Kansas Windscape

James S. Aber and
Susan E.W. Aber

Table of contents
History and global status Kansas windscape
Kansas wind history Kansas assessment
Kite photos of wind farms Wind-energy logistics
Electricity grid Environment & aesthetics
Kansas energy National energy trends
International connections Wind myths
Ideal energy References

History and global status

Wind power is a form of green energy that requires no fuel to generate electricity and emits no pollution to the air, water or ground. Like sailing ships on the high seas, wind turbines have the potential to harness the wind for useful applications. We have a long-standing interest in wind energy particularly for Kansas and Denmark. Wind energy for generating electricity was pioneered in Denmark by Poul la Cour (1846-1908), who is considered the Danish Edison. His work in the 1890s led to the first golden age of Danish wind power in the early 1900s.

Early Danish wind turbines
Windmills built by Poul la Cour for generating electricity at Askov in southwestern Denmark. First mill (right) was erected in 1891 and a larger mill (left) was built in 1897. Note person for scale beside larger windmill. Photo dates from about 1900; from a postcard obtained at the Danish Energy Museum.
Agricco five-bladed wind turbine mounted on the base of an older traditional windmill at Olsker, island of Bornholm, Denmark. Agricco dates from the 1920s (Christensen and Thorndahl 2012); photo by JSA (1979).

In the 1970s and 1980s, Danish wind energy underwent revolutionary development beginning with the famous Tvind wind turbine. The 2.0 MW turbine was completed in 1978. It represents the core technology and decisive breakthrough for Danish wind turbines (Maegaard 2009). In that same year, the Danish Wind Turbine Owner’s Association was established, which encouraged sharing of technology by inventors and self-builders using diverse materials, varied construction techniques, and numerous turbine and blade designs. Within a few years, Vestas, Bonus, Nordtank, Micon, and other Danish companies became world leaders in the manufacture and export of robust and reliable wind turbines.

Tvind wind turbine was built in 1975-78. For many years, it was the largest wind turbine in active service worldwide and is still operating today (Tvindkraft 2022). It demonstrated the potential for industrial-scale wind energy. The concrete tower is 53 m (~172 feet) tall; the rotor is 54 m (~175 feet) in diameter and positioned on the downwind side of the nacelle and tower. The red-and-white color pattern was applied to celebrate the turbine's 25th anniversary in 2003.

Since then, Danish wind turbines have emerged as the industry standard, and wind power based on the Danish model has spread around the world, particularly in North America, Europe, and Asia—see Danish and Polish wind energy. Wind energy was a niche enterprise in the late 20th century, but it has grown rapidly in the early 21st century. Total installed wind-power capacity worldwide as of 2022 had reached 837 gigawatts (GW) led by China (338 GW) and the United States (134 GW), which together accounted for more than half of global wind-energy capacity.

Top ten countries for wind-energy capacity
Country Installed GW Country Installed GW
United States
United Kingdom
Rounded values in gigawatts (GW) from GWEC (2022).
Including both onshore and offshore installations.

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Kansas windscape

Kansas has played a prominent role in the development of United States wind power. Like other Great Plains states, Kansas is well known for wind. Dodge City is the most windy city in the contiguous (48) United States, in fact, and Goodland is the fifth most windy city (Aber and Aber 2020). The largely rural, treeless, windswept landscape of Kansas is ideal for further development of wind energy. Other essential factors for siting wind farms include topography and electrical transmission lines as well as environmental, health, and aesthetic aspects. Together these factors make up the windscape.

Top states for installed wind-energy capacity
(as of third quarter 2023)
State Installed GW State Installed GW
New Mexico
North Dakota
Rounded values given in gigawatts (GW).
Data from WINDExchange (2024).

The Great Plains region has the most installed wind-generating capacity in the United States, as this table demonstrates. Texas has by far the largest capacity, followed by Oklahoma and Iowa. Kansas currently ranks fourth among states for installed wind-power capacity. As of early 2024, Kansas had more than 4100 wind turbines with a total estimated wind-generating capacity of 8.6 GW—see Kansas wind farms for details.

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Kansas wind history

Wind energy has been exploited in Kansas since early days. Traditional European-style windmills were built across the United States, including some in Kansas, which were used mainly for grinding grain. The conventional American windmill was invented in the mid-1800s and quickly spread by the tens of thousands in myriad forms across the Midwest and Great Plains. Its primary use was for pumping groundwater. In contrast to European windmills, American windmills have many blades in their wheels, at least a dozen to more than 100 blades in some models.

Traditional Kansas windmills
Old Dutch Mill in Wamego, Kansas (left). The stone-tower mill was built in 1879 about 12 miles north of Wamego and used for grinding wheat and corn. The mill was taken down and rebuilt in Wamego in 1925 as a historical monument. The sail frames are decorative and non-functional. Restored Raymond vaneless windmill formerly at Kinsley, Kansas (right). The W counterbalance arm points into the wind, and the blade sections are tilted in the downwind direction. This model was among the most common vaneless windmills across the Midwest and Great Plains in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Baker 1985).
Left: The importance of pumping groundwater is depicted by this historic farmstead of D.R. Beckstrom on the High Plains in Greeley County. The Currie windmill was made in Kansas and featured a large wheel with 30 blades. Notice the wooden water barrels at the bottom. The mill presumably dates from the 1890s; photo obtained from the Horace Greeley Museum in Tribune. Right: modern Aermotor turbine mounted on an older tower. Marion County in the Flint Hills (2022).

The first large wind farm in Kansas came to Gray County in 2001, and wind energy expanded quickly across the state during the next two decades. As of 2024, Kansas had about 8.6 gigawatts (GW) of installed wind-power capacity, more than 6% of total US capacity. More than 40% of total electric-generating capacity in Kansas is from wind energy, which is greater than combined coal plus natural gas capacity.

Wind energy generated some $48 million in direct annual payments to Kansas landowners and $660 million in lifetime payments for local governments to support rural counties (Miller 2022). The Nature Conservancy has analyzed the wind-energy potential for Kansas along with impacts on wildlife and habitat. More than one-third of the state is suitable for wind energy based on engineering and land-use constraints, and nearly one-fifth of the state was identified as low impact for wildlife and habitat (TNC 2022).

As we followed the development of wind energy, we realized that kite aerial photography (KAP) is a special technique to acquire low-height imagery beside and even within active wind farms, where other methods of aerial photography would be risky or prohibited. We have pursued KAP in many Kansas wind farms, and KAP has proven to be an effective way to illustrate wind turbines and their surroundings.

Gray County Wind Farm was the first large wind-energy facility in Kansas built on the High Plains in 2001. Vestas V47 turbines—see below. KAP by the authors.

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Kansas wind assessment

Clearly wind power has emerged in just two decades as a major energy resource for Kansas. As of early 2024, Kansas had approximately 4100 wind turbines deployed in 48 wind farms. In addition to these are individual wind turbines; for example, three small turbines operated by Cloud County Community College and Cloud Power in conjunction with a solar farm.

