Forget mass protests. