07/07/2011 02:38 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2011

On the Prairie, Pioneers Harvest the Wind

Out on the Kansas prairie, where the wind is steady and strong, clouds of dust and grain chaff swirl near colossal combines that comb fields of corn and wheat. A constant breeze cuts through the stifling summer heat.

But the refreshing winds can be deadly when forces of nature collide. Mike Estes knows. He’s seen the catastrophic effects of an EF-5 tornado four years ago, a monster 200 mile-an-hour cyclone that cut a 1.7 mile swath through Greensburg and demolished his family’s John Deere sales and support facility. Mammoth tractors and combines were strewn about the wrecked showroom like Tonka toys left out in a rainstorm. It was utter devastation.

What Mother Nature took away, she also gave back in the form of a new business idea. After the town's massive rebuilding effort took hold, Mike and his brother Kelly decided to sell more than just tractors and farm equipment. They saw an opportunity to make money off the same destructive force that leveled their business: the wind.   

“After the disaster, all the business leaders got together and we all wanted to rebuild,” Mike says. “We decided we needed to build something different, something sustainable. Leaders seemed to come out of the woodwork. We were lucky we had green in our name.”

As town leaders rallied around a concept to rebuild Greensburg in a unique and sustainable, energy efficient way, Mike says they realized that wind power was not only a good fit for powering the town, but it also was a good fit for his ag machinery business. When the Canadian wind turbine manufacturer Endurance began installing turbines in town, Mike realized they could be good partners for rural customers.

“We have the employees who have the same kinds of skills that it takes to service and support wind turbines,” Mike says. “We can use our machinery dealers and cross train our mechanics to provide top notch service for customers everywhere. Service and support has been a big missing piece of the puzzle. And that’s something we know a lot about.”

BTI Wind now operates a distributorship of wind turbines across the country that focuses on the needs of rural communities. Many are based in John Deere facilities, where maintenance of large mechanized devices is already part of the business model. It just makes economic sense, Mike says. No one had really come up with the idea before; rural wind power dealerships that provide the full package of service and support for farmers eager to cut their skyrocketing energy costs. Now wind turbines across the US and Canada are serviced and supported by BTI Wind.

“We call it the Harvest the Wind Network," Mike says. "After we put up our first Endurance wind turbine, we started getting calls from other farmers. We’ve created several hundred jobs already. And they save people money. The green that business people are seeing now is in their pocketbooks.”


Mike Estes of BTI in Greensburg, KS                       Photos: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

The Estes family has become the town’s wind power success story. They worked closely with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and with John Deere, which built a wind power farm now owned by Excelon Wind west of town. Rising out of golden and green fields of wheat and alfalfa, a row of 10 turbines stand like whirling lighthouses watching over the community. The 50-foot turbines generate 1.2 megawatts of power each, which is sold to the Kansas Power Pool of more than two dozen rural communities. The wind farm provides enough energy to power 4,000 homes, way more power than Greensburg needs.  

There’s also plenty of green tech in Mike’s John Deere sales and support facility. It’s the only one of its kind in the country to be build to the highest level of energy efficiency design—Platinum LEED. The facility operates on about 50% less energy than before the storm, using everything from high tech air and cooling systems to natural light and high efficient lighting technologies that squeeze more energy out of every watt. It was built with recycled materials and maximum insulation. And two wind turbines provide power on site.  

In the service shop that's the size of an aircraft hanger, mammoth John Deere grain combines and tractors the size of dinosaurs are lined up outside the glass showroom. The huge service area is busy with mechanics taking them apart and putting them back together again. 

But there's plenty of action taking place out on the farms as well. That's  where BTI is sending mechanics to work servicing its wind turbines. One of the company’s first customers was Greensburg farmer Roger Stotts, a large wheat, corn and alfalfa grower in the area. He installed one of BTI’s 50 kilowatt wind turbine on his farm to power his voracious energy-demanding grain dryers and irrigation systems. Stotts figures the $350,000 cost of his wind turbine, which is about the cost of a large agricultural combine, will pay for itself in six or seven years.

That is a “slam dunk” business investment, he says. “There’s still some skepticism about it out there, but if you sit down and run the numbers it’s a heck of a good investment. I know feedlots and other big farming operations are all looking hard at it.”

Farmer Roger Stotts, Greensburg, KS                     Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC       

Poll after poll shows American’s support putting more resources into wind and energy efficiency. And renewable energy is growing by the day. It now provides Americans with more power than all nuclear plants combined. The people of Greensburg have shown it makes business sense. As more and more wind turbines power America’s farms, people like Roger Stotts and Mike Estes are in the vanguard of our nation’s clean energy future. They've moved past the politics and rhetoric. It’s about America’s bottom line: investing in sustainable technologies that protect the health and well-being of our families and our national security. 

Over a hundred years ago, the town of Greensburg was named after a flamboyant stagecoach operator named D.R. “Cannonball” Green, who claimed “even ‘Father Time’ can’t keep up with the Cannonball.” But it didn't take long for his business to be eclipsed by a new transportation technology—the railroad.

Still, Cannonball Green’s stagecoach legacy endures. After all, people in rural Kansas know a thing or two about survival. They've proved that a catastrophic tornado will not defeat them. Instead they've built a sustainable community by embracing a lifestyle devoted to money-saving clean energy technologies.

The true clean energy pioneers are here on the prairie. And they're waiting for the rest of the country to catch up.