Unlikely bedfellows in the past, utilities are turning more often to environmental groups for advice on potential wind farm sites.
An example is Westar Energy’s work with the Nature Conservancy’s Kansas chapter and other environmental organizations in selecting sites for three wind farms announced this week.
The cooperative effort with the state’s largest utility also included ranchers who are sensitive to preserving the nation’s remaining grasslands.
“It’s a rare group to get together and agree on anything actually,” said Rose Bacon, a Council Grove rancher who lauds Westar for a mindful approach in choosing the turbine sites.
“We do agree these places, the Smoky Hills, the Flint Hills, Cheyenne Bottoms, are unique areas and cannot be replaced. They’re not just putting it in the easiest place they can get it, they’re putting it in an ecologically sound place.”
She says the same of KCP&L, a Kansas City-based utility, which owns a wind farm in Ford County and plans to announce more purchases of wind energy in the near future.
“Their shareholders should be proud,” Bacon said.
Westar’s plans are for wind generation at sites in Wichita County, Cloud County and Barber County. Farms there should be complete by the end of next year.
Alan Pollom, Nature Conservancy’s Kansas director, said Westar sets an example for wind farm developers who are surfacing frequently now in search of potentially lucrative sites in Kansas.
Brad Loveless, manager of biology and conservation programs for Topeka-based Westar, said the company sought to follow the official wind farm siting guidelines established by a state task force a few years ago.
“We also wanted input from communities and environmentalists,” he said. “It didn’t make sense to have it in a spot that was problematic.”
The Nature Conservancy helped coalesce statewide conservation groups, including Tallgrass Ranchers and Kansas Audubon, Loveless said.
The expertise of scientists at the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks proved valuable as well.
“They probably had the best on-the-ground sense of where the sensitive areas are,” Loveless said.
The nation has seen record growth in wind power over the past three years, according to the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C.
“Wind energy is now one of the largest sources of new electricity generation in the country,” said the organization’s spokeswoman Christine Real De Azua. “The leading source is natural gas, and wind is second largest. It’s one of the lowest environmental-impact energy sources.”
That said, it still remains a small portion of the nation’s total energy picture.
Because wind offers a free, clean source of power, companies can rely on it as a fixed cost, although the demand for turbines has driven the price ever higher to build farms.
Pollom, whose organization has worked with Westar for several years, noted that “truly green energy” is a popular desire for the state and around the country.
But in the early years of U.S. wind energy development a decade ago, many companies weren’t and still aren’t today, in some cases, sensitive to turbine placement.
“The trick lies in not doing it in a fashion that brings to the table the environmental detriments that offset some of the good you hope to do with the project from the outset,” Pollom said.
In Westar’s case, the utility considered more than 20 sites, he said, running the gamut between “those we could endorse enthusiastically and those we felt were more or less unsalvageable as a project.”
The Nature Conservancy wasn’t given veto power on the projects.
“We were asked to review them and advise on anything with an environmental downside,” Pollom said.
“If you think about it, it becomes kind of an obvious no-brainer,” he said. “The type of wind facilities we’re talking about are really massive industrial facilities. They’re not grandpa’s windmill. There are good places to locate that and not-so-good places.
“I applaud Westar officials in taking that to heart. They were very serious about that from the very onset of this process.”
Loveless noted the company rejected proposals from developers in the Flint Hills and Smoky Hills of central Kansas.
“We did not want to put turbines in those grasslands,” he said.
Farms now operating or planned in Butler, Ellsworth and Lincoln counties have stirred vocal opposition from some conservationists and ranchers because of their setting among what is considered some of the state’s most scenic landscapes.
About 25 developments are now in the planning stages in Kansas, according to the Wildlife and Parks Department.
“We do have a bit of a landrush sort of scenario going on right now without much to control it, Pollom said, “Wind energy in general really has no federal oversight, like you might see with conventional power plants, because you’re not producing air emissions. You’re not using water resources, and it’s not regulated by the Kansas Corporation Commission.”
The only regulatory involvement is in a zoned county. But much of the state’s rural western counties have no zoning, leaving citizens without a formal appeals process.
Legislators have considered past bills to add new statewide regulation, but so far none has passed.
Loveless said during the year Westar worked on the plan, they also consulted with state Wildlife and Parks specialists on ways to avoid disturbing prairie chicken, considered an “umbrella” species because its habitat is critical living space for other grassland wildlife.
“It was a great process of listening and learning,” Loveless said.
By Sarah Kessinger
Harris News Service
6 October 2007
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