Complete listing of all Kansas wind farms.

The following assessment and review of the Kansas windscape is based for the most part on our previous publications in the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (Aber and Aber 2012, 2016, 2020), and Windscapes: A global perspective on wind power (Aber et al. 2015), as well as many other cited references.

In general, the western three-quarters of Kansas have the best wind resource with annual average wind speed of 15 mph at 160-foot height. The most favorable localities for wind farms are high topographic locations on drainage divides and prominent escarpments, particularly in the High Plains, Blue Hills, and Flint Hills, where average wind speed exceeds 18 mph.

Kansas average annual wind speed at 50 m (160-foot) height. Most of the western three-fourths of Kansas is rated fair to excellent. Adapted from WINDExchange (2008).

Landscape regions of Kansas. Region limits are sharp and well defined in some cases, but may be transitional or gradual in other places. County boundaries shown in maroon. Adapted from Aber and Aber (2009).

Nearly all wind farms in Kansas, in fact, are situated on drainage divides. The first Kansas wind farm in Gray County, for instance, is located on the divide between the Arkansas River and Crooked Creek. The master drainage divide for Kansas trends across the state from west to east and separates the Missouri River basin to the north from the Arkansas River basin to the south. Wind farms are sited along this major divide from the High Plains in the far west to the Osage Cuestas in the southeast.

Kansas drainage basins
Blue dots mark the master drainage divide between the Missouri River and Arkansas River basins. See table below for numbered wind farms. Adapted from Goodrich, Jacobs and Miller (2022, fig. 2).

Wind farms on the Missouri-Arkansas drainage divide
Arranged from west (top) to east (bottom)
Across Kansas into southwestern Missouri
Wind farm Region County Wind speed Turbine type & capacity Year
1. Central Plains High Plains Wichita 8.0-8.5 m/s Vestas 3.0 MW 2009
2. Cedar Bluff High Plains Ness 8.5-9.0 m/s GE Wind 1.79 MW 2015
3. Diamond Vista Smoky Hills Marion 8.0-8.5 m/s Nordex 3.15 MW 2018
4. Reading Osage Cuestas Lyon, Osage 7.5-8.0 m/s Siemens Gamesa 2.4 & 3.5 2020
5. Ad Astra Osage Cuestas Coffey 7.5-8.0 m/s Gamesa 2.1 MW 2015
6. Prairie Queen Osage Cuestas Allen 7.5-8.0 m/s Gamesa 3.55 & 2.625 MW 2019
7. Jayhawk Osage Cuestas Bourbon 7.5-8.0 m/s GE Wind 2.82 MW 2021
8. North Fork Ridge Osage PlainsBarton (MO) 7.0-7.5 m/s Vestas 2.2 MW 2020
9. Kings Point Springfield Plateau Jasper (MO) 7.0-7.5 m/s Vestas 2.2 MW 2021
Based on the U.S. wind turbine database (USWTD 2022). Average wind speed in meters
per second (m/s) at 80 m (250-foot) height (
WindExchange 2010). Turbine capacity
given in megawatts (MW). Adapted from Aber and Aber (2020).

The placement of wind farms on drainage divides, thus, reflects drainage patterns created by long-term erosion. At the end of the Miocene Epoch (about 5 million years ago), the High Plains extended as a relatively flat apron of sediment (Ogallala Formation) across the western two-thirds of the state and reached eastward as far as the Flint Hills (Muilenburg 1961). Topographic relief was considerably less than today.

Post-Miocene rivers then began to entrench their valleys, and this trend accelerated with ice-sheet glaciation about 650,000 years ago. The Ogallala Formation was removed partially by erosion, and the underlying bedrock was revealed and underwent further erosion. The current pattern of drainage divides, thus, reflects this wholesale wearing down of the landscape. Overall, the distribution of wind farms across Kansas exploits these patterns of erosion and the resulting drainage divides.

Marshall Wind Energy complex in the western Glacial Hills. Vestas V110-2.0 MW turbines; towers stand 95 m (~310 feet) tall and rotor diameter is 110 m (~360 feet). The turbines are located on a local drainage divide, known as the Summit, between the Roubidoux Creek basin to the west and North Fork Black Vermillion River basin to the east. This wind farm began operation in 2016.

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KAP of selected wind farms

We have conducted kite aerial photography (KAP) at several wind farms across Kansas beginning in 2006 and more recently in southwestern Missouri. The following selected wind farms are presented in order of their construction and operational age.

Gray County Wind Farm (2001) – The first large array of wind turbines was erected on the High Plains of southwestern Kansas. Located near the city of Montezuma, southwest of Dodge City, the wind farm contains 170 Vestas V47 turbines that could generate up to 112 megawatts of power, enough for ~35,000 households. The Danish turbines stand 65 m (213 feet) tall at hub height and 90 m (295 feet) high to the tip of the upright blades. These are, in fact, relatively small turbines compared with later wind turbines (see below).

Turbines are deployed in east-west lines along field boundaries in order to minimize impact on crops. Turbines are closely spaced about 520 feet (~158 m) apart. Green fields are winter wheat in this early spring view. KAP (2006).

Elk River Wind Farm (2005) – One hundred wind turbines are situated on the crest of the Flint Hills, which forms the drainage divide between the Fall-Verdigris and Walnut-Arkansas basins. This site is ideally located to catch wind from all directions. The GE Wind turbines are capable of generating 150 megawatts of electricity, sufficient for about 42,000 homes. Each tower is 262 feet tall and blades are 125 feet long. Total height with a blade in the upright position is about 390 feet.

Elk River Wind Farm occupies the drainage divide at the crest of the Flint Hills near Beaumont in southeastern Butler County. Elevation exceeds 1600 feet here. Turbines are spaced about 700 feet (~214 m) apart. KAP (2009).

Spearville (2006) – Spearville has long been known as the Home of Windmills, an appellation that dates from the days of small windmills used to pump groundwater for irrigation and livestock. This tradition now has a new dimension with wind generation of electricity. The original wind farm grew into a sizable wind-energy complex along US 50 highway northeast of Dodge City. This region is considered to be the most windy in the contiguous (48) United States, which explains the high interest in developing additional wind power in the vicinity.

GE Wind 1.5 MW turbines amid agricultural fields. Towers stand 262 feet tall, and total height is just over 390 feet with a blade in the upright position. These GE turbines were made in the U.S. (components from Texas, Florida, & California); they are descendents of the Tacke turbine made in Germany during the 1990s—see below. KAP with D. Leiker and C. Unruh (2007).

Smoky Hills I Wind Farm (2008) – First installation of turbines within the wind-energy complex along I-70 in the Blue Hills. Located at the eastern edge of the Blue Hills, where the escarpment rises more than 300 feet above lower terrain to the east. Vestas V100 2.0 MW turbines stand 130 m (~425 feet) tall with a blade in the upright position. This is among of the most favorable sites in Kansas for high average wind speed.

Wind turbines are situated on the Greenhorn Limestone that caps ridge tops at the easternmost edge of the Blue Hills escarpment with I-70 in the background. Helium-blimp airphoto (2011).

