Kansas Windscape

James S. Aber and
Susan E.W. Aber

Table of contents
History and status Kansas windscape
KAP of wind farms Logistics
Environment & aesthetics Kansas energy
Energy trends International
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 going back to our time in Denmark in 1979. 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 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.

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 2020 was more than 740 gigawatts (GW) led by China (288 GW) and the United States (122 GW), which together accounted for more than half the global wind-energy capacity.

Top ten countries for wind-energy capacity
Country Installed GW Country Installed GW
China
288.3
France
17.9
United States
122.3
Brazil
17.8
Germany
62.9
Canada
13.6
India
38.6
Sweden
9.8
United Kingdom
23.9
Turkey
9.3
Rounded values in gigawatts (GW) from GWEC (2021).

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 potential wind-generated electricity
State Potential GWh State Potential GWh
Texas
4900
South Dakota
1700
Montana
2300
Wyoming
1500
Kansas
2100
Oklahoma
1300
New Mexico
1900
North Dakota
1200
Nebraska
1900
Colorado
1200
Rounded values in thousands of gigawatt hours (GWh).
Data derived from WINDExchange (2022).

Top states for installed wind-energy capacity
State Installed GW State Installed GW
Texas
33.1
California
5.9
Iowa
11.7
Colorado
4.7
Oklahoma
9.0
Minnesota
4.3
Kansas
7.0
North Dakota
4.0
Illinois
6.4
Oregon
3.7
Rounded values given in gigawatts (GW).
Data from WINDExchange (2022).

Back to beginning.

Kansas windscape

Kansas is famous for wind, which has been exploited for wind energy since early days. Traditional European-style windmills were built across the United States and Canada, including some in Kansas. The conventional American windmill was invented in the mid-1800s and quickly spread by the 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 >100 blades in some models.

Traditional Kansas windmills
Left: Old Dutch Mill in Wamego, Kansas. 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. Right: restored Raymond vaneless windmill at Kinsley, Kansas. 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 U.S. 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 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. Undated image 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 2020, Kansas ranked fourth in the nation with more than 7 gigawatts (GW) of installed wind-power capacity, nearly 6% of total U.S. 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.

Clearly wind power has emerged in just two decades as a major energy resource for Kansas. At the beginning of 2022, Kansas had about 3500 wind turbines. They 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. The Vestas V47 turbines are relatively small and closely spaced along field boundaries compared with larger modern turbines and wind farms. KAP by the authors.

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 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. In fact, most wind farms in Kansas are situated on drainage divides. The first wind farm in Gray County, for instance, is located on the divide between the Arkansas River and Crooked Creek.

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).

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. 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.

Wind farms on the Missouri-Arkansas drainage divide
Arranged from west (top) to east (bottom)
Wind farm Region County Wind speed Turbine type & capacity Year
Central Plains High Plains Wichita 8.5-9.0 m/s Vestas 3.0 MW 2009
Cedar Bluff High Plains Ness 9.0-9.5 m/s GE Wind 1.79 MW 2015
Diamond Vista Smoky Hills Marion 8.5-9.0 m/s Nordex 3.15 MW 2018
Reading Osage Cuestas Lyon, Osage 8.0-8.5 m/s Siemens Gamesa 2.4 & 3.5 2020
Ad Astra Osage Cuestas Coffey 8.0-8.5 m/s Gamesa 2.1 MW 2015
Prairie Queen Osage Cuestas Allen 7.5-8.0 m/s Gamesa 3.55 & 2.625 MW 2019
Based on the U.S. wind turbine database (USWTD 2022). Average wind speed in meters
per second (m/s) at 100 m (325-foot) height. Turbine capacity given in megawatts (MW).
Adapted from Aber and Aber (2020).

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 reflects this wholesale erosion 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 2016.

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KAP of selected wind farms

We have conducted kite aerial photography (KAP) at several wind farms in Kansas beginning in 2006. 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 110 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 newer wind farms (see below).

Turbines are deployed in east-west lines along field boundaries in order to minimize impact on crops. 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. KAP (2009).

Spearville (2006) – Spearville has long been known as the Home of Windmills, a designation 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 Tackle turbine made in Germany during the 1990s (see below). KAP with D. Leiker and C. Unruh (2007).

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 component of all wind farms for monitoring wind and other atmospheric conditions. KAP (2013).

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).

Flat Ridge I 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. Note the mixed land use with crops (green winter wheat) and cattle grazing (black dots) on prairie grass in this early spring view. KAP (2011).

