Reaping a Harvest of Hope

Reaping a Harvest of Hope

Five years after a devastating tornado, Greensburg, Kansas, has new energy and a new outlook.

Photo of the widespread and massive damage the town of Greensburg incurred when the tornado hit. The photo shows destroyed buildings and downed or severely damaged trees. Enlarge image

On May 4, 2007, an EF-5 tornado—the highest rating of tornados—tore through Greensburg, Kansas, destroying or damaging more than 90% of the town's homes and businesses. With the help of many partners, including the U.S. Department of Energy and NREL, townspeople devised a plan to rebuild as a model green community.
Courtesy of Federal Emergency Management Agency

On May 4, 2007, an epic tornado tore through Greensburg, Kansas, killing 11 people and leveling 90% of the town.

With Greensburg's municipal infrastructure in shambles, city leaders were tasked with jump-starting the entire town. Among their top priorities was restoring power so the recovery effort could begin in earnest.

Greensburg Citizens Champion Green Approach

A handful of citizens and business leaders championed a green approach to re-energizing their town—one that would tap in to Greensburg's abundant wind resource. However, city leaders lacked the experience and knowledge needed to pursue community-scale wind, and they had strong ties to the local power company that had served Greensburg for years and helped restore partial power immediately after the storm.

When a team of NREL technical experts arrived a month after the tornado, the city was close to finalizing a long-term deal with its traditional coal-based power provider to supply electricity to Greensburg. Although city leaders were torn between their loyalty to long-standing business relationships and their desire to go green, the NREL team encouraged them to explore wind energy in greater depth.

"In the Midwest, business is done based on who you know, who you've done business with for a long time, and what has worked well in the past," explained NREL Integrated Deployment Project Lead Lynn Billman. "In south-central Kansas, utilities had provided reliable coal-fired power for as long as most folks could remember. On the other hand, NREL had resource and economic data suggesting Greensburg could leverage its vast wind resource to not only meet its future energy needs but also demonstrate leadership and success on the clean energy front."

NREL presented a solid case for "pausing, taking a deep breath, and taking the time to weigh all of the options before moving forward," said Billman. With that in mind, the city opted for a short-term power purchase agreement (PPA) with its traditional power provider, which bought it time to fully assess the technical and economic feasibility of adopting community-scale wind as an alternative to fossil fuel. This enabled the community to move forward with the recovery process while allowing time to develop a vision of a sustainable, green energy future for Greensburg.

Map of the locations of NREL Integrated Deployment projects and partners around the world, including Alaska, Summit Station in the Arctic Circle, Iceland, Miramar Air Force Base in California, Greensburg, Hawaii, New Orleans, the U.S. Virgin Islands, New Zealand, South Pole Station, and McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Enlarge image

NREL's Integrated Deployment model provides a framework for planning and implementing clean energy projects and initiatives around the world.
Credit: William Gillies

Initially, the vision was fragmented and lacked clarity. Greensburg city leaders were not energy experts, and neither were the other federal agencies that were involved in the recovery effort. Fortunately, NREL brought a 30-plus-year history of scientific discovery and clean energy innovation and deployment to the table. With its deep industry knowledge and wealth of practical experience in moving renewable energy technologies from concept to commercial application, NREL was uniquely positioned to help city leaders connect the dots.

By providing objective data, modeling, analysis, and tools that helped guide decisions about energy choices, policy options, and investments, NREL experts helped city leaders develop a comprehensive energy plan centered on cost-effective, high-efficiency buildings and community-scale wind. Taking an integrated approach to implementing energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, they helped the city draft an energy road map that not only aligned with national energy diversity and reliability goals, but also became a model that other communities could replicate if facing a similar crisis. It was not easy to develop; nor would it be quick to implement. But the road map provided city leaders with the objective and realistic guidance they needed to put Greensburg on a clear path to a sustainable recovery.

Beyond Greensburg: NREL's Integrated Deployment Model Provides a Framework for Community Energy Planning

NREL's work in Greensburg, Kansas, is just one of several projects in which the lab's technical experts apply a comprehensive, holistic approach to deploying energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. NREL's Integrated Deployment model provides a framework to focus on the national goal of accelerating market adoption of clean energy technologies through local efforts, and it is scalable and replicable around the world.

NREL Integrated Deployment projects have facilitated energy planning efforts in several communities, cities, states, and international locations. Each project was launched in response to unique opportunities (concentrated rebuilding in New Orleans, 100% green rebuilding goal in Greensburg, Kansas); adverse economic circumstances ($.50/kilowatt hour (kWh) electricity rates in Hawaii, $1.00/kWh in Alaskan villages); or mission-related concerns (energy security and reliability issues for the U.S. Department of Defense, pollution impacts for National Science Foundation polar research).