Meridian Way Wind Farm (2008) – Located on the Blue Hills escarpment which stands about 175 feet above lower terrain to the south. This position is also on the drainage divide between the Solomon River and Republican River basins. Vestas V90 3 MW turbines are deployed in two arrays to the west and east along the drainage divide. Total height of the turbines is about 410 feet.

The eastern end of the wind farm in Cloud County. Note the weather tower (red and white), which is a feature of all wind farms for monitoring wind and other atmospheric conditions. KAP (2013).

Flat Ridge Wind Farm (2009) – Originally 40 Clipper C96 turbines with 2.5 MW capacity, some of which were replaced later with Vestas V110 turbines with 2.0 MW capacity. The array extends approximately east-west in multiple lines on a narrow, mesa-like finger of the High Plains that forms the drainage divide between the Medicine Lodge River and Chikaskia River basins. Many turbines are situated in cattle pastures to minimize disturbance of the crop fields.

This view shows the original Clipper C96 turbines that stand 420 feet tall with a blade in the upright position. Two closest turbines are spaced about 980 feet (~300 m) apart. Note the mixed land use with crops (green winter wheat) and grazing cattle (black dots) on prairie grass in this early spring view looking westward. KAP (2011).

Reading Wind Farm (2020) – Reading was more than a decade in proposal, planning, approval, and final construction. It is equiped with Siemens Gamesa 2.4 and 3.5 MW turbines. This wind farm is located northeast of Emporia in the Osage Cuestas on the master drainage divide between the Missouri River and Arkansas River basins (see table above). The eastern end of the wind farm sits on a high-standing escarpment formed by the Bern and Emporia limestones.

Pair of Siemens Gamesa 2.4 MW turbines; total height is 134 m (~440 feet) with blade in upright position. Turbines are spaced about 1440 feet (~240 m) apart. KAP (2022) taken soon after spring burning of the tallgrass prairie.

North Fork Ridge (2020) – Located in Barton County, Missouri, this wind farm straddles the drainage divide between the Marmaton River in the Missouri River basin to the north and the Spring River in the Arkansas River basin to the south (see table above). The landscape is largely rural and agricultural, in the vicinity of Nashville, immediately east of mined-land terrain of former coal strip mining. The wind farm is equiped with 69 Vestas 2.2 MW turbines with a total rated capacity of 149 MW.

Overview (left) and closer shot (right). Vestas turbines stand 182 m (nearly 600 feet) tall with a blade in upright position. Note vehicle on the county road for scale. Two closest turbines are spaced about 1130 feet (~344 m) apart. KAP in autumn (2022).

Jayhawk Wind Farm (2021) – Among the newest wind farms in Kansas, Jayhawk is located on the master drainage divide between the Missouri River and Arkansas River basins (see table above). Seventy GE Wind 2.8 MW turbines have a rated capacity of 197 MW. The western portion of the wind farm is situated on a prominent escarpment formed by the Bethany Falls Limestone at elevations reaching 1100 feet. The eastern part, in contrast, is about 100 feet lower in elevation.

Western, higher portion (left). Two turbines are spaced about 1190 feet (~363 m) apart. Eastern, lower part (right). GE Wind turbines stand 177 m (580 feet) tall with blade in upright position. KAP in autumn (2022).

As these examples demonstrate, the size, capacity, and spacing of turbines in Kansas wind farms have increased significantly during the past two decades. Taller towers and longer blades are more efficient for harnessing wind energy to generate electricity. Turbine spacing is generally about 1.8 to 2.5 times maximum height. Similar trends are seen in wind farms around the world.

Typical turbine characteristics in large
Kansas wind farms
Year Wind farm Tower
Spacing Capacity
2001 Gray County
2005 Elk River
2009 Flat Ridge
2012 Flat Ridge 2
2017 Bloom
2021 Jayhawk
2021 Iron Star
Dimensions in meters (rounded); based on USWTD (2024).

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Turbine height

In the United States, the limiting height factor is Federal Aviation Adminstration (FAA) restrictions for structures that extend into the national airspace. In general, any structure standing more than 200 feet (61 m) above the ground requires FAA approval. This is usually not a problem up to 500 feet (152 m) in height, which is normally the lower flying limit for manned aircraft. For many years this was the de-facto height limit for turbines in the U.S. However, 500 feet is no longer an absolute height limit. According to current FAA guidelines for wind turbines:

... there is no restriction on heights for filing notice. ... Please note that at 500 feet or higher, your proposed structure will be in altitudes available to general aviation aircraft. A public notice may be issued to gather aeronautical information ... Only valid aeronautical comments will be factored into the FAA’s decision. Example: Comments concerning land values or aesthetics would not be considered valid aeronautical comments. (FAA 2023)

Since 2019, Kansas now has five wind farms in which turbine heights exceed 500 feet, namely Iron Star near Dodge City, Reading Wind Facility near Emporia, Prairie Queen near Iola, Neosho Ridge near Erie, and Jayhawk (see above). The tallest of these reach nearly 600 feet in total height (USWTD 2024).

Wind-energy logistics

Rapid growth of wind energy has spurred development of support activities and infrastructure associated with the construction of wind farms. For example, a large transportation and logistics center serves southwestern Kansas from the BNSF Railway depot in Garden City. Several other logistics centers have been established by the BNSF Railway, Union Pacific Railroad, and K&O Railroad in various locations around Kansas. Turbine components are delivered via special railcars, off-loaded for temporary storage, and eventually transported by oversized tractor-trailer trucks to wind-farm construction sites.

Turbine blade transported by truck on KS 99 highway, Elk County.
Blades are typically about 50-70 m (165-230 feet) or longer.

Siemens turbine nacelle (left) on US 281 highway in Stafford County near St. John. The massive trailer rig has 60 wheels. The nacelle came presumably from the factory in Hutchinson. Turbine tower segment (right) at a rest stop on US 50/400 highway in Gray County near Ingalls.
Temporary unloading depot beside the BNSF Railway in Syracuse (2008). Crane and Vestas V90 nacelles (left), and turbine blades (right). These components were headed toward construction of the Central Plains wind farm in Wichita County.
Left: turbine blades carried in special cradles spanning three flat-bed cars. BNSF Railway depot in Emporia. Right: turbine blades await unloading at the K&O Railroad depot near Larned.
Gamesa wind turbine parts in the BNSF Railway depot at Emporia. Left: vertical view of turbine blades stored in a tight-packing arrangement. Service truck shows size of blades. KAP with D. Leiker (2017). Right: interior view of turbine tower segment, approximately 4 m (13 feet) in diameter. Note the inside ladder.

All wind farms connect to the electric grid via high-voltage transmission lines, and most have dedicated electrical substations, which have required much new construction to serve individual wind farms as well as wind-energy complexes.