Reading Wind Farm (2020) – Among the newer wind farms, 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.

Seen here under construction, but not yet operational. Siemens Gamesa 2.4 MW turbine; total height is 134 m (~440 feet) with blade in upright position. KAP (2020).

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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. Turbine components are delivered via special railcars, off-loaded for temporary storage, and eventually transported by oversized trucks to wind-farm construction sites.

Turbine blade transported by truck on KS 99, Elk County.
Blades are typically about 50-60 m (160-200 feet) long.

Other logistics centers have been established by the BNSF Railway, Union Pacific Railroad, and K&O Railroad in various locations around Kansas. 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: vertical view of turbine blades stored in the BNSF Railway depot at Emporia. Service truck provides scale. KAP with D. Leiker (2017). Right: electric-grid substation and transmission lines under construction in connection with the Spearville wind-energy complex (2014).

Environmental and aesthetic issues

Although much of Kansas is 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. Thus, most wind farms have been sited in pre-existing cropland or rangeland 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.

Reno County, which includes Hutchinson in south-central Kansas, for example, declined to allow construction of wind farms due to public resistance in 2019. Citizens were concerned about the conversion of rural aesthetic values for industrial development. Those opposed to the wind farm had forced a protest petition that required unanimous approval by the county commission (Shorman 2019). When one commissioner voted no, the project was halted; the first wind farm to be rejected in Kansas during the past decade.

Meanwhile, neighboring Harvey County is under consideration for a possible wind farm in the Burrton vicinity (Janzen 2022). One concern is the ability to fight wildfires in the cedar and blackberry thickets of sand-hills terrain, as turbines would restrict the use of helicopters and tankers (Spurney 2022). But this would not apply to wind turbines in other parts of the county. Another concern is potential impact on the Equus Bed Aquifer, but turbine foundations are only 10-12 feet deep, which would not affect the aquifer.

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 more than doubled the extent of the exclusion zone in 2011, and since then no additional construction of wind farms has taken place in the expanded moratorium area. Thus, Kansas has balanced the energy benefits and environmental consequences of its unquestionably large wind-energy resource.

Visibility is an issue for some people. 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 on the Bern Limestone escarpment east of Emporia. From southwest of Emporia, turbines can be seen on the horizon from at least 15 miles away, and likewise from the edge of the Flint Hills 15 miles west of the wind farm.

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 FAA regulations. In our exerience, however, this is not always the case within certain wind farms or between adjacent wind farms, which creates a visual distraction for night driving.

Few people in our experience have complained about wind-turbine visibility. Fewer still complain about tall radio and cell-phone towers that have spouted like mushrooms in recent years from hill tops and drainage divides 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 well below the high-frequency that poses greatest danger for human hearing. Most of the noise from turbines is generated by the trailing edge of the blade. Methods to reduce trailing-edge noise include optimized airfoil shape, swept blades, and serrations or brushes along the trailing edge of the blade.

Left: Serrated edges on blade tips for GE turbines. Seen here in the BNFS Railway storage depot at Garden City (2015). Few blades of this type are deployed in Kansas wind farms. Right: unmuffled engine pumping groundwater from the High Plains Aquifer. The noise is almost unbearable nearby. Irrigation in Wallace County, westernmost Kansas (2021).

The wind generates natural background sounds that many people find pleasing, so-called white-noise, and at increasing wind speed background sound may mask turbine noise. In our experience, noise from large, modern turbines barely rises above background noise levels of the Kansas windscape. On the other hand, the noise level from natural-gas-powered, unmuffled engines for pumping groundwater is far louder and more distressful than any wind turbines. Utimately, visiblity and noise are matters of individual perception, which vary widely from person to person.

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 among the most valuable in the United States for bat biodiversity. However, no wind farms are located in the Red Hills, and little is known about bat mortality in Kansas.

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

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Kansas energy resources

Coal, petroleum (oil), natural gas, and nuclear (uranium) were primary fuel sources for generating electricity in the 20th century. 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). 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).

While coal is declining nationally as a fuel source for generating electricity, 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).

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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 15%. On the other hand, natural-gas power plants have increased by 15%. Smaller changes are noted for petroleum and hydroelectric power plants. Renewable-energy power plants (solar and wind) have increased phenomenally, expanding more than four-fold.

U.S. electric industry power plants
by main energy resources
Year Coal Petro-
leum
Natural
gases
Nuclear Hydro-
electric
Renew-
able*
2010
580
1169
1705
66
1471
1355
2020
284
1091
1968
56
1486
5918
% change
-51
-7
+15
-15
+1
+437
* Renewable includes wind plus solar power plants.
Rounded values. Data from
EIA Table 4.1 (2022).

