The Lyon County Commission is set to vote on a re-zoning issue Thursday for a potential wind energy farm near Reading.
RES Americas proposed the wind energy development site on an area of 20,000 acres near Reading. On Nov. 9, the Lyon County planning board recommended a zoning change for the project – changing almost 17,000 acres from agriculture to agriculture conditional use – which must now be voted on by the Lyon County Commission.
During the 9:45 a.m. section for public comment during commission meetings, members of the community have approached the commission to speak about the project from both sides of the issue.
Opponents of the wind farm have addressed the commission on issues ranging from the efficiency and power generation of wind turbines to questions on the noise produced by turbines and safety for animals.
James Aber, a Roe R. Cross distinguished professor of quaternary geology, tectonic geology, remote sensing and GIS at Emporia State University, as well as one of the authors of ‘Windscapes: A Global Perspective on Wind Power.’ Aber has worked with wind farms in Kansas and discussed both the history and facts about wind energy.
“Wind energy has been around for centuries,” Aber said in an email. “The familiar American windmill was invented in 1854 and quickly spread across the Midwest and Great Plains regions. In addition to pumping water, American windmills have been used for grinding grain, sawing wood, processing ore and running various mechanical devices including printing presses.
“Modern wind turbines are based on the same principles as earlier windmills for converting the kinetic energy in the wind into electricity. Essentially the rotating turbine blades drive a gearbox connected to an electrical generator. A wind sensor on the turbine controls the direction or the rotor and pitch of blades to optimize energy production. The turbine shuts off when there is either too much or too little wind. Each turbine operates autonomously and feeds electricity into the grid system.”
According to Aber, wind in Kansas – along with the rest of the world – typically reaches maximum speed in the afternoon. Kansas is also part of the Eastern Interconnection, which Aber said allows the grid system to pull energy from multiple sources.
“Average maximum wind speed typically happens in the afternoon here in Kansas as well as just about everywhere else in the world,” he said. “Furthermore, it’s usually in the afternoon and early evening when maximum electricity consumption takes place.
“Another myth is that wind energy is inefficient because the wind does not blow all the time. This ignores the regional basis for wind energy and the grid system. Across the Great Plains on any given day, wind may be weak or calm in some sectors but blowing strongly in other portions. Kansas is part of the Eastern Interconnection – Atlantic coast to the Great Plains in the United States and south-central Canada. Electricity generated from multiple locations or sources may be consumed anywhere within the grid system.”
Aber said economic lifespan of a wind farm are typically figured on a 20-year pay-back-and-profit period, but are built to last many years with routine maintenance.
“After initial years in service, turbines may be re-conditioned and re-located for an after-market,” Aber said. “Many Danish turbines installed in California wind farms in the 1980s, for example, are still in use in other locations today – including Kansas.”
In his experience, Aber said the noise from a turbine isn’t particularly loud and compared it to background noise.
“In many cases, in fact, turbine noise is hardly noticeable above background noise of wind blowing across the prairie,” he said. “Having said that, reaction to sound is highly personal, and perceptions and habits play a significant role for individuals.”
Aber also said the risk turbines pose to birds and bats has become less of an issue with modern turbines.
“Compared with other sources and forms of energy production, turbines and wind farms are relatively safe with minimal environmental impacts,” Aber said. “Early experience in some California wind farms highlighted the risk to birds – particularly raptors – that inhabited those locales. Later, the risk to bats was discovered mainly for wind farms in the eastern U.S. A great deal of biological research has been conducted and several means are now available to minimize or mitigate this risk. Modern turbines are larger, taller, rotate slower and, thus, represent less risk to flying wildlife.”
Waverly Wind Farm
Just 30 miles east of Emporia and Lyon County, the turbines of the Waverly Wind Farm have been spinning for nearly a year.
Kenneth Combes, a Coffey County commissioner, said once construction was completed he didn’t hear much from landowners.
“I hear some opposition to it,” Combes said. “Some people outside the boundary of the wind farm – there is some negative – but you don’t hear a whole lot. I don’t hear anything from the landowners themselves. I think they’ve started receiving their payments. But I’m sure if they weren’t satisfied we’d be hearing something about it.”
Joan and Leroy Steward have two wind turbines on their property and said they did their research before the project began.
“We went up toward Clay Center and Concordia and did a lot of research before we signed any contracts,” Joan said. “Everyone up there spoke highly of (the turbines) and we have not been disappointed.”
According to Joan, noise has not been a problem for them or their family members who also live near turbines.
“Our kids live right up the road and there’s one on the farm right next to them,” Joan said. “My daughter-in-law said the only time they ever hear them – and they are closer than we are – is when the wind is just right and the windows are open in the summer. They haven’t complained one bit and we’re very happy to have them.”
Lyle and Catherine Williams have turbines on farmland they own and said the sound is no different than listening to a highway.
“I live a mile from where they started in Waverly and you go outside in the evening and it sounds like a pickup coming down a gravel road,” Lyle said.
Joan said the future of the land was a factor when considering the turbines.
“When we are gone it’ll help the land stay in the family,” she said. “It’ll help them keep and maintain it and that’s good.”