was never found.
Bonnie recalls sharing dreams with other family members that their unyielding ancestral terrain might surprise them in the future. “We always laughed that someday we’d get lucky and hit oil or something.” When Meridian Way’s turbines started turning in December 2008, just ten short months after the first foundations were poured, Bonnie knew that, for all the aggravations, this was as close to a gusher as she was likely to see.
Landowners, without a doubt, are the primary beneficiaries of Meridian Way, but there are other gains that reach the broader Cloud County community. During those intensive months of building the farm, about half of the 300 onsite workers were locals. If the farm doubles in size as planned, there will be similar opportunities for local workers, including truck drivers, metal welders, electricians, crane operators, and road construction crews. With all those workers hungry by noontime, local eateries and grocery stores can count on a substantial boost. In 2008, retail sales in Concordia—and therefore local sales tax revenues—jumped a full 24 percent.
Meridian Way has also spawned a cutting-edge training program for wind energy technicians at Cloud County Community College. Bruce Graham, the program’s creator and main driving force, has suddenly brought this little-known, two-year college into the limelight as one of the nation’s leading pathways to a burgeoning, 21st century industry. Raised on a Cloud County dairy farm, Bruce—a former high school science teacher—finds himself scrambling to keep pace with a program that, in just a few years, has grown from only four registered students to more than a hundred job-hungry enrollees. Until the recession hit, he had a hard time keeping students enrolled long enough to finish their two-year training before they got snapped up by wind developers. Even after the economic downturn cut the rate of new wind development by nearly half in 2010, Bruce still was able to place most of his students in entry-level jobs in the industry.
Along with teaching classes and hustling to raise funds for his program, Bruce finds himself in constant demand as a public lecturer. On an evening when I visited the program’s makeshift classrooms in rented space at a Concordia shopping mall, he entertained a room full of aging, tattooed visitors from the Kansas-Nebraska Radio Club. A busload of Nebraska farmers had visited the school the previous week, wanting to know how they could bring wind energy technology and jobs to their own communities.
Bruce’s wife, Michelle, is Meridian Way’s administrative coordinator. Along with managing contracts and dealing with daily operational issues, she—like her husband—hosts a steady stream of curious wind farm visitors: church groups, schoolchildren, and more than the occasional journalist. Up on all the details, she fields questions deftly and conveys a contagious enthusiasm for the project.
Looking at what Meridian Way means to the Cloud County economy, Kirk Lowell is every bit as bullish about wind as the Grahams. I met the Cloud County economic development director at CloudCorp’s modest storefront headquarters, just a few doors away from Ray Mason’s American Legion Post. As he ushered me into his office, it became obvious immediately that I was in the presence of a true believer. His polo shirt sported the Meridian Way logo. On his desk was a scale model of the Vestas V90, just like the turbines now operating at Meridian Way. And on his wall was a caricature of Grant Wood’s American Gothic farm couple, minus the pitchfork, with two tall wind turbines towering in the background.
Kirk knew that I was visiting from the East, and he wanted to make sure I understood the roll-up-your-sleeves spirit that pervades Cloud County. “We have a very common-sense kind of people here. We know that we have to do something as a nation about our energy situation.” He looked me straight in the eye.“ You can’t just talk about it. It bothers people in the Midwest when you say, ‘We need to do this, this, and this. I’m not gonna do it, but we expect you to do it.’”
Though he was too polite to mention it, I suspected that Kirk was alluding to the raging controversy back East over the long-stymied offshore Cape Wind project on Nantucket Sound. What happens to all those enlightened East Coast idealists, he must have been wondering, when tough choices have to be made about where to build new wind farms? His message was clear: “Somebody has to step up to the plate and host these things.”
Kirk’s commitment to wind is rooted less in concern about climate change than in a weariness with wars fought over oil, thousands of miles away from the orderly calm of his home territory. His logic is elementary: “Either we are going to have to put wind turbines on our Kansas prairie or we’re going to continue to put our fine young men and women under it.”
Cloud County is populated by more than the usual complement of hardened realists, but the county has its share of optimists as well. Wind energy alone may not be enough to reinvigorate Cloud County and places like it across rural America. That will take the concerted efforts of many people pulling together, reshaping and rebuilding their communities. There is no doubt, though, that Meridian Way has helped give this small slice of the American heartland a new pride of place and a belief in better things to come.
Philip Warburg was president of the Conservation Law Foundation, New England’s leading environmental advocacy group, from 2003 to 2009. Earlier, he ran the Israel Union for Environmental Defense in Tel Aviv and was an attorney at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C. He has also worked with governments and citizen groups on anti-pollution initiatives in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and across Eastern Europe. Visit Philip Warburg’s website at http://philipwarburg.com.