Greening of the Prairie -- Not Your Father's Kansas Anymore

In the breadbasket of Kansas, where rusty, rotating oil wells pump silently in fields of wheat, corn and alfalfa, a clean energy revolution has taken root. Deep in the Bible Belt, it’s an unlikely place for something so new, a frontier town where pioneers battled nature’s dangerous elements to carve out a new life.  

But tragedy and adversity can lead to positive change, and that’s what happened to the prairie town of Greensburg. Four years ago, a ferocious 1.7 mile wide EF-5 tornado packing 200 mile-an-hour winds roared through this sleepy agricultural community of 1,500. In the flash of an eye, it destroyed 95 percent of the buildings, leaving 11 dead among huge heaps of twisted metal, brick and wood.

But you wouldn’t know it now. Instead wind turbines rise high above the prairie, rotating like massive pinwheels powered by the jet stream blowing west to east out of the Rockies. Gleaming cutting-edge buildings have popped up near Main Street like high-tech prairie dogs peaking out of their holes. It was all part of a rebuilding plan that came together with amazing speed, as my NRDC colleague Kaid Benfield noted in this blog three years ago.


Greensburg wind farm on outskirts of town           Photos: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Now much of that plan has been finished. Out of the tornado’s devastation, new energy efficient buildings include the Greensburg City Hall, a sprawling K-12 school, a nationally recognized critical care hospital, even a John Deere farm equipment dealership, all built to the world’s highest Platinum LEED energy standards, all powered by a 10-turbine wind farm that generates 12.5 megawatts of power. That's more than enough electricity for this small community.

The Greensburg tornado was a harbinger of the destruction unleashed in Tuscaloosa and Joplin just a few months ago. While community leaders of those devastated communities still mourn their losses and make plans to rebuild, their Kansas neighbors say they feel their pain. They’ve been there.

Just ask Mary Sweet, an amicable hospital administrator of the Kiowa County Memorial Hospital. Four years ago she was out of town on a business meeting when the tornado ripped through the community. Rushing back to her loved ones, she had no idea if her own children had survived, even as she got calls from hospital employees trapped inside the rubble. Fortunately all of her family and hospital employees made it through safely. But the damage to the hospital was total. Mary wasn’t sure they could ever rebuild.

With the help of communities, federal agencies and businesses across the country, Greensburg did rebuild—and more. Officials and residents embarked on an unprecedented plan to create a town that adapted world’s highest efficiency standards. Mary’s hospital is a cornerstone of their efforts, the country’s first critical care facility to be certified Platinum LEED.


Mary Sweet and the county hospital in Greensburg    Photos: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

But Mary and others in the community are quick to defend their energy efficiency efforts, not for their notoriety, but for their business sense. “We didn’t build it for the label,” she says. “We built it because it’s the wise way to build.” Mary figures the county will make back its investment long before the hospital needs to replace its facility. She already hopes to install another wind turbine to help cut costs further.

So recently when officials and representatives from Tuscaloosa came to visit Greensburg and learn about their rebuilding success, Mary says they were surprised what they saw. “They came here thinking we were a bunch of tree huggers,” Mary says. “Instead they found out we’re pretty normal. I think they came away with some ideas they didn’t know about before. For us, we like to give back to the people who helped us by sharing our experiences with others.”

Tuscaloosa officials apparently were impressed. Here’s what they posted on Facebook about their visit:

The RT Task Force gave a presentation on what they learned from the city of Greensburg and plans to have a strong relationship with them in order to make sure we come back stronger, better, and safer. The presentation highlighted examples of how we can use energy efficient construction methods to create more functional & sustainable landscapes for Tuscaloosa. The small town of Greenburg has made a big difference in how community's rebuild after disasters, as they have been pioneers of strategies that create environmental and economic win-win solutions. The rebuilding process for the City of Tuscaloosa will also set a standard for recovery efforts and will be a platform for other towns to use so that we can all respond to disaster more efficiently and come back better than before!

Greensburg mayor Bob Dixson says helping communities like Tuscaloosa rebuild is exactly the core of their mission. The former postal official, a tall John Wayne look-alike in cowboy boots and jeans, speaks frequently at meetings across the country, extolling the virtues of the energy efficient revolution his town now represents. Here's how the mayor puts it:

“Being green has political connotations, but it’s not about color, it’s about the concept of sustainability and the ability to endure. There is a tremendous longing for community here and we need to return to our sustainable lifestyle and learn from our ancestors. We learned from the dirty 30s of the dust bowl. We have learned from this disaster there are new opportunities to be on the cutting edge of technology and share our stories with the rest of the world.”

Kansas windpower from an older era                      Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Those seem more like words spoken from the 60s than today, but they are the heart-felt sentiments of many I met in this small town. Still, Greensburg is far from the Age of Aquarius. It's continuing to rebuild after the disaster that destroyed it four years ago, and locals admit they have a long way to go. Business investment is tough to come by as the stubborn recession still grips the land. But when you talk to people here, they have a boundless optimism, an infectious confidence that they are doing what’s right. And what's smart.

Ask residents here what they think of the politicians fighting over energy policies in Washington and they roll their eyes. Renewable energy and efficiency standards aren't pipe dreams to these folks on the prairie. They are real and they create jobs and save people money. Many wonder it works in the middle of Kansas, why can't it work everywhere else?

That's a question more and more visitors ask too. Greensburg has become a key stopover for people interested in sustainable communities. Locals are proud of what they've created. They believe sooner or later what they have done will catch on in other places because people won't have a choice. The high cost of climate-changing, polluting fossil fuels will become too great. Like the huge mechanical combines that evolved from the mule and the plough, locals believe the energy efficient technologies and wind turbines they've invested in will become commonplace in the 21st Century. 

In a way, it's ironic that it took a tornado to change the course of Greensburg's future. This isn’t the Kansas of Dorothy and Toto anymore. This is America's future. And it's alive and growing stronger in the nation’s heartland.