Power blowin' in the wind
By James D. Ritchie

Missouri's first wind farm is coming in the northwest.

Don Quixote tilted at windmills, and people laughed at him. Tom Carnahan is building windmills in Missouri, and nobody laughs.


Carnahan, a St. Louis attorney, is president of Wind Capital Group, a company now building the first major wind energy project in Missouri. Much of the preliminary construction is already underway on a long ridge in Gentry County, near King City in northwest Missouri. The first of 24 wind turbines on 300-feet-tall towers, each with the capacity to produce 2.1 megawatts of electricity, will begin going up in August. Wind Capital Group also has plans for a second wind energy development in Atchison County, Mo., with construction set to begin in about a year.


The Gentry County wind farm, called Bluegrass Ridge Wind Energy (so-named for the region’s tradition of producing bluegrass seed), will generate enough electrical power to meet the needs of 15,000 to 30,000 homes, depending on how hard the wind blows. The array of 24 turbines will occupy land owned by a dozen owners, all of whom signed leases to allow wind to be harvested from their acres.


“Bluegrass Ridge will be set up in three different circuits, each with eight turbines,” said Carnahan. “We plan to have the first 16 turbines operating in 2006 and the final eight turbines on line early in 2007.


“If we are to have national security in this country, we need energy security,” he added. “Wind is a clean, sustainable source of homegrown energy. Bluegrass Ridge will also pump a lot of resources into the rural economy of Missouri.”


“We’re optimistic about the project,” said Jerry Carlson, western district commissioner of Gentry County. “The construction itself generates a lot of economic activity, and we estimate Bluegrass Ridge will contribute $400,000 to $500,000 per year to county tax revenues.”


So, why hasn’t the power blowing in Missouri’s wind been harvested before now?


“I asked myself that question when I began thinking about a wind energy project,” admitted Carnahan, son of the late Missouri Governor, Mel Carnahan and former Missouri Senator, Jean Carnahan. “I looked at maps of where wind energy projects are located in other states. Our neighboring states—Kansas, Iowa, Illinois—have wind-power installations. Why not Missouri?”


Not long before Carnahan became interested, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources had mapped potential wind resources in the state. Carnahan pored over those maps and settled on northwest Missouri as the most likely region of the state to tap wind power. Last year, Carnahan formed Wind Capital Group, a limited-liability company organized to develop wind energy resources.


“We put together the best experts we could find: wind-prospecting firms, engineers, environmental specialists,” said Carnahan. “And we are partnering with several leading organizations in the Bluegrass Ridge project, including Associated Electric Cooperative and John Deere Credit’s Wind Energy.”


And, under the Energy Bill signed into law in 2005, Bluegrass Ridge will earn federal tax credits of 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour produced.


Associated Electric Cooperative, Inc. has agreed to purchase all power produced by Bluegrass Ridge for the next 20 years. AECI, the Springfield-based generation cooperative that supplies rural electrics in Missouri and parts of Oklahoma and Iowa, is caught in the same fuel price crunch that plagues farmers. Bluegrass Ridge promises to displace the equivalent of 100,000 tons of coal per year.


But it’s the spiraling cost of natural gas, not coal prices, that has AECI most concerned. Many new power plants built in the past decade or so burn natural gas, including generating plants built by AECI to meet peak demand periods. The United States and Canada now use all  domestic natural gas pumped out of the ground; there’s no sign the demand for natural gas will slacken soon.


“Bluegrass Ridge will interconnect with us here at N.W., and AECI will purchase their power,” said Byron Roach, N.W. Electric Power Cooperative, the transmission cooperative at Cameron, Mo. “We’re building a new substation now to take power from Bluegrass Ridge.”


The Gentry County project is being financed by John Deere Credit’s Wind Energy Division, which has invested in wind energy projects in other states. While the machinery maker does not manufacture or sell wind turbines, John Deere sees a lot of “bread-and-butter” benefit in the economic health of rural America, and successful wind farms have the potential to produce a steady income for both the developer and land owner.


Wind Capital Group has not announced exactly when construction will begin on its second wind farm, planned for Atchison County. But now that Carnahan’s group has paved the way with Bluegrass Ridge, several other wind energy developers are eyeing northwest Missouri.


“In fact, northwest Missouri is seeing a sort of land rush, as developers look for good wind-energy sites,” said Byron Roach.