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Kansas Wind Farms Demonstrate Potential

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Westar Energy
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A trio of wind farms in central Kansas ran at nearly 50 percent capacity in 2013, which one Kansas senator says is a positive sign for the state’s young wind industry.

Sen. Marci Francisco said the relatively high capacity-factor rates for the two Smoky Hills wind farms and neighboring Post Rock wind farm mean that the area just west of Salina where they were built has particularly good wind power potential.

“I’ve always heard that Kansas had some of the best wind in the world,” said Francisco, a Democrat from Lawrence. “This, then, is very good news: that the facilities that have been built are demonstrating that.”

The ability of wind to provide consistent, reliable power is key to an ongoing debate about whether Kansas should repeal a law requiring the state to glean 20 percent of its overall energy from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2020.

Advocates of repeal have argued that wind and solar are less reliable sources of energy than fossil fuels because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. 

Capacity factor gives an idea of the consistency of intermittent power sources like wind and sun by measuring how much energy a plant provides in a given year compared to the maximum its infrastructure allows it to produce.

Leo Haynos of the Kansas Corporation Commission presented capacity-factor information for power plants of all types across the state to the Kansas Senate Utilities Committee on Tuesday.

Haynos said the numbers for the Smoky Hills and Post Rock wind farms stood out. The three farms have a combined maximum capacity of about 450 megawatts annually. 

“They made roughly 50 percent of that (in 2013),” Haynos said. “That’s a pretty good run time for something that’s going to be totally dependent on the wind.”

By comparison, the state’s biggest energy plant — the coal-fired Jeffrey Energy Center near St. Marys — produces more than 2,000 megawatts annually.

Haynos, chief of energy operations and pipeline safety for the KCC, told committee members that until recently he handled only gas and pipeline information for the commission.

He said that might be why the wind numbers surprised him.

“Maybe it’s my inexperience,” Haynos said. “I just expected it to be less.”

But federal data suggest that central Kansas wind farms are meeting more of their potential than most of their counterparts.

U.S. Energy Information Administration breakdowns show that nationwide, capacity factors for wind generally averaged less than 40 percent between 2011 and 2013.

By comparison, the Smoky Hills farms produced ratios of 42 percent and 43 percent in 2013 and Post Rock produced a ratio of 47 percent — the highest of any wind farm in the state.

Wind farms in southwest Kansas generally produced slightly lower capacity ratios, with Spearville Wind, one of the state’s largest, coming in at 36 percent.

Haynos said that could be because inadequate transmission lines or other factors hamper production in that part of the state.

“I don’t know what was going on there in 2013,” Haynos said. “Could be that the wind didn’t blow. Could be that you had some downtime because you’re working on things.”

Energy production time lost to maintenance can occur no matter the fuel, Haynos said. For example, the nation’s nuclear plants run at an average yearly capacity factor of about 90 percent, but Kansas’ Wolf Creek plant had to shut down for maintenance in 2013 and reached only 68 percent.

Coal remains the state’s largest energy source, at close to 72 percent.

In 2013 the state’s coal plants generally ran at capacity ratios of 60 percent to 77 percent — at or above national averages.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

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