TOPEKA — An Italian company has begun construction on a large wind farm that will dot southwest Kansas with 200 turbines, generating enough energy to power nearly 150,000 households — with internet giant Google snatching up half the output.
The wind farm, spanning 60 square miles, will have a 400 megawatt capacity. Corporate executives and Gov. Sam Brownback announced the $610 million project Friday.
The project comes after Brownback and legislative leaders unveiled a compromise last year to the state’s renewable energy mandates, shifting them to voluntary goals. Now, Brownback and corporate leaders are hailing the policy stability they say the compromise provided.
The wind farm will sit in Clark County, located south of Dodge City. Known as Cimarron Bend, the farm is expected to begin producing electricity by 2017.
The output will be sold under two long-term power purchase agreements between the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities and Google. Both organizations are purchasing 200 megawatts.
Brownback said the project will make Kansas a dominant player in wind energy production.
“It’s an extremely large project, but again, I think solidifies our position as a leader in wind energy development in the nation,” Brownback said. “It’s good for the Kansas economy as it will create jobs and opportunities, not just in Clark County but across the state.”
Enel SpA, headquartered in Italy and partially owned by the Italian government, is constructing the wind farm through its North American subsidiary. U.S.-based Tradewind Energy delivered the project to Enel, which then owns and operates it. Enel already owns other wind properties in Kansas.
Enel said in a statement the project is a “major milestone” for the company. Project manager Don Miller said the farm will require 350 construction jobs and will be the company’s largest in the world.
The project will introduce millions of dollars into Clark County’s local economy, Miller said.
“The energy produced from this wind project this year will be enough to power nearly 150,000 U.S. households — or the equivalent of every household in the city of Topeka — for nearly three years,” Miller said.
Kimberly Svaty, with the Wind Coalition, called Kansas’ wind industry one of the most robust in the country. Ten wind farms will come online between the end of 2015 and early 2017, she said.
Depending on the day, the state clocks in with some of the best wind speeds in the country, she said. With the Cimarron Bend project, the state will hover at approximately $10 billion in renewable energy production, Svaty said.
Wind energy accounts for nearly 23 percent of the electricity produced in the state. Currently, Kansas exports approximately 45 percent of its production from wind.
One speaker at the announcement called Kansas the “Saudi Arabia of wind” — a phrase Brownback flipped, saying: “Saudi Arabia is the Kansas of oil.”
The project announcement comes less than a year after Kansas moved to make its renewable energy standards voluntary. A mandate that utilities draw 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020 was made optional — though companies already were on pace to achieve that goal ahead of time.
Brownback said the change has provided a stable atmosphere for investment.
“It provided a stable atmosphere. And if you’re going to invest $1 billion, you want a stable atmosphere,” he said.
Zack Pistora, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club, said he welcomed the news of increased renewable energy production and boost to the Clark County community. But he dismissed the idea that repealing the renewable energy mandates had been a positive for the state.
“We had policy stability. It was in the renewable energy law,” Pistora said. “If anything, Gov. Brownback has weakened the law.”
The renewable energy standards were a product of conflict between Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and a Republican-controlled Legislature. The dispute involved a permit needed to build a coal-fueled power plant at Holcomb, which Sebelius denied.
After Sebelius resigned in 2009, Gov. Mark Parkinson worked with legislators on a deal to permit construction in exchange for the mandates.