Wind farm work slowed by wind (not that we mind)
There’s not a little irony that the pace of construction for the Prairie Queen Wind Farm complex in northern Allen County has slowed in recent days because of too much wind.
To safely erect the 600-foot-plus turbines, wind speeds must be below 14 mph, a threshold the wind has easily exceeded in recent weeks.
So crews can do little more than sit it out and wait, noted Stevee Kennard, project developer with EDP Renewables, which will operate the wind farm.
Electricity generated from the 59 turbines will eventually make its way to KCP&L customers across eastern Kansas and the Kansas City metropolitan areas.
Original forecasts were to have the wind farm up and running by the end of April — perhaps in March if dominoes fell correctly.
Now, developers are targeting the end of May, Kennard said.
Then, once the wind generators have passed their inspections and are producing up to 200 megawatts of electricity per hour, the next six months will focus on land reclamation.
“It’s our obligation to restore the land to as close to or better than its condition before the wind project started,” Kennard said, which includes replacing topsoil, reseeding native grasses, refurbishing county roads used by the trucks and eventually removing the temporary turning lanes along the aforementioned truck routes.
Crews have begun some reclamation work where turbines have already been erected, although most of that work cannot begin until the turbines are done.
“All of us are getting excited to finish the process, to see the turbines going up,” Kennard said. “We’ve had people working on this project for several years, and we’re anxious to get it finished. I know with planting season, farmers are ready to be able to get back into their fields as well.”
TRUTH BE told, there are several in the area who aren’t eager to see the wind farm work get wrapped up.
It’s been more than a year that up to 200 workers have located to Allen County on wind farm-related activities at any given time. Area hoteliers, restaurant owners and landlords in particular have seen a large surge in business.
For some, such as Tushar Desai, owner of America’s Best Value Inn in Iola, his 59-room motel has been at or near full capacity since October.
“The wind farm really has boosted my business,” Desaid said, noting that the winter months are normally slow, with occupancy rates rarely above 50 percent.
“It has really helped us along,” he said of the wind farm construction.
Iolan Ryan Sparks, who rents out several homes and apartments in the area, said his places have been booked solid for the past several months.
Loren Lance, owner of the Mildred Store, and Kirk Dwyer, owner at Chancey’s Grill and Shake in Moran, reported similar results.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Dwyer said. “I would guess that over the past six months, we’ve seen a 30 percent increase in business across the board. It’s been good for everybody between here and Iola, probably even farther into Fort Scott or Chanute.”
Lance agreed, noting having the wind farm crews on hand during the winter months has been especially beneficial.
“Normally, our winter months are about $300 or $350 days,” said Lance, who owns the Mildred Store with his wife, Regena. “Our break-even number is $500. With the wind farm work, they’ve kept us going all winter, to the point that it’s very seldom we’ll have a day under $500. We’ve sold a lot of sandwiches.”
The pace of business is as important as the overall numbers, both merchants noted, in that it’s been a steady stream with business spread throughout the day.
“We might have 15 or 20 guys here by noon,” Dwyer said, “and it stays busy throughout the day. There might not be a dead period all day. We might not get any break at all in the afternoon, even 3 o’clock or so.”
Lance agreed, pointing to a pair of wind farm employees who bought sandwiches and then quickly headed out the door to get back to the job site.
“It’ll stay like this all day long,” he said.
Both Lance and Dwyer agreed on another point: their new customers are among the friendliest clientele they’ve served.
“Great guys,” Dwyer said. “We haven’t run into one yet who has been anything but super nice, super fun. They’re interesting. Very professional.”
Some, in fact, have left $20 tips for a $10 meal, Dwyer said.
“The girls love that,” he chuckled.
Lance points to another example.
If a wind farm employee is eating breakfast at the Mildred Store, and sees a table full of other diners, he’ll often pick up the tab for everybody,” Lance said.
“We’ve made a lot of good friends with those guys,” Lance said. “We’re sure going to miss being around them when they leave. This is kind of a social spot.”
Evidence has been more than anecdotal.
Iola’s sales tax revenues, for example, are up more than 22 percent for the first month of 2019 — the month available so far this year — compared to the past several years.