"These projects represent a broad spectrum of locations, circumstances, and issues," said NREL Integrated Deployment Lab Program Manager Mary Werner, "but all reflect examples of successful implementation of the Integrated Deployment model that can be replicated across the country and globe."

Planting the Seeds for a Green Future

With additional input from citizens and various private sector and government entities, the Kansas City, Missouri-based community planning and architectural firm BNIM developed a Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan. The plan outlined some specific long-term energy supply goals that would advance the community's collective vision and plant the seeds for future green growth. These goals included:

  • Offering Greensburg-area customers 100% renewable source energy
  • Maintaining the consumer rates at or near the current rate despite nationwide increases in fuel and energy costs
  • Implementing a system that could be maintained by current city staff
  • Defining a system and strategy that would be replicable in other Kansas communities.

In addition to providing the community with long-term, clean, economical power, these goals were designed to put Greensburg on the map as a pioneer in clean energy technology adoption. City leaders hoped that by harnessing the wind that almost destroyed their community, they'd be able to create economic development opportunities and provide a model other communities could replicate.

Harvesting the Wind to Fuel Opportunity

Kansas has the third-highest potential for wind energy of any state—a fact that is readily apparent to anyone who spends a typical day in Greensburg. While early NREL technical assessments confirmed the town's class 5 wind resource, NREL continued its detailed study and analysis to provide the bankable data necessary to attract developers.

"Blessed with a unique opportunity to create a strong community devoted to family, fostering business, [and] working together for future generations."

—Greensburg's vision statement from the Comprehensive Sustainable Master Plan

City leaders asked NREL to identify potential sites for a city-owned wind farm and conduct detailed computer modeling and site measurements. The city also relied on NREL's life-cycle cost analysis and its extensive energy project development and financing experience to draw up business plans demonstrating how wind energy could be successful for a small municipal utility.

As evidence of a wind farm's viability mounted, NREL facilitated meetings between the city and its long-term power provider, identified potential alternative power purchasers, and ultimately brokered a deal that would enable Greensburg to realize its vision of meeting its energy needs with clean, green, homegrown power.

In April 2009, the City of Greensburg entered into a PPA with Kansas Power Pool, a green power provider that promised "100% renewable electricity, 100% of the time." With a blueprint in hand, the City of Greensburg and Kansas Power Pool, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and John Deere Renewable Energy, set out to build a 12-megawatt (MW) wind energy system designed to meet the pre-tornado energy needs of the community. NativeEnergy, which helped finance the project, signed on to market the excess energy the wind farm produced as renewable energy credits (RECs).

Photo of Greensburg's new wind farm, with the turbines rising from a green field toward a bright blue sky. Enlarge image

The Greensburg Wind Farm is composed of 10 1.25-MW wind turbines, supplying a total of 12.5 MW of renewable wind power to the town.
Courtesy of Native Energy Inc.

The commitment to 100% wind energy, 100% of the time was a milestone for Greensburg—one that put green at the heart of the recovery effort and infused it with new energy and a new focus.

City officials were not alone in their desire to capitalize on Greensburg's abundant renewable resources. From the earliest phases of the recovery effort, progressive local businesses had sought ways to save energy and cut costs by putting energy innovation into action.

The local John Deere dealership, BTI-Greensburg, was among the first businesses to rebuild, and owners Mike and Kelly Estes were frontrunners in going green. "When you have a chance to build back from scratch, you look for a new and better way," said Mike Estes of the dealership's decision to incorporate green features, including wind turbines, into the design of its new LEED Platinum-rated building. To enable local distributed renewable energy system owners such as BTI-Greensburg to reap the greatest return on their investments, NREL policy analysts assisted the city, which operates the municipal utility, in developing safety and reliability ordinances, a net-metering policy, an interconnection agreement, and solar and wind ordinances.

Photo of BTI-Greensburg's newly rebuilt facility. One of the wind turbines that provides power to the building is visible on the right. Enlarge image

The BTI-Greensburg John Deere dealership in Greensburg includes two on-site wind turbines that provide electricity to the facility.
Credit: Rachel Sullivan, NREL

The Estes brothers, who own four John Deere dealerships throughout Kansas, were so impressed with the quality and performance of the Endurance wind turbines they purchased for their new facility that they opted to enter the wind business themselves. During their business planning process, they sent teams to NREL's laboratory in Golden, Colorado, to discuss the wind industry. BTI Inc. launched its wind turbine subsidiary, BTI Wind Energy, in 2008.