Left: transmission line in the original Spearville wind farm, Ford County. KAP with D. Leiker and C. Unruh (2008). Right: electrical substation and transmission line serving the Central Plains wind farm, Wichita County.
Left: electric-grid substation and transmission lines under construction in connection with the Spearville wind-energy complex near Dodge City (2014). Right: high-capacity transmission line under construction for the Sunflower wind farm near Florence (2023).

Wind turbines are generally designed for a lifespan of 20-25 years. Already some of the older wind farms in Kansas are beginning to show their age. These turbines eventually must be dismantled and removed. Decommissioning of old wind turbines has already begun, for example, in North Dakota (Andersen 2023). Most of the components—steel, copper, electronics—could be recycled. However, the long fiberglass blades are more difficult to handle (Coleman 2023). A new company in Iowa has developed a proprietary process for recycling turbine blades into reinforcing fibers for concrete, asphalt, and other materials—see

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Electricity grid

In North America, electricity is distributed within linked grids of transmission lines, known as interconnections. Three of these serve the contiguous (48) United States plus parts of Canada and Mexico.

The dispersed nature of wind energy overcomes the vagaries of local weather (Aber et al. 2015). As weather systems move across the Great Plains, for instance, wind speed and direction shift so that some locales may have weak or calm conditions while others places have strong wind. Throughout the region some wind farms are generating at peak capacity, while others are operating at partial capacity, and a few are not generating on any particular day. Overall regional wind-power production continues to feed into the grid system to be used where needed.

High-voltage electricity transmission
lines in the Flint Hills of Kansas.

Within each interconnection, alternating current (AC) power is synchronized, so that electricity may be transferred from diverse energy sources to numerous consumers in various locations. In this way, electric power may be distributed as needed from redundant sources via multiple long-distance pathways with better overall efficiency. The key to effective movement of electricity is high-voltage transmission lines.

Super electrical grid using 765 kV AC transmission lines and interties. Proposed for the United States in 2008 by the American Wind Energy Association. Image adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

Note: the supergrid infrastructure plan shown above was killed by the Trump administration in order to help the coal industry. The Trump effort was largely unsuccessful, as shown by the drastic decline of coal-fired power plants (see below). However, the lack of an integrated nationwide supergrid has continuing consequences. Wind-generated electricity from western Kansas, for example, cannot be shared easily with the large urban/industrial area along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and Texas suffered an energy calamity in February 2021 because of its isolation (see below).

President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was passed and signed in 2021 and has led to a dramatic change in how the U.S. approaches energy challenges of the 21st century. In 2022, for instance, the Department of Energy (DOE) released $28 million for wind-energy projects (DOE Wind 2022):

As these topics demonstrate, federal funding deals with engineering issues as well as social and environmental aspects for deploying wind energy. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 further supports development of clean energy through tax credits and consumer rebates. The bill includes 950 million solar panels, 120,000 wind turbines, and 2,300 grid-scale battery plants (White House 2022).

The DOE Office of Electricity is promoting grid modernization and the smart grid under authority of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Americans for a Clean Energy Grid have identified 22 transmission projects designed to access wind and solar energy and to interconnect about 60 GW of renewable capacity. These are shovel-ready projects that could be built within the next few years.

High-voltage transmission projects that could be constructed in the near future. Adapted from Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (Goggins, Gramlich and Skelly 2021).

Of particular interest to Kansas is the Grain Belt Express that would connect southwestern Kansas to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. The U.S. Department of Energy hosted "scoping meetings" across Kansas in early 2023 for public comment on phase I of the proposed high-voltage, direct-current (DC) transmission line (Hogg 2022). This first phase would extend 530 miles from the Spearville wind-energy complex in Ford County to Monroe County in northeastern Missouri. Construction is projected to begin by the end of 2024.

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Environmental and aesthetic issues

Although much of Kansas as well as southwestern Missouri are favorable for wind-energy development, some locales clearly are not suitable for various reasons, such as urban areas, nature preserves, and places with great aesthetic or environmental value. Wind farms are, in general, compatible with rural, agricultural rangeland and cropland, including both dryland and irrigated farming.

Cattle graze on newly emergent grass in tallgrass prairie (left) in the Reading Wind Farm. Turbines of the Flat Ridge Wind Farm (right) stand beside a center-pivot irrigation system on the High Plains.

Thus, most wind farms have been sited in pre-existing cropland or pasture locations. The development of wind farms in Kansas is subject for the most part to county regulations and approval, which take into account local circumstances and public perception of wind farms.

Tale of two counties – Reno and Harvey.

At the state level, Governor Sebelius proposed in 2004 the Heart of the Flint Hills Area, in which wind-farm development would be discouraged through voluntary restraint in order to protect the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. The moratorium area covered that portion of the Flint Hills that preserved the most intact tallgrass habitat, was least altered by human activities, and had the greatest scenic beauty. Elk River and Caney River wind farms are located to the south, outside the original moratorium area.

Caney River Wind Farm came online 2011 and is situated on a prominent escarpment of the Americus Limestone in western Elk County. The Flint Hills crest is visible on the western horizon. Vestas V90 turbines; the towers are 80 m (262 feet) tall, and the blades are 44 m (144 feet) long. This wind farm includes 111 turbines with a nominal generating capacity of 200 MW. KAP with J. Schubert (2013).

Governor Brownback in 2011 more than doubled the extent of the exclusion zone, enclosing a region approximately 100 km east-west by 275 km north-south, which he renamed the Tallgrass Heartland. The expanded region includes most of the Flint Hills as well as parts of adjacent regions. Brownback's decision was announced as an attempt to balance economic development, energy resources, and environmental protection. Within the expanded exclusion zone, Elk River and Caney River wind farms were allowed to continue, and construction of new transmission lines across the Flint Hills is also allowed in order to transport wind-generated electricity from numerous large wind projects in central and western Kansas.

Tallgrass Heartland excusion zone for wind-farm development. Two pre-existing wind farms (*) are Elk River and Caney River. Map adapted from Aber, Aber and Pavri (2015).

Governor Kelly in 2020 reaffirmed the Tallgrass Heartland wind moratorium, marking the third political administration to protect this unique tallgrass-prairie ecosystem. Thus, Kansas has balanced the energy benefits and environmental consequences of its unquestionably large wind-energy resource.

Visibility – Kansas had approximately 4100 wind turbines, as of early 2024, and most turbines are taller than the Statue of Liberty at 305 feet (93 m). Thus, wind turbines are highly visible in many locales. Wind-energy complexes situated along US highway 50 near Spearville and either side of I-70 west of Salina are particularly obvious to the public. As another example, the Reading Wind Farm is plainly visible just 2 or 3 miles north of I-35 east of Emporia. From the Flint Hills west and southwest of Emporia, these same turbines can be seen on the horizon from at least 15 miles away.

At night, wind farms have blinking red lights on selected turbines to warn approaching aircraft, which is another visibility issue. The lights throughout a wind farm are supposed to blink in unison according to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. However, meteorological towers, which are a typical component of most wind farms, may blink on a different tempo. Likewise, adjacent wind farms, radio towers, or cell-phone towers may blink out-of-sequence from each other. The net result is off-cadence blinking that creates an annoying visual distraction for night driving and for nearby rural residences.

