RMFU Feature Story

This Cash Crop Needs Wind, Not Rain

Farming in Elbert County has never been easy. Annual rainfall is too little in inches and it doesn’t come at the right times during the growing season for farmers to count on high yields. “If we get 15 inches of rain, it’s a good year,” says Jan Kochis, who farms with her husband Virgil and son Michael a dozen miles west of Limon. Virgil says he can get by with a planter, a sprayer, and a harvester. “Some years, you don’t need the harvester,” he jokes.

This year, Virgil and Jan are counting on their latest crop to generate income regardless of how much rain falls. This crop depends on wind, and in Elbert County that’s a sure thing. In addition to cows and corn, kilowatts of electricity will help pay the bills. Standing tall among the fields of proso millet, milo (sorghum), and wheat are 30 wind turbines.

How tall? Try 250 feet from the base to the top of the nacelle housing the actual turbine. Each blade is 180 feet in length. The blades, hubs, and nacelles are manufactured by Vestas at facilities located in Brighton and Windsor. The nacelles housing the generators are the size of a garage sitting on top of a three-piece tower manufactured in Pueblo. “This is truly a Colorado Wind Farm,” Jan explains.

The 30 towers on the Kochis land are part of the Rush Creek I project, which consists of 190 turbines in Elbert County. Rush Creek II will have 110 turbines further to the east in Lincoln, Cheyenne, and Kit Cason counties. Together, they will generate enough electricity to power 325,000 homes. Rush Creek I will go into service in October if all goes according to plans. For now, more than 300 construction workers are putting up 10 to 15 towers weekly. Underground cables and two new sub-stations will complete the project. The crews have been easy to work with and are minimizing any impact to residents in the area, Jan says.

“We personally embrace the fact we are supporting renewable energy, a reliable resource which is beneficial to the environment,” Jan continues. “We are going to enjoy the majestic towers above our fields and pastures in the years to come. Think of it as progress to develop wind and solar energy as a complement to traditional forms of energy including, oil, natural gas, coal, and hydro power to provide for our future energy needs.”

The wind farms and transmission lines are an investment by Xcel Energy, which generates nearly 30 percent of its electricity in Colorado from renewable sources. This investment will produce millions of dollars in property tax revenue for counties, school districts, and fire departments.

For the Kochis farm, each tower will provide an annual income of $6,000. If kilowatt production exceeds a set amount, the payment may be higher. The bottom line is, more wind means more money… up to a point. The generation systems enter a shut-down protection mode when winds approach 40 miles per hour to prevent damage to the turbines.

Community informational meetings were held before the project began, explains Jan. A wind development company, E-on Climates and Renewables, out of Austin, Texas met with all the people that had signed wind development leases. E-on Climates and Renewables explained the project and process of developing a wind farm to landowners and the general public. This was before the wind farm project got a green light to move forward. E-on sold the development leases to Chicago-based Invenergy, America’s largest wind power generation company, which also held informational meetings and met with the landowners about the change of ownership. Invenergy held several landowner meetings in conjunction with Xcel Energy to explain how the Rush Creek Wind Project was moving beyond a proposal and into planning and construction. Invenergy sold the Wind Farms Project to Xcel Energy, which continues to provide monthly updates as the project moves forward.

“We are proud to be a part of the largest, most cost-efficient wind farm in Colorado owned by Excel Energy,” says Jan.

The Rush Creek I and II wind farms are not the first in Colorado, nor will they be the last. Jan says landowners need to do their homework if a company approaches them about future wind farms. “Learn everything you can about the project, attend any meetings held by the developers and ask questions. When it comes time to sign a contract or development lease, seek legal advice to ensure you have a fair and beneficial lease. If this is something you personally support, get involved. This is a rural economic development opportunity which benefits farmers and ranchers as well as rural communities.”

Given that farm income has plummeted by half in the last five years, it’s understandable that farmers, ranchers, and rural communities will keep an open mind to wind turbines that produce a harvest of kilowatts come rain or shine. •