That same year, BTI Wind Energy formed the Harvest The Wind Network (HTWN) of dealers to sell, service, and support wind energy products across North America. The independent dealer groups that comprised the network each had dedicated wind specialists and technicians who were trained and supported by HTWN. Participants in the network partnered with local community colleges to provide turnkey wind energy solutions to local businesses, homes, schools, and hospitals. By successfully implementing wind energy systems ranging from residential systems to community wind projects, HTWN sought to extend the economic benefits of wind energy to communities throughout the United States and Canada.

Signs of Growth

Over time, signs of healing began to surface in Greensburg. By 2010, the completion of Greensburg's 12.5-MW wind farm, the growth of BTI Wind Energy's HTWN, and successful green building projects such as the LEED Platinum-rated Kiowa County Memorial Hospital, the SunChips® Business Incubator, City Hall, and Prairie Pointe Townhomes garnered national attention, engendered community pride, and offered tangible evidence that the town was on the path to recovery. Most importantly, these early successes helped cultivate a collective sense of hope for the town's future.

"I think about Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was completely destroyed by a tornado but is being rebuilt by its residents, as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community—how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay."

—President Barack Obama, 2009 State of the Union Address

Reaping What They Sowed

Five years after the tornado left a 22-mile path of destruction where Greensburg had once been, the town has emerged from the rubble with a new energy and a new outlook for the future that are firmly rooted in the community's vision of embracing sustainability and clean energy.

Today, the Midwestern wind that nearly destroyed the town is being harnessed to power its recovery. The Greensburg wind farm on the outskirts of town generates enough energy to power 4,000 homes—more than enough clean, renewable electricity to supply Greensburg and several other communities in the power pool. The excess power is placed back on the grid and marketed by Native Energy Inc. to other customers in the form of RECs. In 2011, Greensburg's significant contributions to the cleantech industry received international recognition when its municipal wind farm was named Wind Project of the Year by Renewable Energy World.

Through its Harvest the Wind Network, BTI has helped extend the opportunities for green growth beyond Greensburg's borders. HTWN has already installed 125 turbines nationwide, which are generating more than 5 MW of wind energy. In addition, it is developing more than 100 additional projects, each of which will be able to generate between 50 Kw to 15 MW of wind energy.

Photo of the rebuilt Greensburg. The wind farm visible in the background, and sunlight is peeking through dark storm clouds. Enlarge image

Today, Greensburg is harvesting the wind to power its recovery. The 12.5 MW wind farm is visible on the horizon.
Courtesy of Joah Bussert, Greensburg GreenTown.

By working with NREL to harness its most abundant renewable energy resource as part of a sustainable long-term recovery plan, Greensburg discovered great opportunity in the midst of great crisis. Today this resilient heartland community, which was in decline before the storm hit, is reaping a healthy harvest of hope—one it is sharing with other communities that are either facing or preparing for similar crises. "NREL has made our lives easier and better," said former city administrator Steve Hewitt. "Our experience will benefit many other communities that NREL will be working with."

From the beginning, the local nonprofit organization Greensburg GreenTown™ worked closely with NREL, introducing NREL experts to the people of Greensburg, and working with lab representatives to deepen GreenTown's understanding of energy solutions. That partnership has borne fruit well beyond the borders of Greensburg. Residents of Joplin, Missouri, turned to Greensburg for recovery assistance after an EF-5 tornado struck their town on May 22, 2011. As a result, Greensburg GreenTown launched its second field office to help Joplin recover as sustainably as possible and serve as a model for other communities. GreenTown is using the myriad NREL-developed outreach and technical documents in its work to educate and inspire people in Joplin and other communities toward a greener future.

In 2009, Greensburg leaders served as Eco-partners to a city in Sichuan Province, China, to help it recover from an earthquake. In addition, representatives from Japan are working with NREL to plan a visit to Greensburg and to identify best practices and lessons learned that they can apply to their efforts to rebuild after the 2011 tsunami.

As Greensburg's residents, businesses, and institutions press forward on their new, sustainable path, the benefits of going green are beginning to hit home. Home and business owners boast about their lower energy bills. Businesses with a sustainability mission are exploring Greensburg for possible expansion. Eco-tourism and other small businesses are emerging. Young people are looking to return home and settle down after college. As the recovery progresses and Greensburg's future continues to unfold, hope continues to grow.

Meanwhile, Greensburg has emerged as a world model of sustainability, offering an inspiring example of what is possible when the people of a community and the government come together with common purpose. "We've been blessed with opportunity here," said Mayor Dixson, "and we have a tremendous obligation to offer hope to the world."

See how NREL is assisting others with clean energy technologies by visiting the Technology Deployment website.

Learn more about NREL's Spectrum of Clean Energy Innovation and how the laboratory's capabilities emulate the nature of the innovation process.

— Karen Petersen

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