A bill moved through the Kansas Legislature last year; it requires wind farms to have blinking red lights that activate only when radar detects an approaching airplane (Llopis-Jepsen 2023). The technique, known as aircraft-detection lighting system (ADLS), turns red lights on when an airplane flies within 3 nautical miles and within 1000 feet above the highest point of a wind farm.

Two new wind farms, Highbanks north of Concordia and Sunflower near Florence, would be the first two wind farms equiped with ADLS. Most existing and new wind farms in Kansas may have such systems in the future, where allowed by the FAA. Colorado and North Dakota have both adopted similar requirements for wind farms, but Kansas would be the largest wind-energy state to do this so far. The Senate and House passed the bill, both almost unanimously, and Governor Kelly signed it into law in April 2023—see SB 49.

Some people in our experience have complained about wind-turbine visibility. However, few complain about tall radio and cell-phone towers that have spouted like mushrooms in recent years from hill tops throughout the state. Some are self-supporing; others have a network of guy wires and anchors. In our opinion, these towers are ugly eyesores, particularly those with truss frameworks, compared with graceful wind turbines.

Typical radio towers in the Flint Hills

Turbine noise is another issue for some people. Much research has been conducted, and field testing has shown that most turbines generate sound in the ~300-1250 Hz range, which is the middle portion of the piano keyboard (keys 42-67). This is well below the high-frequency that poses greatest danger for human hearing. The strength or loudness of sound is measured by the decibel (dB). Zero dB is the threshold of hearing for most people, and 125 dB is the level at which sound begins to hurt. Each increase of 10 dB represents a doubling of sound level; thus, an increase of 20 dB is four times as loud.

The sonic environment, or soundscape, impacts human hearing in both urban and rural settings. Many people are subjected to loud sounds on a daily basis including traffic and construction as well as agricultural and industrial noises. Some people, in fact, willingly expose themselves to extreme noise levels. Immediate hearing loss may occur from sharp, singular sounds at >140 dB, and permanent hearing loss could happen with only 5 minutes exposure to 105-110 dB, for example at loud sports or music events (Elliott 2022).

Typical sound loudness
Sound type Decibel (dB)
Normal speaking
City traffic (inside car)
Large wind turbine
US train horn (min-max)
Motorcycle, snowmobile
Power mower at 1 yard
Symphonic music peak
Loud rock concert
NASCAR, drag racing
F1 racecar, chainsaw
NFL football game peak
Jet engine at 100 feet
Shot gun blast
From Aber, Aber and Pavri (2015), USFRA
(2020), Elliott (2022), and other sources.

The wind generates natural background sounds that many people find pleasing, so-called white- or green-noise, and at increasing wind speed background sounds may mask turbine noise. Noise from wind turbines is hardly noticeable in the upwind direction, but is more audible downwind from turbines. This noise is a gentle susurration comparable to waves on the beach or wind blowing through pine trees.

The typical set-back distance for wind turbines from rural residences is at least 1000 feet. In our experience, noise from large, modern turbines is only slightly noticeable at this distance and rarely rises above background noise levels.

The large turbine on left is just over 1000 feet away from the farmstead. Vestas V120-2.2 MW turbine that stands 182 m (nearly 600 feet) tall with blade in upright position. Kings Point wind farm, Jasper County, southwestern Missouri.

Most of the noise from turbines is generated by the trailing edge of the blade, particularly near the outer end of the blade which has the highest wind speed. Methods to reduce trailing-edge noise include optimized airfoil shape, swept blades, and serrations or brushes along the trailing edge of the blade. On the other hand, the noise level from unmuffled gas engines for pumping groundwater is far louder and much more distressful than any wind turbines. Utimately, visiblity and noise are matters of individual perceptions, which vary widely from person to person.

Serrated trailing edges on blades for Vestas (left) and GE Wind (right) turbines. Note the graduated size of teeth that become smaller toward the blade tip. BNSF Railway depots in Emporia and Garden City.
Unmuffled, gas-powered engine pumping groundwater from the High Plains Aquifer in Wallace County, westernmost Kansas. The noise resembles a race car (130-150 dB) and is almost unbearable nearby. Thousands of such irrigation pumps are found throughout the state.

The greatest wildlife hazard posed by wind turbines is for flying animals, namely birds and bats, as well as habitat loss and fragmentation. Ground-based wildlife is generally less affected by turbines and wind farms. Species of particular concern in Kansas include greater and lesser prairie-chickens (
Tympanuchus cupido and T. pallidicinctus respectively). Since pre-settlement time, prairie-chicken populations have declined substantially as a result of habitat loss and changes in land use. Multi-year investigation has shown surprisingly that prairie-chickens are not adversely affected by wind farms; in fact, female survival rates increased after wind turbines were installed at the Meridian Way Wind Farm in north-central Kansas (Sandercock 2013).

Bird mortality at wind farms has gained considerable public attention in recent years, but the plight of bats is less appreciated (Aber et al. 2015). Migratory tree bats have the greatest risk for wind-turbine mortality, particularly the hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus), eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis), and silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), all of which reside in or migrate across Kansas. The Red Hills is especially important for many bat species. This region has numerous caves and is considered among the most valuable in the United States for bat biodiversity. Obermeyer et al. (2011) recommended a 15-mile buffer around the Red Hills bat caves, and no wind farms are located in this region.

Yard sign opposition to wind turbines displayed in
Belleville, Republic County, north-central Kansas.

Back to beginning.

Kansas energy resources

Coal, petroleum (oil), natural gas, and nuclear (uranium) were primary fuel sources for generating electricity in the 20th century. Petroleum was discovered in Kansas near Paola in 1860. Kansas became a major oil-producing state early in the 20th century; it ranked third in the nation behind California and Oklahoma in 1918. It's fair to say that oil and Kansas have grown up together (Nixon 1948). But this status has slipped over the past century, and Kansas is currently eleventh among states for oil production (EIA Oil 2022).

Oil storage tanks (left) in a small oil field near Ness City. Pump jack (right) in the El Dorado Oil Field, historically the largest in the state. The power lines provide electricity to run the pumps. Such features are typical in many parts of Kansas.

Pipelines are the primary means to transport oil over long distances, and Kansas is a crossway for many pipelines. For example, the Keystone Pipeline runs from north to south under eastern Kansas and has moved more than 3 billion barrels of crude oil from Canada to refineries in the central U.S. since 2010 (GAO 2021). Several oil spills have taken place from this pipeline. But the biggest-ever spill happened in Washington County, Kansas in December 2022, the largest oil spill in the U.S. in nearly a decade.

An estimated 14,000 barrels of diluted bitumen (dilbit) gushed out, covering several acres and flowing into Mill Creek—see Reuters. Unlike normal petroleum, which floats on water, dilbit sinks and is, therefore, much more difficult to remove from polluted streams. A long-planned and highly controversial expansion of this pipeline, known as Keystone XL, was finally abandoned in 2021 after President Biden denied a key permit for its construction across the U.S-Canadian border (Denchak and Lindwall 2022).

