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Two Years Later, Greensburg is Officially Green — with NREL's Help

May 8, 2009

Photo of a heavily damaged, roofless brick home is surrounded by tornado debris. An American flag flutters from the home's front steps.

A tornado on May 4, 2007 destroyed 90 percent of Greensburg, Kan. Two years later, with NREL's help, the city is rebuilding to stringent energy efficiency standards and adding renewable energy sources in an effort to be the nation's greenest community.
Courtesy of Daniel Wallach, Greensburg GreenTown

The same natural force that annihilated Greensburg, Kan., two years ago soon will be illuminating the town that has been rebuilt into America's most energy-conscious community.

With technical assistance from NREL, the city of Greensburg, John Deere Renewable Energy and other partners will open a wind farm generating 12.5 MW of electricity, enough to power 4,000 homes. Replacing fossil-fired electricity with a renewable source is a significant step in the town's well-documented recovery — not only for the environmental benefits, but as an economic development strategy, too.

Traumatized residents could be forgiven for doubting any promise delivered on the wind. But now, says NREL project Leader Lynn Billman, townspeople proudly wear T-shirts that quip "Greensburg, KS — It's a Wind-Wind Situation."

When Catastrophe Brings Opportunity

On May 4, 2007, an evening tornado cranking at 205 mph leveled the town, killing 11 people and uprooting its 1,400 residents. The giant twister destroyed 90 percent of the buildings in its unusually wide path, including Main Street, schools, government offices, the fire station, the bank and the hospital.

Within a few days, advisers from NREL, the U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies were huddling with local officials and residents under the big white emergency services tent to help answer the Big Question — what will become of Greensburg?

Photo of a modern looking rectangular-shaped building with glass walls. Three small white wind turbines are visible over the roof of the building.

The glass-enclosed 5.4.7 Arts Center in Greensburg was built to LEED platinum energy efficiency standards. Energy efficiency aspects include passive solar heating, daylighting and a white roof to reflect summer heat. It is powered by a trio of small wind turbines and eight rooftop solar panels.
Courtesy of the City of Greensburg

Since then, Billman has coordinated NREL experts and subcontractors who have served as technical advisors on every aspect of renewable energy and sustainable reconstruction.

Already, Greensburg's decision to set a new green standard is paying off. Tests on 100 new homes built since the disaster show energy efficiency has improved by an average of 40 percent over homes built to conventional building codes. Some residents saw their winter heating bills reduced by as much as two-thirds.

On May 2, Greensburg recognized the NREL with the city's first annual Outstanding Support Award for playing an "instrumental" role in the town's recovery. NREL advisers will work in Greensburg for another year to complete on-the-ground projects and develop a sustainability blueprint that other cities and towns might follow.

"NREL has made our lives easier and better," said City Administrator Steve Hewitt. "Our experience will benefit many other communities that NREL will be working with."

Community-Sized Wind Power

The Greensburg wind farm will include 10 turbines, each rated at 1.25 MW. John Deere Renewable Energy will build and maintain the wind farm, and it will sell power to the Kansas Power Pool, a cooperative of several Kansas cities. Greensburg expects to consume about a quarter of the electricity the wind farm generates.

When the wind isn't blowing and the turbines cannot generate electricity, the Kansas Power Pool will provide the town with clean power from other sources, including hydropower, to meet the community's goal of being powered entirely by renewable sources.

Drawing of a modern-looking brick building with a sweeping metal roof. The front of the building is thickly landscaped with brown prairie grasses.

Greensburg's new city hall was built to a LEED Platinum certification. Its design relies on energy-efficient windows and lights. It was built with energy-saving insulated concrete forms and bricks and wood reclaimed from tornado debris.
Courtesy of BNIM

Groundbreaking for the Greensburg wind farm is planned for this summer at a site three miles outside of town. Commercial operation is expected to begin in 2010.

Laboratory advisers recommended wind power to Greensburg early in the rebuilding effort; Kansas has the third highest potential among the U.S. states to generate electricity from wind, according to a NREL analysis.

And, they realized that Greensburg could be a showcase for distributed community-scale wind power.

NREL developed extensive wind farm technical studies and business models as part of its broader green recovery plan but, the city decided to contract the wind farm's development with John Deere Renewable Energy.

Billman said the Laboratory wants Greensburg to have a wind system generating clean electricity economically and at a location visible from town, and the John Deere Renewable Energy plan achieves those goals.

"We fully support the city's decision," Billman said. "It will help Greensburg achieve its vision without raising the cost of electricity for its residents."

Part of a Broader Clean Energy Plan

Other areas that NREL advisers have been working on to keep Greensburg operating sustainably on its own for decades include:

  • Municipal building design and construction to LEED - platinum standards, making it the first city in the nation to do so.
  • LED streetlights
  • Energy-efficient framing, insulation, ductwork and other improvements to new residential and commercial construction.
  • Helping establish a local wind turbine distributorship at the John Deere farm equipment dealership
  • Assessing biomass-fueled heating opportunities.

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