Rex Savage of Florence didn’t intend to be a trailblazer, but such is the fate of those who go first, as he did when he embarked on a quest to see a wind farm built in the county.
Over the years Savage has been developing what’s known as the Doyle project, technology, regulations, prices, the industry, and Savage’s plans all have changed.
The one constant through it all: Money makes the turbine blades turn.
Now, there’s a new player in the county, one with a well-financed multinational energy company partner.
Tradewind Energy, a Lenexa-based firm, has 17 wind projects operating or in development around the country, according to its website map. The Smoky Hills project along I-70 west of Salina is one of theirs.
Tradewind and Windborne Energy, Savage’s company, are similar in one respect: they plan and secure all that’s necessary for a wind energy conversion project, but they don’t build it.
“We take projects from inception to construction,” Tradewind senior development director Brice Barton said. “The majority of our wind projects go to Enel. They take the project from contruction to operation and maintenance.”
Enel Green Power North America owns and operates more than 90 renewable energy power plants, including 14 wind projects designed by and purchased from Tradewind Energy. EGPNA’s parent company, Enel, provides power to more than 61 million customers on four continents.
“Having that kind of backing behind you is a gold mine,” Savage said. “You know the parameters they will accept for financial performance and you can put a project together within those parameters.
“Jealous isn’t the right word, but I’d like to have one like it. It would make my life remarkably easier.”
Therein lies the difference between present and future success.
When Savage and business partner Delmar Nightingale of Galva formed Windborne in 2009, they provided the working capital to design the Doyle project.
“He has a disposition somewhat like mine,” Savage said, “to do all manner of odd things that everybody else says are too crazy to work.”
They developed leases with landowners, conducted preliminary environmental evaluations, and collected informal wind measurements to create a preliminary plan.
“We put together enough acreage using the spacing patterns of that time for 100 megawatts,” Savage said. “(The wind) extrapolations proved to be within two percent of what the winds turned out to be. I thought that was pretty good for cowboy math.”
In 2011 they applied for and received a conditional use permit for a wind farm. The timing, however, was less than ideal for selling the project to investors.
“By the time we got through the first one, economic demand for electrical growth had dropped off,” Savage said. “It changed things. The people who initially had indicated they were going to take it proved unable to write a check.”
It took about two years of searching before they connected with Sunwind Energy Group, a startup company. Doyle would be their first wind farm.
“We had question marks about them because they were a startup, but they did put some money on the table and moved forward,” Savage said.
Sunwind generated about $7.4 million through the sale of securities, Sunwind president Joe Craft confirmed. The company also obtained a loan of about $2.4 million from TelexElectric, a subsidiary of TelexFree, a telecommunications company.
Sunwind put up meteorological towers for a formal wind study, completed an electricity transmission agreement, and eventually hired a project manager, Ros Vrba, to handle development details.
“They made a good faith effort,” Savage said.
But Sunwind didn’t have a purchase agreement for the wind farm’s electricity.
“We were negotiating for one with Westar but did not get it,” Craft said.
Sunwind suffered another blow when federal agents raided the offices of TelexFree in 2014, claiming it was a billion-dollar fraud and money laundering scheme.
A federal bankruptcy court agreement worked out in July determined Sunwind has to repay its $2.4 million loan for the Doyle project, with interest, to satisfy claims of TelexFree creditors.
“Like all projects, this one has encountered numerous challenges which had to be overcome,” Craft said. “We look forward to the successful conclusion of these efforts.”
Savage said a successful conclusion may not include Sunwind.
“We have come to terms with a potential buyer and are waiting to see if they have the capability to close the purchase,” Savage said.
Barton hopes the development of the Diamond Vista project will be straightforward for Tradewind.
“Being at this 14 or 15 years, we have pretty good resources in house, a group of experts that looks at everything,” he said. “We’ve taken wind farms to construction in two and a half to three years.”
However, timelines vary with each project, Barton said.
“We have a project we’re doing right now that’s in year eight of development,” he said.
Tradewind has developed lease agreements in Marion and McPherson counties for about 30,000 acres for Diamond Vista, and plans to secure more, including in Dickinson County.
Savage hopes an investor capable of moving the Doyle project ahead will come on board soon.
“It needs a shot of money,” he said. “That’s where we’re at.”