But Larry Patton, a landowner in Chase County who opposes wind farms and operates the "Protect the Flint Hills" Web site, said the project is even worse than people feared. "I think most people I talk to agree that it's more industrial than most thought it was going to be," he said. "It just dominates that landscape out there."
They rise out of the Flint Hills near Beaumont, objects either of wonderment or scorn.
All but 10 of 100 turbines that form the Elk River Wind Farm are up and running, providing electricity to a Missouri-based energy company.
The $190 million project, which scatters the giant towers over 8,000 acres of privately owned land south of Beaumont, has been delivering power since Oct. 15, well ahead of the Dec. 31 date originally projected.
"Once we got clear of that wet weather in August we made significant progress," said John Hueston, site manager for the project’s owner, PPM Energy of Portland, Ore.
The 10 non-functioning turbines are suffering an array of technical problems but should be up and running by early next week, Hueston said.
Each tower is 262 feet high, with three 125-foot blades on top.
At its operational peak, the turbines are expected to generate 150 megawatts – enough to power 42,000 homes a year – for Empire District Electric Co. of Joplin.
Empire serves about 157,000 customers in the four-corners region of southeast Kansas, southwest Missouri, northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma.
Elk River is the second large-scale wind project in Kansas. A Gray County turbine district in Montezuma was built in 2001.
Lee Allison, science and energy policy adviser to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, said two more wind projects are expected to be built soon. They include a 30-megawatt plant in western Kansas and a 100-megawatt project by KCPL at an undetermined site.
Allison said interest is growing in community wind projects of less than 20 megawatts, built and owned by small local groups such as school districts or farm cooperatives, rather than large industrial projects.
The 100 turbines near Beaumont have generators and gearboxes in the nacelles on the top of the towers. The energy travels through 40 miles of underground wires to a substation at the south end of the project, and is sent out over a power grid to Empire, which has a 20-year contract with PPM to purchase the power.
The landscape is dotted by small junction boxes where wires are gathered and connected. The above-ground boxes provide workers easy access to the system, Hueston said.
PPM built 27 miles of roads to service the towers. The roads are 16 feet wide and extend in a straight line from the county road that passes through the heart of the project to rows of turbines on either side.
Environmentalists and neighboring property owners have long objected to the Elk River and other proposed wind projects for the Flint Hills, citing damage to one of the last remaining tracts of native tallgrass prairie. Lawsuits were filed to halt the Beaumont project.
Hueston said PPM has been a responsible steward of the land. The company is restoring county roads to their original condition, and this spring plans to re-seed areas adjacent to the roads with native grasses, he said.
"When we’re done, the only thing you’ll be able to see is the roads and the aprons around the towers," Hueston said.
"We’ve added a lot of scope and costs to the project to help protect the interests not only of the landowners, but certainly of the people who have an interest in the overall health of the ecosystem of the Flint Hills," Hueston said.
But Larry Patton, a landowner in Chase County who opposes wind farms and operates the "Protect the Flint Hills" Web site, said the project is even worse than people feared.
"I think most people I talk to agree that it’s more industrial than most thought it was going to be," he said. "It just dominates that landscape out there."
"You have 82 surrounding neighbors who signed a statement opposing the project," Patton said. "Those people are still against the project."
Four landowners receive lease payments, but only one lives in the county. All but about 3 percent of the leased land can still be used by the families for farming and ranching.
The project doesn’t provide any money for Butler County.
The state Legislature exempted wind farm owners from paying property taxes, Allison said.
The company offered to make a payment to the county in lieu of taxes, Allison said, but could not determine how to do that without appearing to be bribing county commissioners who had to approve the project.
The project created 200 construction jobs, but will permanently employ only 10 full-time workers at the substation
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