Responding to opponents of a new wind farm planned in the state’s Smoky Hills, Topeka Rep. Annie Kuether said Thursday she’ll sponsor a bill placing new requirements on wind project developers.
But another lawmaker, who represents residents in the Smoky Hills, said he doubted the measure would pass.
“I don’t think it’s doable at all,” said Rep. Josh Svaty, D-Ellsworth. “As long as you have a willing buyer and a willing seller and it doesn’t pose any harm to any adjacent landowners, we as a Legislature have no business getting involved in those transactions.”
Meanwhile, Rob Freeman, chief executive officer for the farm’s developer, TradeWind Energy LLC of Lenexa, told House Energy Committee that wind power is increasingly cost effective compared to the rising financial and environmental costs of building new coal-fired power plants.
The TradeWind site in Lincoln and Ellsworth counties is slated to eventually produce 250 megawatts of energy. So far, utilities signing up to purchase the power include Sunflower Electric of Hays and Kansas City Board of Public Utilities and the company is seeking others.
“The Smoky Hills project is expected to be the most energetic site of any wind project site in the state of Kansas,” Freeman said.
Construction on the first 100-megawatt phase is set to begin in March.
Kuether, a Democrat, said she supports wind energy and her legislation, which is still in the drafting stage, isn’t intended to imply that TradeWind or any other wind developer had done anything wrong.
But she’s concerned the state could lose scenic landscapes in the Smoky Hills and elsewhere with increasing construction of wind turbines.
“It’s just that nobody has any rules to follow,” she said. “This gives the county commissioners maybe a little more understanding of what they should look at when the big guys come into their counties and wave the money in front of them.”
Ellsworth County landowner Gordon Homeier joined several Ellsworth and Lincoln county officials and residents at Thursday’s meeting to show support for the planned Smoky Hills Wind Project.
Homeier’s leasing some acreage to TradeWind as are 99 other people who own land in Ellsworth and Lincoln counties. He’s pleased the lease agreement allows him to share in the company’s revenues.
“It will become increasingly valuable to us as the project matures,” Homeier said.
The company also plans to make voluntary payments of $300,000 in lieu of taxes to the counties because state law exempts property taxes on renewable energy facilities.
Virgil Huseman, an Ellsworth County landowner, lives adjacent to the planned site for the new wind farm. He came to the meeting with a small group of Flint Hills ranchers who say the project will damage native prairie and scenery.
“When you come over the hill going west on I-70 and see this view, it just kind of takes your breath away,” Huseman said of rolling hills near the exit to U.S. Highway 156.
He backs Kuether’s proposal to place into law a set of environmental siting guidelines written by a state task force in 2003. They include recommendations that companies inform adjacent landowners of a proposed site, that they also consider biological settings and consult with environmental experts, among others.
The guidelines were drafted during a debate in the Flint Hills over proposed wind farms there. The controversy led to state recommendations, but no laws, suggesting developers avoid building farms in a central swath of the scenic Flint Hills, the nation’s last stand of tallgrass prairie.
The Smoky Hills weren’t included in the recommendation, although the task force’s guidelines recommend avoiding wide areas of unbroken native prairie.
Homeier disputed the contention that the wind project will go on unbroken prairie. The land is grazed, he said, and also has intermittent tilled acreage.
Svaty said the opponents have created an atmosphere that’s hindered wind development and caused some investors to pull out of Kansas.
“You have certain groups in this state who are not going to be satisfied with wind anywhere,” he said. “They will construe whatever they need to construe to make sure nothing ever gets built.”
But Kuether said she’s concerned the local residents’ views aren’t considered before a project is planned. She’s hoping her bill will require developers to explain their intentions at public meetings.
Kansas currently has about 360 megawatts of wind power produced by three major farms at different sites. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius recently called for expanding the amount of wind energy produced in Kansas to 10 percent by 2010.
By Sarah Kessinger
Harris News Service