(TNS) — A group of Kansas researchers believe they have a solution that will help rural communities thrive, simply by helping them optimize how they use their community's already abundant wind energy opportunities.
The projects will create "cheaper energy" that can be used to treat water and maintain agricultural systems, while building on the region's current use of wind energy.
Rural revitalization has long been a political talking point, as politicians on both sides of the aisle have developed plans to assist rural communities that are struggling with shrinking populations, wavering economies and limited access to healthcare and other 21st century necessities like high-speed internet.
"There's a demand for a different style of living than how we've crammed ourselves into cities," said Mary Hill, geology professor at the University of Kansas and the lead project investigator of FEWtures, a research group focused on how the future of Food, Energy and Water are intertwined and can be used to strengthen rural communities.
Composed of researchers from four U.S. universities, including The University of Kansas and Kansas State University, the five-year project will build an online virtual tool that will take information about rural communities, such as its' population size, number of available acres, average wind speed and amount of money the community has available to invest in projects.
The tool will use the data to assist community leaders, groups of farmers, or even state governments in deciding whether they want to invest in these community projects, based on whether the projects will be economically sustainable.
"It doesn't matter how good the project is, if it's not economically viable, eventually it dies," said Vincent Amanor-Boadu, FEWtures Economic Analysis team leader. "We are trying to minimize external subsidies and support and make sure that you have systems that are internally viable. Therefore if the government decides to throw money at it, that's icing on the cake."
The project will use take nitrogen from the air and will use energy from wind turbines to combine it with hydrogen from water to make ammonia, a compound of hydrogen and nitrogen. The ammonia produced this way is far more environmentally friendly than the traditional manner of production and can then be used in several ways.
For example, ammonia can be used as a "battery." In the creation of the ammonia, they put energy into the nitrogen and hydrogen bonds, that energy is then "stored" until they split the nitrogen and hydrogen bonds and get the energy back
This extra energy could be used to treat community wastewater, which can be used for drinking water, livestock or irrigation. By using this energy in rural communities to power water treatment, it could save money for farmers in semi-arid locations like Western Kansas. Any extra ammonia could be used as fertilizer by farmers.
The Kansas Water Office will be hosting two FEWtures virtual webinars that are open to the public. Registration information can be found on the Kansas Water Office website.
The first will be at 2 p.m. Jan. 14 and will discuss how wind energy can be used for small scale ammonia production and water treatment. The second will discuss the economic feasibility of ammonia production and water treatment through wind energy at 2 p.m. Feb. 11.
FEWtures is conducting a survey to learn more about the issues facing farmers and ranchers, that can be found online here or at https://kusurvey.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_0HeVc5yanIcf3md.
While the study focuses on the Central Arkansas River Basin, which includes parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, the tool can be used anywhere, as long as the proper parameters are changed.
"We are not advocating that everyone should do this," Amanor-Boadu said. "What we are saying is that if it makes sense for your community, then go ahead and do it because it will pay off. If it doesn't, then let's look for alternative solutions."
The tool will be free to use. As these rural communities see a return on their investment, they will be able to expand investments in other areas, such as high-speed broadband for their schools.
"If you're going to do something positive for rural communities, you need to do something positive for their economies," Hill said.
This will also help those who are more attracted to a rural lifestyle, be able to return home or "to a place that feels more like home than downtown Manhattan, Chicago or even the suburbs," Hill said. "With climate change and the effects on coastal regions, people will be looking for lifestyles in alternative places."
"Usually when people start having families, they want to be close to home, but they don't come because we don't have the amenities, we don't have the jobs and we don't have all of the things that they need," Amanor-Boadu said. "What the COVID-19 Pandemic has signaled is the ability to work from anywhere that is allowing people to move from very expensive attractive locations to places that they want to be."
The group started in September 2019, and has a five-year grant funded by the National Science Foundation. They hope to have the tool online and running by December 2021 and plan to spend their last two years educating communities, refining the tool and spreading the word.
"It is an opportunity for communities to start thinking about how they can take that initiative, in the absence of government interventions, and making it a strategic part of their own viability and sustainability initiative," Amanor-Boadu said.
FEWtures hopes that state representatives or agencies will participate in a pilot project with Kansas communities once the tool is ready at the end of next year, said Susan Stover, who works on the FEWtures engagement team.
(c)2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.