Is wind energy compatible with agriculture?
This is a compelling question given the proliferation of wind “farms” in Kansas. The wind might be free, but harvesting it comes at a hefty price, in terms of the technology required, and the large areas of agricultural land required to site turbines. The net value of wind energy to society is a controversial and technical issue, but farmers might be concerned whether the land can remain a farm in the conventional sense, as most wind developers claim.
I recently took a guided tour of the Spearville Wind Park just east of Dodge City. You can’t help but be impressed by a rotor assembly of three 14,000-pound blades that begins to move by itself at a wind speed of 8 miles per hour, even if energy generation doesn’t peak until 31 mph. I also noticed that the fields around the turbines had wheat growing up to 10 feet away from the towers. The farmer mentioned that some minor adjustments to crop management were required, especially for pivot irrigation, but the bulk of land was still in production.
Farmers should be conscious that wind energy plants are a form of heavy industry. Apart from the turbines, wide access roads are required, many trenches will be dug to accommodate power lines, and eminent domain may be exercised to place power lines across neighboring properties that refuse to sell easements. There will also be substantial damage to the land during the construction phase, largely due to soil compaction and erosion, even if most of it can be returned to agricultural production.
Nevertheless, it is my opinion that wind energy projects could be profitably sited on farms in a socially acceptable way provided a number of criteria are met.
1. The land should be already disturbed by tillage, as recommended by the governor’s energy task force. Undisturbed rangeland and native prairie should not be developed for wind farms because of the large area of ground that suffers disturbance during construction. Natural soil profiles and plant ecology cannot be restored following such disturbance and native plants and animals will be negatively impacted.
2. The land should not be adjacent to residential development. Numerous studies are identifying significant health risks for people living near wind turbines. Large wind turbines are visually intrusive, being visible from 18 miles away, and if they mar the views of adjacent residents who are not receiving income from them, they will become a source of local contention because of concerns about reduced property values and diminished scenic outlook.
3. The process of negotiating with a wind energy developer should be a democratic, open, and public process for the entire community whereby all local citizens have a fair opportunity to voice concerns, ask questions, and provide input to the county planning commission. Otherwise, the development may be resented by local residents who feel their rights are being ignored while others are being permitted to profit at their expense.
4. Finally, a thorough, independent environmental impact assessment should be undertaken by qualified professionals commissioned by the government, not the developer, to produce estimates of potential impacts on surface water runoff, wells, birds, game animals, endangered species, and overall ecological health of the area.
The Spearville project meets most of these criteria. Already disturbed land was used, and it was generally accepted that this was a unique opportunity to revitalize a small town of 900 people and obtain funding to help keep the local school open. The project was also suitably sited to the north of town where, for the majority of residents, sunrises and sunsets would not be marred by whirling blades.
The Spearville project can be contrasted rather starkly to the 200 megawatt facility currently proposed for 11,000 acres just west of Hays that appears to meet few, if any, of the above criteria. Hays is a growing community of more than 20,000 with a state university and an agricultural research center. More than half of the area proposed for development is undisturbed rangeland that has never been tilled and is known to contain breeding habitat for prairie chickens. No independent environmental impact assessment was ever commissioned. The planning process took place largely behind closed doors over a period of several years, with little snippets of information leaked here and there to a largely uninformed public, until a notification of a special use permit application caught local residents completely by surprise.
The Hays site was selected very close to the western edge of town, where sunsets would forever flicker through spinning blades, largely because of the interests of particular landowners and the proximity of an existing substation. Unfortunately, the site encompasses secluded residential developments that highly value their rural privacy in close proximity to town. To these more than 100 families, the development represents a forcible industrialization that threatens to destroy their rural quality of life.
Under these conditions, farmers seeking to embrace wind energy can expect to pay a heavy price in terms of public opposition that has the potential to adversely affect their relations with the larger agricultural community.
Farmers who remain serious about agriculture should view wind energy development with caution. It is not farming, it is industrial energy generation with many of the attendant externalities of heavy industry. Such development might be compatible with agriculture when appropriately sited, but it should not divide communities, otherwise agricultural interests may suffer adverse social and economic consequences, even if cows are willing to graze up to the base of wind turbines.
–J.P. Michaud, Hays, Kan.
31 May 2007
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