Area wind farm marks milestone

10/19/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

TradeWind Energy, the Lenexa-based company developing the Buffalo Dunes wind project in southwest Finney County, last week installed its 91st wind turbine on the project, marking the milestone of development projects totaling one gigawatt of electrical generation capacity.

The company, now celebrating its 10th year in business, said that capacity represents $1.7 billion invested in projects in Kansas and Oklahoma.

One gigawatt produces enough electricity to power 330,00 homes per year.

TradeWind co-founder and CEO Rob Freeman said the company is proud to reach such a milestone, calling it a testament to the investment made in people and the hard work and abilities of a team of people.

"We are most grateful to our partner, Enel Green Power, and the landowners, communities and local elected officials who have demonstrated their support time and again for TradeWind, and also our customers who have invested in this low-cost source of renewable energy," Freeman said.

Brice Barton, development manager for TradeWind Energy, said Thursday that 100 turbines have been completed out of 135 planned for the 250-megawatt Buffalo Dunes wind farm, which will cover more than 40,000 acres of land in Finney, Haskell and Grant counties by the time it is completed in early December. "The wind resource is good. There's access to transmission, so southwest Kansas is great," Barton said.

As one might imagine, building a wind turbine is a complex process. It starts by digging a hole, laying down a mud mat before the steel rebar is set in place and the foundation is poured. It then involves bringing in pieces of the tower, the power nacelle and adding the hub and blades using large cranes.

"There's miles of rebar. I mean there's thousands of feet of rebar in place, then we pour concrete. And the foundation has to set 25 to 30 days to get all its strength," Barton said.

Work is divided among crews that specialize in one aspect of the process. One crew will move along digging the holes. Another crew will come in and do the rebar, and so on all the way through setting the foundations and maneuvering the towers into place.

"We don't build one and move to the next one, so it's hard to say how long it takes to build just one," Barton said.

The number of people in each crew also varies. Currently, 220 people are on site, and the number has been as high as 350 people working on site during a particular day.

"The reason that number (right now) is not as high is because the foundations are done and the foundation crews left," he said.

The transmission lines that connect the wind farm to a substation near Holcomb is finished but won't be energized until the farm comes online.

"Really, all the work in Finney County is completely done," Barton said. "It's hooked into the substation at Holcomb and built the power line, so that's all done. All of those crews are gone."

Work started on Buffalo Dunes on April 1. The project is expected to be complete by Dec. 1.

Electricity generated from Buffalo Dunes is being delivered to customers of Alabama Power Co., a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Co.

Frank Costanza, TradeWind Energy executive vice president, who negotiated the purchase agreement with Alabama Power, said the wind belt from the Dakotas into the panhandles is a great place for wind development.

"The lowest priced wind energy is going to come out of our region, and it's one reason Alabama Power signed a second contract with us to move power from our windy states to the southeast, where the wind doesn't blow as much," Costanza said.

Costanza said the biggest challenge for the wind industry right now is the on again, off again nature of federal support for production tax credits, which expire at the end of the year.

Under the wind energy production tax credit, utilities get a tax credit of 2.3 percent for every kilowatt hour of electricity produced over the period of 10 years. The credit has been in place since 1992, but Congress has allowed it to lapse several times.

The uncertainty of the tax credit means companies like TradeWind are struggling to plan for the future. The uncertainty also means turbine producers don't know how many turbines or towers to build or how many blades to make, he said.

Costanza said the company isn't adding staff at the moment and is hesitant to spend a lot of money on new site development because it doesn't know what the playing field will look like after this year.

TradeWind has branched off to do other things in the energy sector, but the company hopes to be in the wind business for years to come, primarily due to the quality of the wind in this part of the country.

"I think it's still going to be competitive with other forms of new power generation," he said.

Another challenge, but a good one to have, Costanza said, is a need for more transmission capacity.

"Historically, there's been a lot of appetite for wind energy coming from Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma because it is so low cost. We're reaching a point now where all this new transmission built over the past four or five years is full again. But I think that's a good thing," he said. "We're filling it up, and we'll continue to fill up more."

This year, with the tax credits in place, Costanza said demand has been tremendous for wind power by the utility sector.

"It's a wonderful supplement to their existing energy mix. They know it, and they've been buying it. We've been busy this year, trying to get things done because we have to start construction by the end of the year in order to qualify," he said.

However, Costanza thinks states like Kansas, where the wind blows harder and stronger, will weather any slow down in the industry if federal tax credits go away. Other states, like Indiana or Ohio, with a less robust wind, would be more likely to see a reduction in their wind development.

"It may be slow, but I really do believe wind energy from our region will be competitive. There will be a future for it, though I don't know how big or rosy it will be," he said. "If they extend the tax credits, even better. Then we look more like the market that's getting done this year with thousands of megawatts of wind being built, not only here but in other parts of the country."

Headquartered in Lenexa, TradeWind Energy is one of the largest independent wind and solar development companies in the United States.

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