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Meridian Way Wind Farm to border U.S. Highway 81

By SARAH KESSINGER

Harris News Service

CONCORDIA -- Come next fall, 67 wind turbines spanning 90 meters each will twirl above the prairie south of this north-central Kansas community.

The Meridian Way Wind Farm, now in the ground-breaking stage, is set for completion later this year.

But it's already sending ripples through the larger community.

"I notice construction workers all over town," said Cloud County Commissioner Bill Garrison. "I see groups of them in Wal-Mart making purchases."

Garrison's enthusiasm was shared by other local leaders Friday at the farm's base camp 8 miles south of Concordia. They joined state and federal officials, utility executives and dozens of area landowners in blue windbreakers.

"This has been a week of smiles in Kansas," said Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson in reference to the University of Kansas' national men's basketball championship and the fact the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Yankees twice.

"I thought I'd seen some pretty big smiles, but I don't think I've ever seen smiles like I've seen today on the faces of the landowners that are going to have turbines on their property," he said. "There are some really big smiles in this room."

Parkinson praised project developer Horizon Wind Energy's foresight in entering the wind industry "long before it was the chic thing to do."

The crowd heard other speakers in the shelter of a large tent before stepping out into the morning's fierce winds for a quick shovel-turning for the cameras.

"We have the wind participating today," said a smiling Jim Roberts, the farm's senior project manager, as 40-mph gusts whipped by.

Roberts noted the "tremendous teamwork" Horizon had experienced with residents and the possibilities the project offers for Cloud County Community College's new wind turbine technology program.

Instructors there already are sending students out to observe the planning and digging of foundations for the initial wind towers, which eventually will be spread across 18,000 acres.

Slated as a 200-megawatt project, the towers are to be complete later this year. The electricity will be purchased by Westar Energy of Topeka and Empire District Electric Co. of Joplin, Mo.

Sixty-five landowners in the farm's footprint are to receive payments from Houston-based Horizon. Some of the farmers and ranchers will have towers on their land, and others own land adjacent to the turbine sites.

Farmer Brad Berk said locals were satisfied it was a good deal and look forward to its expansion.

"I hope they put more of them up."

Horizon also is working with local government officials on amounts to be paid for community-wide projects.

"This land isn't just about property, it's also about your family, your history," said Horizon's Chief Development Officer Gabriel Alonso. "Thank you for allowing us to become a part of your history from here forward."

In downtown Concordia, one business owner said Meridian Way is stirring hope for a brighter local economy.

"I hear the jobs will be good, it's going to be good for Concordia and for Cloud County," said Dennis Maline, owner of Grandma's Oven Bakery.

The wind farm and a local ethanol plant are the first big developments in "quite some time," Maline added. "Concordia's been losing population for years."

Back at the ground-breaking, state Rep. Elaine Bowers, R-Concordia, described local wind as "howling" as she told the crowd how fortunate they were to harvest it for energy.

Bowers' 107th district now is home to two wind farms, Meridian Way and the Lincoln County segment of the Smoky Hills Wind Farm, which recently was constructed by TradeWind Energy of Lenexa.

First District U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said renewables are a "must" if the country is to become more independent of foreign energy sources.

"You've made this part of Kansas more economically viable," he told the crowd. "You've also made our country a bit more safer because we're less reliant on energy that comes from more volatile parts of the world."

Parkinson, who is heading the administration's efforts to promote wind energy, has become a frequent speaker at forums on the topic.

Next week, he is scheduled to address the Colby Wind Summit on Monday and the Solomon Valley Wind Energy Conference in Phillipsburg on Thursday.

Parkinson told the gathering Friday that Kansas' first congressional district has "the single greatest potential for wind energy in the country."

By year's end, he added, Kansas will have more than 1,000 megawatts in wind farm capacity and could produce as much as 10,000 megawatts within the next 15 to 20 years.