City officials attribute most of the increase to the influx of wind farm workers.
Liquor stores have seen an increase in business as well.
“We have so many of the construction workers coming in here,” said Brian Shaughnessy of O’Shaughnessy Liquor. “There are a lot of construction workers in Iola and they like to one-stop shop. Probably right now 20 percent of our sales are from out-of-town. In the more than 10 years we’ve been here, we’ve never had that many customers who were not local residents.”
The added demand has prompted the Shaughnessys to add such things as coolers and barbecue accessories to meet demand from the itinerant workers.
Lance understands the increased business will not last, that the pace will return to normal once the work has been complete,.
But it’s still been a boon, both to the store and the community, Lance said.
In order to accommodate the transplanted workers, Lance cleared off a plot of land near the Mildred Store in order to install a small RV park.
He’s also spearheading efforts to see a community storm shelter placed in Mildred.
“We have storm sirens,” Lance said. “We just don’t have any place to go. Up to now, most people go to my mother-in-law’s basement. We need something for the community.”
A fundraiser for a storm shelter is part of a special event tonight at the Mildred Store as part of Lance’s regular monthly street dance. An Easter Egg Hunt will begin at about 5:30, prior to the music show.
THE WORKERS themselves appreciate the southeast Kansas hospitality.
Fred Kersh is a foreman with Black and McDonald, the general subcontractor charged with building the turbines for EDP.
The Louisiana native calls Iola RV Park and Storage home on the west side of Iola, along with about 20 or so of his wind farm coworkers.
With his work idled this week due to gusty winds, Kersh spoke with a Register reporter about life on the road.
“It’s easy work, get to travel around, see the country, meet different people, get to know your neighbors,” Kersh said. “I like it here. It’s nice and quiet, and there’s good eating.”
That he lives only a few blocks from Bolling’s Meatery and Eatery is a bonus.
“They know how to lay out a piece of meat,” he joked.
Kersh has been in Allen County for about two months, moving here after completing work on another wind farm in northern Kansas.
“Got the call one day, and drove straight from one job to another,” he said. “Usually, we take some time off to go home for a while.”
Worker turnover has been a constant theme for the wind farm project, with different crews assigned different tasks. Dirt work companies and those tasked with subterranean work have long left the job site, Kennard noted.
Now, there are three primary groups: turbine engineers, crane crews and those ready to begin reclamation once the turbines are done.
The large number of employees coming and going can complicate matters if a newcomer is trying to find a place to live, Kersh noted.
“Sometimes it’s a challenge,” he said. “It depends on what stage you come in. By the time we got to some places, all the spots and rental houses had been rented and we had to get a place 20 or 30 miles away.”
Staying in Iola, which is anywhere from about 6 to 18 miles away from the wind farm, depending on which part of the project he’s covering on a given day, is the perfect distance, Kersh said.
“It’s just the right location,” he said. “When you leave work, it’s just enough time to wind down before you get home. And when you’re on your way, it gives you just enough time to think about what you need to do.”
Angie George works as a site administrator for EDP Renewables, which is overseeing construction of a wind farm in northern Allen County.
NOT ALL OF the crews are out-of-towners.
Angie George, Humboldt, has been with EDP since last May, serving as a site administrator for the company’s local headquarters, near the intersection of South Dakota Road and 3400 Street.
There, she works alongside a half dozen EDP supervisors, fielding phone calls from the public, overseeing bookkeeping and helping coordinate their schedules.
It’s not dissimilar from her background as a bookkeeper, having worked in Chanute and Garnett. (She also makes daily trips to Chancey’s each day for hamburgers.)
Part of her interest in the job was a natural curiosity about wind energy.
“I’d always been interested in how it worked,” she said. “I know I’ve learned a lot, not just about wind farms, but things like how to build roads.”
Her colleagues come from Texas, Ohio, Minnesota, Indiana and Oregon.
“It’s like having six big brothers,” she joked. “They’ve all been so nice, so great to work with. It’s going to be hard when it’s over. It’ll be like saying goodbye to family members.”