Kansas was formerly a major source for coal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly from numerous coal beds in the Cherokee Lowlands and Osage Cuestas (see above). Coal was used mainly for powering steam locomotives, smelting lead-and-zinc ore, and generating electricity. However, most coal mines ceased operating in the mid-20th century, and the last coal mine in Kansas shut down in 2016.

Big Brutus – One the largest electric-power shovels in the world, it stands 160 feet tall with a working weight of 5500 tons. Left: in action at a Pittsburg and Midway (P&M) coal mine in southeastern Kansas. Photograph from the Leslie and Beryl Ward collection (1966). Right: restored and on display for the public near West Mineral, Kansas. Vertical view with silhouette shadow. Note smaller power shovel and bulldozer at bottom for scale. Helium-blimp airphoto.

The recent role of coal in Kansas electricity generation is illustrated well by events at Holcomb, near Garden City. The current coal-fired electric-generating station at Holcomb was built in the early 1980s. It uses low-sulfur coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin along with advanced technology to limit emissions of sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury gases. Its nameplate capacity was listed at 349 MW in 2021 (EIA 2022). A plan to expand the generating station was proposed in 2007.

BNSF Railway coal train at Las Animas in southeastern Colorado heading east toward the coal-fired electric generating station at Holcomb, Kansas, and perhaps beyond.

The expansion proposal was rejected initially by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, because of carbon dioxide emissions and concern about global warming. A revised and downsized plan for an 895-MW plant was finally approved in 2010, whereupon the Sierra Club filed suit to block the project. The state Supreme Court eventually approved expansion of the generating station in 2017, but early in 2020, Sunflower Electric Power finally abandoned its effort to build the $2.2 billion coal-fired generating station after spending $100 million on the project (Aber and Aber 2020).

Since coal mining has ended in Kansas, natural gas has experienced considerable growth. Numerous sources of natural gas are found in Kansas, including a sizable portion of the huge Hugoton Gas Area, which is among the largest gas fields in the world. As a relatively clean fuel in abundant supply, electric utilities have turned increasingly to natural gas.

The Emporia Energy Center, for example, is a natural-gas-fired generating station designed to operate during high-peak-demand periods, such as hot summer days. It was put online in 2008 and had a nameplate capacity of 730 MW in 2021 (EIA 2022). However, natural gas is inherently dangerous, as demonstrated by the massive explosion and fire at the Haven Midstream Gas Plant between Hutchinson and Wichita on April 14, 2022—see Haven gas explosion.

Nuclear energy underwent rapid development during the mid-20th century with the promise of cheap, clean, and virtually unlimited supply. Kansas has one nuclear power plant, the Wolf Creek Generating Station near Burlington in Coffey County. The station went online in 1985, and is licensed to operate until 2045. Its nameplate capacity was listed at 1268 MW in 2021 (EIA 2022). However, the allure of nuclear energy has faded with concerns about safety, mining, proliferation, and disposal of nuclear wastes (Aber et al. 2015).

Back to beginning.

Kansas and national energy trends

Trends in Kansas power plants and electricity generation mirror those of the United States overall. For the most recent decade, the number of coal-fired power plants has declined by more than half, and nuclear has fallen by 18%. On the other hand, natural-gas power plants have increased by 23%. Small changes are noted for petroleum and hydroelectric power plants. Renewable-energy power plants (solar and wind) have increased phenomenally, expanding more than three-fold.

U.S. electric industry power plants
by main energy resources
Year Coal Petro-
Nuclear Hydro-
% change
* Renewable includes wind plus solar power plants.
Rounded values. Data from
EIA Table 4.1 (2023).

Payback for capital investment for conventional fossil-fuel or nuclear generating plants is typically many years to decades. In contrast, the payback period for a wind farm is only a few years. Haapala and Prempreeda (2014), for example, calculated the cradle-to-grave costs of all materials, manufacturing, transportation, construction, operation, and decommissioning for 2.0 MW turbines of typical mechanical characteristics and a 20-year lifespan. They found the financial payback for a single turbine was less than one year.

According to Musgrove (2010), all the energy used in a wind turbine's construction, installation, operation and eventual decommissioning is repaid by its energy output during its first few months operation. Wind energy, thus, represents a relatively fast return on investment compared with conventional power plants.

Solar-energy power plants have proliferated mainly in the sunny Southwest; whereas, wind energy has grown most in the eastern Rocky Mountains, Great Plains and Midwest regions. These trends likely will continue through the 2020s. Solar, wind, and natural gas will supply increasing shares of total electricity generated in the United States. Construction of new coal-fired or nuclear power plants seems unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Solar-electric generation in the southwestern U.S. Solar farm (left) in the San Luis Valley, south-central Colorado. House roof-top solar panels (right), a common sight in Prescott Valley, Arizona.

Only one nuclear power plant is currently under construction in the U.S. Expansion of the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia was proposed in 2008 and building began in 2013. It is years behind schedule and billions of $ over budget. Completion of unit 3 took place in 2023, and unit 4 is still under construction. Delays are attributed to the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan, 2017 bankruptcy of former contractor Westinghouse, and the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile similar cost increases led to stopping construction of another nuclear power plant in South Carolina in 2017.

These shifts in energy sources are reflected likewise in large declines of carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen emissions into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas, fell by nearly one-quarter in the most recent decade.

U.S. emissions from conventional power plants
Year Carbon dioxide
Sulfur dioxide
Nitrogen oxides
% change
Values in thousands of metric tons.
Derived from EIA Table 9.1 (2024).

Back to beginning.

International connections

Kansas demonstrates the international character of the modern wind industry. Installed wind turbines are mainly of Danish, German, or Spanish origin with some components manufactured in Kansas and other nearby states (Aber and Aber 2020). Four companies dominate the wind-turbine market in Kansas—Vestas, Siemens Gamesa, GE Wind, and Nordex. Suzlon from India is also noteworthy.

Vestas was a relatively small Danish company that manufactured agricultural equipment and hydraulic cranes in the 1970s. Vestas acquired the designs and rights for the Herborg Vind Kraft (HVK) machine, which was the prototype for all modern wind turbines, and commercial production began in 1979 (Musgrove 2010).

Left: early, small Vestas wind turbine in operation on the island of Fejø, southeastern Denmark (1987). Note access door and person at bottom of tower for scale. This small turbine was the ancestor of much larger modern turbines. Right: Vestas V120-2.2 MW turbines stand nearly 600 feet tall in the North Fork Ridge wind farm, southwestern Missouri.

Vestas grew rapidly and became the world's largest wind-energy company, a position that it still maintains (GlobalData 2022). Vestas Wind Systems is headquartered in Aarhus, Denmark. The company has manufacturing facilities around the world, including three plants in Colorado for nacelles, blades, and towers—see Vestas Colorado.

