Turning in the Wind

Mark Engstrom's summer building a Kansas wind farm helped put a new spin on his view of energy.

Latham, Kansas. The population of this little town hovers right around 60 people. "I didn't even think there were towns that small," jokes construction engineering and management sophomore Mark Engstrom.

But Latham is where Engstrom spent the summer of 2005 building a wind farm as an intern for M. A. Mortenson Company.

Wind power is here to stay, says Mark Engstrom (left), a construction engineering and management sophomore.

The massive wind turbines Engstrom helped erect were 80 meters tall (around 230 feet), and the three blades at the top of the tower each extend 127 feet.

"Everything is big and heavy!" says Engstrom. The lightest component of the tower: the base tower section, weighing in at 84,000 pounds. This particular wind farm eventually will contain 100 towers, each yielding roughly enough energy to provide 400 to 500 homes with electricity.

During the height of the operation, the site had over 200 people and hundreds of semi–truck loads coming in, and construction occurred in several phases, beginning with preparing the foundations for the towers. Engstrom finds many people are misinformed when it comes to this aspect of wind farms.

"Somebody thought that the foundations go down 30 feet deep, when in reality it is less than 6 feet deep," he says. "So they might think that putting them in is causing harm to the environment, but really you can use all the land around it. The farmers use the land, and they get paid to have the turbines on the land."

Before getting to that point, though, engineers scoped out the area, measuring wind speed with an anemometer. "Kansas is pretty flat," says Engstrom, "and they usually place the towers on a ridge line to catch the most wind possible." The giant wind turbines can protect themselves against high winds, but an ideal wind speed is less than 25 miles an hour.

Positive Experience: A Student's New Perspective

Engstrom admits to never having thought much about wind power before his experience at Mortenson. "I would see wind turbines alongside of the road, and I always thought they were cool. I never really thought about wind energy before, though." Now he looks forward to the possibility of continuing his career and education in wind energy. "I would definitely go back to work on a wind farm. There's a learning curve, but once you get in that flow, the momentum of the project just carries you through."

What attracts Engstrom to wind power is its apparent benefits and eco–friendly attributes. "It's good to know you are reducing the need for fossil fuels, because they're in limited supply," he says. "Wind is something that will always be there."

Wind energy has seen a surge in popularity—worldwide, it's grown 31 percent annually over the last five years—and the statuesque towers form a striking image on the landscape. Asked what he thinks about the future of this alternative energy source, this young engineer declares, "It's here to stay."

—Kalli Scheffen