Payback for capital investment for conventional fossil-fuel 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. 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. 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 more than one-third in the most recent decade.

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.

U.S. emissions from conventional power plants
Year Carbon dioxide
(CO2)
Sulfur dioxide
(SO2)
Nitrogen oxides
(NOx)
2010
2,388,596
5,400
2,491
2020
1,552,960
1,023
1,211
% change
-35
-81
-51
Values in thousands of metric tons.
Derived from EIA Table 9.1 (2022).

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International connections

Kansas demonstrates the international character of the modern wind industry. Installed wind turbines are mainly of Danish, German, and/or Spanish origin with some components manufactured in Kansas and other nearby states (Aber and Aber 2020). Siemens Gamesa is a good example, which illustrates the trend toward consolidation and international reach of modern wind-power companies. Gamesa had its start in Spain 1976 as an industrial and technology company, and it entered the wind industry in partnership with Vestas in 1993 (see below). Bonus Energy began manufacturing wind turbines in Denmark in 1980.

Both companies expanded rapidly into international markets in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Siemens (a German company) acquired Bonus Energy in 2004, which was renamed as Siemens Wind Power. 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. As of 2020, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy was the second-largest wind turbine company in the world. The top ten companies represent more than 75% of total world manufacturing.

Top 10 Wind Turbine Companies for 2020
Company Country Capacity (MW)
Vestas Denmark
9600
Siemens Gamesa Spain
8790
Goldwind China
8250
GE Renewable Energy United States
7370
Envision China
5780
MingYang China
4500
Windey China
2060
Nordex Germany
1960
Shanghai Electric China
1710
CSIC China
1460
Companies with turbines in Kansas are bold.
Data adapted from
BizVibe.

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 and, as of 2020, was the eighth largest wind-energy company in the world.

Vestas and GE Renewable Energy also continue as major suppliers for wind turbines in Kansas. 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 manufacturing plants in Kansas (GE Renewable 2022). GE wind turbines are descendants of the German Tackle turbines of the 1990s. Tackle went bankrupt in 1997 and was bought by Enron Wind, which was acquired subsequently by General Electric in 2002 (Aber et al. 2015).

Left: Tackle wind turbines manufactured in Germany and seen here in 1998 at Swarzewo, northern Poland. Tackle is the ancestor for modern GE turbines, which are found in many Kansas wind farms.

Right: 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.

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). Vestas grew rapidly and became the world's largest wind-energy company, a position that it still maintains with approximately one-sixth of the global market. Vestas is headquartered in Aarhus, Denmark and has a tower manufacturing plant in Pueblo, Colorado.

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.

Another noteworthy international connection is the small wind farm at Greensburg, which is equipped with 10 Suzlon turbines from India (USWTD 2022). 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.

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).

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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. Afternoon peak in average daily wind speed is, in fact, the norm in nearly all locales around the world (Aber et al. 2015).

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.

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.

To opponents of wind energy, this has been a convenient argument against further harnessing of wind resources, which some people view as unreliable—another myth. However, this argument ignores the regional nature of wind energy and the grid systems used to distribute electricity to consumers. In North America, electricity is distributed within linked grids of transmission lines, known as interconnections. Three of these serve the contiguous (48) United States.

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 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 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 transfer of electricity is high-voltage transmission lines.

Super electrical grid using 765KV AC transmission lines and interties. Proposed for the U.S. 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 above). 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.

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 Colorado. Vestas V100 turbines operate in severe winter conditions for this high-altitude environment.

Much finger-pointing and disinformation was circulated at the time. 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 [NPM] 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.

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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, but reliability is variable. Fossils fuels, on the other hand, are available everywhere and reliable. Affordability varies with geographic, political and economic circumstances, however, and price fluctuates 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.

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 unlike 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 or 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 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.

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 the 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 late 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. A third transformation is underway now, led by the United States, from coal and oil to natural gas and renewable energy (see above). This transition likely will take another two or more decades in the U.S. and much longer in other parts of the world.

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.

Given this historical context, wind energy has a long way to go both for technical and financial reasons. Aside from Denmark, an early advocate for wind energy, most other countries did not start serious wind-energy 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 and political self-interests toward long-term goals of human health, prosperity, and global sustainability (Aber et al. 2015).

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References


Text and images © J.S. and S.W. Aber.
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Last update: July 2022.