Vestas Wind Systems world headquarters was opened late in 2011 in Aarhus, Denmark.
Vestas Tower manufacturing plant south of Pueblo, Colorado. V100-1.8 MW turbine on right was erected in 2010 and is designed for light-wind and/or high-altitude operation.

Siemens Gamesa illustrates the trend toward consolidation and international reach of modern wind-power companies. Gamesa had its start in Spain in 1976 as an industrial and technology company, and it entered the wind industry in partnership with the Danish company Vestas in 1993. Danregn Vindkraft began manufacturing wind turbines in Denmark in 1980 and soon changed its name to Bonus. Both companies expanded rapidly into international markets in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Siemens (a German company) acquired Bonus Energy in 2004. In the United States, Siemens opened a turbine-blade factory in Fort Madison, Iowa (2007) and a nacelle assembly plant in Hutchinson, Kansas (2010). Gamesa and Siemens merged in 2017 with headquarters in Spain. Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy (SGRE) is generally considered the second-largest wind-energy company in the world (GlobalData 2022).

Siemens 2.3 MW turbines in the Cimarron II wind farm near Ingalls, southwestern Kansas. Hub height = 80 m, rotor diameter = 108 m, and total height is 134 m (440 feet). Erected in 2012 presumably with components from the factory in Hutchinson.

GE Renewable Energy is the only wind-turbine company with a primary base in North America. It has engineering offices and manufacturing facilities across the United States and Canada, but no plants in Kansas. GE also has offices and manufacturing plants in Latin America, Europe, and Asia, and its headquarters is in Paris, France (GE Renewable 2024). GE wind turbines are descendants of the German Tacke turbines of the 1990s. Tacke went bankrupt in 1997 and was bought by Enron Wind, which was acquired subsequently by General Electric in 2002 (Aber et al. 2015).

Tacke wind turbines manufactured in Germany. Left: Swarzewo, northern Poland (1998). Right: Rüdersdorf, eastern Germany (1995). Tacke is the ancestor for modern GE turbines, which are found in many Kansas wind farms—see Spearville.

Nordex was founded in Denmark in 1985, part of the Danish revolution in wind energy (Nielsen 2009), and Nordex moved to Germany in 1992. Acciona Windpower built its first wind farm in Spain in 1994, and since expanded rapidly. Nordex and Acciona merged in 2016 with headquarters in Germany and services in more than 30 countries. The company has production facilities in Germany, Spain, Brazil, India, and the United States—see title image for Diamond Vista wind farm in central Kansas.

Suzlon was founded in 1995 by Shri Tulsi Tanti in connection with his family's textile company in order to overcome India's unreliable and expensive electricity. Wind turbines soon became even better business than textiles (Yale 2024). In 2004, Per Hornung Pedersen was hired from Denmark to lead Suzlon into the global market, and the company expanded rapidly thereafter. As of 2021, Suzlon had installed turbines in 17 countries in Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa and the Americas—see Suzlon.

Greensburg Wind Farm on the High Plains in Kiowa County. Suzlon 1.25 MW turbines stand 72 m (236 feet) tall at hub height, and rotor diameter is 64 m (210 feet). Total height with a blade in the upright position is 104 m (341 feet).

The small wind farm at Greensburg is equipped with 10 Suzlon turbines (USWTD 2024). This wind farm came online in 2010 in response to the devastating tornado that demolished most of Greensburg in 2007. As these examples demonstrate, the wind industry in Kansas is truly international in scope.

Back to beginning.

Wind myths

A number of myths and considerable misinformation surround the subject of wind energy. Some of these are examined below based on factual historic information, technical data, and current scientific understanding.

Diurnal wind – One common myth is that most wind-generated electricity is produced at night when less electricity is needed. This oft-repeated claim is accepted uncritcially as a serious limitation for wind energy. This may be true in a few special circumstances, but it is simply wrong most of the time for most places. In fact, at most locations around the globe it is more windy during the daytime than at night (DWIA 2003). Afternoon peak in average daily wind speed is the norm in nearly all locales around the world (Aber et al. 2015). Passing storm systems or other atmospheric disturbances may, of course, upset this pattern for short time periods.

The dirunal (24-hour) pattern of wind reflects daily heating from the Sun and cooling at night. Across the Great Plains of North America, for instance, wind is often nearly calm at sunrise and early morning. As the ground warms during the day, wind speed increases and typically reaches maximum velocity in the afternoon. As evening approaches, wind begins to lessen and may dissipate during the night. The peak interval for potential wind energy, thus, is during the hottest part of the day when electricity for air conditioning is most in demand during summer months.

Variable wind – Wind direction and speed change frequently in response to short-term weather events and seasonal conditions. Simply put, the wind is not constant at the ideal speed for turbines to produce their rated output continuously. Periods of light wind or calm happen from time to time, during which a single wind farm or local area would generate little or no electricity. One day in April 2022, for example, turbines in the Ad Astra Wind Farm were either still or barely turning, but only 20 miles away turbines were spinning at full speed in the Reading Wind Farm—both on the Missouri-Arkansas drainage divide in eastern Kansas.

Turbines not operating in low-wind conditions. Turbines face in different directions, and the blades are feathered vertically parallel to the towers. Sany Electric turbines in the Huerfano River Wind Project on the High Plains near Walsenburg, Colorado.

For opponents of wind energy, this has been a convenient argument against further harnessing of wind resources, which some people view as unreliable—another myth. This argument ignores the regional or dispersed nature of wind energy and the grid systems used to distribute electricity to consumers—see electricity grid. Wind energy is harvested over large areas and may be transmitted to other regions where the electricity is needed.

Texas energy fiasco – The energy infrastructure of Texas suffered its worst failure in February 2021 as a result from a series of severe winter storms. More than 4½ million homes and businesses lost power; there were shortages of water, food, and heat, and about 250 people died as direct or indirect results. Texas Governor Abbott and others initially blamed frozen wind turbines and solar panels—another deception.

Hindsight has demonstrated the primary cause for this calamity was due largely to the failure of natural-gas-powered generators (Homeland Security 2021). This led to partial shutdown of the electric-grid system by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCoT), which is independent of other electric-grid interconnections in the U.S. (see above). The disconnection of ERCoT made it difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to import electricity from outside the state.

Texas had been warned a decade before that its electric-grid system was vulnerable to failure during cold weather. But this warning went unheeded. In fact, cold weather had caused previous system-wide rolling blackouts, most noteably in 1989 (Homeland Security 2021), long before wind energy came to Texas. So the potential for cold-weather impact on ERCoT was well known.

Wind turbines and natural gas certainly can be prepared for operation in extreme cold conditions, such as the northern Great Plains. Wind turbines, in particular, are abundant in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa, states known for bitter cold winters (see above). Nickel-stainless-steel alloys are used for key components along with other cold-climate options for low-temperature turbine operation. Typical Vestas turbine models, for instance, are rated for operation down to -30 °C (-22 °F) and for withstanding ambient temperature as low as -40 °C (-40 °F). See Vestas cold climate.

