ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
The wind turbine turning high in the air made a steady sound like vinyl softly rubbing against vinyl.
But the Marion County Planning Commission members who came to the Gray County Wind Farm at Montezuma last Wednesday to “get a sense of presence” of the big electrical generators seemed to find the sound “strangely unobtrusive,” and even undetectable only a short distance away.
The visitors expected to find the 170 wind turbines nearly 300 feet into the air obtrusive in other ways too, such as cluttering up the sky and the view. It had been noted in earlier meetings of Planning Director David Brazil with county commissioners that the presence of big wind turbines could be so overpowering as to change a person’s sense of place.
The Gray County farm is the biggest in Kansas at 112 megawatts of power-enough for the energy purchaser, Aquila, Inc., to supply 37,000 homes in Kansas and Missouri.
They expected that more planning regulations might have to be written to protect county residents against the expected sky clutter.
Instead, Brazil found that on the site, the turning wind mills scarcely were an important slice of the broad Gray County horizon.
David Mueller, member of the planning commission, said he usually found transmission lines more obtrusive to views than he did the wind generators.
“Now all we have to do is write it,” said Mary Avery, planning commission member who noted that after months of research, getting this sense of place with wind turbines was one of the last step before the commission must write wind farms into the comprehensive plan before a county moratorium for accepting applications expires in June.
Mueller and fellow commissioner Ervin Ediger were even discussing the possible benefits of landowners forming cooperatives for smaller potential wind farms.
Mueller said it is becoming more obvious that wind farms are locating in places like Butler County and Gray County to be next to cross-country electrical transmission lines ranging from 34.5 to 345 kilovolts carrying power.
He believes that makes southern Marion County most likely to see wind-farm development because of its proximity to the same lines as Butler County.
Brazil took six planning commissioners, including Eileen Sieger, Marquetta Eilerts and Glenn Unrau, as well as members of the press to get a firsthand look at the Gray County location owned by the Florida company, FPL Energy, southwest of Dodge City.
Commissioner Bob Unruh was expected to travel to the wind farm on his own later in the week, and Commissioner Willis Ensz also was unable to attend.
What surprised most of the Marion County group was the short six months required to construct the big farm once it began in May, 2001.
FPLE guide, Debbie Wehkamp of Montezuma, said the 170 Vestas 660-kilowatt wind turbines were sited over a 20-square mile area with 18 miles of service roads, more than 850,000 feet of underground power and commercial cabling, a substation, information kiosk for visitors, operations and maintenance facility in Montezuma and two meteorological monitoring towers.
It required 150 workers to build it, and employs 10 workers permanently.
A machine originally used to dig missile silos was brought in to boor 14 feet diameter by 28 feet deep holes into the ground, where each wind tower was anchored by 125 cubic yards of concrete anchored by 160-pound each, 30 feet long, 13/8-inch anchor bolts.
The 213-foot conical tubular steel tower weighing 147,000 pounds for each turbine was put up in three flanged and bolted sections.
The composite fiberglass blades and rotor take in a 154-foot diameter, with each of the three blades 77 feet long, topping out the structure at nearly 300 feet.
The rotor weighs 16,900 pounds and each blade weighs 3,300 pounds. Despite weight, Wehkamp said there has never been an incident when anything was broken off or thrown from a turbine.
Wehkamp said the wind energy industry at about 20,000 megawatts capacity worldwide has never recorded an injury to the public as a result of operation, and she, personally, has never heard a public complaint about the wind turbines.
The 45,000-pound turbine, called a nacelle, includes a shaft from the blades that drives a generator through a gearbox to convert mechanical power to electrical power.
The 34,500 volts from the nacelle is carried through lines in the tower to lines in the ground which take it to the substation for conversion to 115,000 volts utility usage.
The nacelle also houses computer controls for sensing, and turning the blades into the wind with electric motors, and for trouble shooting. Average maintenance of a turbine, according to FPLE, is three times annually.
The turbines are protected from lightning with a receptor and conduction system that discharges excess energy through the blades in a controlled manner without shutting the system down.
The blades start turning at a wind speed of 7 mph, the generator cuts in at 9 mph, the generator is at full capacity at 33 mph, and it shuts down at 56 mph sustained wind or about 100 mph gusts.
Wehkamp said the average wind speed at the site is 20 miles per hour, and there is some wind nearly all the time-Kansas is third among states in wind-energy potential behind only North Dakota at first and Texas at second.
Among bordering states, Nebraska is rated sixth, Oklahoma eighth, Colorado 11th, and Missouri 20th.
Highest rated Kansas areas are the southwest and the Flint Hills.
Wehkamp said one wind turbine may be turning while another is standing still, but that is not unusual because wind has continual variations.
FPLE information said wind-generated electricity has become more economical to produce in the past 10 years, dropping from as much as 30 cents per kilowatt-hour to 4 to 6 cents compared to 3.52 cents for electricity produced by the most economical natural gas-fired plant.
The cost for development of wind energy is about $1 million per megawatt compared to gas-fired cost of $550,000 to $700,000. FPLE said the difference is offset by a federally sponsored wind production tax credit to promote it of 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour.
FPLE, as a member of the FPL group, also is diversified into natural gas, solar, hydropower and other wind power plants, more than 10,000 megawatts in 16 states.