Busch Ranch Wind Farm at North Rattlesnake Butte, 6200 feet (~1900 m) elevation on the High Plains of southeastern Colorado. Vestas V100 turbines operate in severe winter conditions for this high-altitude environment.

Much finger-pointing and disinformation was circulated at the time in Texas. For instance, a picture of a helicopter de-icing turbine blades, supposedly from Texas, turned out to be an experiment in Sweden. But the simple truth is that ERCoT neglected to prepare its electrical infrastructure for severe cold weather conditions, in spite of warnings and previous failures. Such preparations are routine elsewhere, and really have nothing to do with the potential for wind energy. The go-it-alone attitude in Texas also contributed to this disasterous power calamity.

Wind droughts – The term wind drought was coined in connection with a prolonged interval of low wind speed in the United States during the first three months of 2015, and this substantially reduced electric-power generation of wind farms. Similar calm periods on the high seas have been known to sailors for centuries. Nonetheless, wind droughts are another myth about the viability of wind energy.

In general, it is well-known that average wind speed over North America is related to climatic conditions in the Pacific region. The 2015 episode of low wind has been attributed to the North Pacific Mode state—and more specifically to high sea-surface temperatures (Lledó et al. 2018). A similar wind drought took place in the United Kingdom, which has most of its wind turbines deployed offshore in the North Sea. During summer and early autumn of 2021, the U.K. suffered a wind drought in which production of wind energy declined by nearly one-third of normal (Bloomfield 2021).

It should be noted that power generated by a turbine is related to the cube of the wind speed, thus, small changes in average wind speed have large consequences for generating electricity (Musgrove 2010). Projected global warming may lead to long-term reduction in wind speed in some areas, but cause increases in other places, according to some climate models (Bloomfield 2021). In general, much of the western and eastern United States may experience decreased average wind speeds. On the other hand, the central U.S. could develop increased wind in some seasons, particularly for the southern Great Plains (Chen 2020).

Indeed, a new scientific discipline has emerged, known as energy meteorology, in which climate is viewed as a resource, particularly for wind and solar energy (Olsson 1994). As our understanding of climate, especially wind variability and droughts, improves so will our decisions about wind energy and its deployment and operation in Kansas and around the world.

Back to beginning.

Ideal energy

Ideal energy sources would be available, affordable, reliable, and environmentally sustainable. These are the four major tenets for energy security (Tinker 2013). Wind and solar energy are available in many regions, affordable and sustainable. Reliability is variable, but industrial-scale battery storage facilities may alleviate this problem.

Fossils fuels, on the other hand, are available everywhere and reliable. Affordability varies with geographic, political and economic circumstances, however, and price varies considerably. The extraction of fossil fuels represents mining non-renewable resources. Furthermore, refining and burning these fuels contributes to atmospheric pollution and potential global warming.

Open-pit coal mine (left) in Alberta, Canada.
Oil refinery (right) at El Dorado, Kansas.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently forecast that demand for fossil fuels will peak in the mid-2030s (Cuff 2022). Coal will decline first, followed by natural gas and oil. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated this trend toward renewable, nuclear, and low-carbon energy sources that will collectively reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Nuclear power has great promise for green energy, but also has many intractable issues of mining, safety, disposal of waste, proliferation, and public acceptance. Hydropower is clean and renewable, but large projects displace people, disrupt drainage systems, cut off downstream sediment, and impede migrating fishes. It's unlikely any significant new nuclear or hyrdopower would be developed in the United States. In other words, each major energy resource has notable strengths and weaknesses—no current nor any near-future energy source is ideal.

Many people involved with the fossil-fuel industry regard wind energy as an economic competitor based on the belief that developing wind energy would diminish the demand for and use of fossil fuels. In fact, fossil-fuel producers have waged a disinformation campaign against wind energy, and this has been taken up by some conservative politicians in Kansas and across the U.S. They have branded wind energy as a "liberal symbol" that should be opposed on cultural rather than technical grounds (Miller 2022). This point of view is amazingly shortsighted, self-serving, and cynical, given the large economic impact wind energy has in Kansas and elsewhere.

The fact is the world will need much more energy of all types to support and raise the overall living standard for some 10 billion people by the end of this century. The fundamental challenge is how to develop affordable energy resources that do not contribute to atmospheric pollution and potential climate change. Wind energy and natural gas are not competitors; they benefit each other because they compensate for one another. Wind energy is variable on a local basis, but this averages out over large regions, and cost is stable.

On the other hand, natural gas is reliable and available, but the price is highly volatile, as seen during the Texas energy crisis in 2021. During the first three months of 2022, as another example, the cost of natural gas in the U.S. increased by more than 50% (Nasdaq 2022), presumably in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Thus, natural gas and wind solve each others reliability and price challenges (Webber 2012).

No single energy resource is sufficient; rather, a combination of resources may lead to a robust, reliable, cost-effective, and environmentally neutral energy supply. In other words, a balanced or radical-middle approach to energy is necessary for the 21st century (Tinker 2013). This is not a simple undertaking as many costs are not obvious and possible impacts are uncertain.

The switch from one primary energy source to another historically has taken several decades. Three such transformations have occurred during the Industrial Age, and the timing has varied from country to country (Smil 2014). The transition from wood to coal took place for some countries in the 19th century, although not until the mid-1900s for India and China. Coal remained the primary fuel throughout the 20th century, in spite of the dramatic growth of petroleum, the second transformation. A third transformation is underway now, led by the United States, from coal and oil to natural gas and renewable energy (see above).

Siemens-Gamesa 2.3 MW turbines in the Alexander Wind Farm became operational in 2015. Total height with a blade in the upright position is 134 m (~440 feet). Rush County, Kansas in the Blue Hills on the divide between the Waltnut Creek and Pawnee River drainage basins.

For the first time in 2022, renewable energy sources (wind, solar, hydro) generated more electricity in the United States than did either coal-fired or nuclear power plants (Buchholz 2023). Renewable energy exceeded 900 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity compared with nearly 830 TWh for coal and 722 TWh for nuclear. Coal provided more than 2000 TWh of electricity in 2007, but since has declined significantly as noted above. Meanwhile natural gas has become the leading source for electricity generation in the US with more than 1700 TWh in 2022. Similar energy shifts are predicted on a global basis by the end of this decade.

Given this historical context, wind energy has a long way to go both for technical and financial reasons. Aside from Denmark, an early and continuing advocate for wind energy, most other countries did not start serious wind-power developments until this century (see above). Major challenges confront the widespread usage of wind energy (Smil 2014).

Developing safe and renewable energy resources that have minimal environmental impacts is a priority for humanity in the 21st century. Kansas wind energy is part of the solution along with many other types and sources of energy. Diverse energy sources must be integrated into a production and delivery system in which the strengths of each type offset weaknesses for other types. Governments and society must look beyond narrow parochial, economic, and political self-interests toward long-term goals of human health, prosperity, and global sustainability (Aber et al. 2015).

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Text and images © J.S. and S.W. Aber.
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Last update: February 2024.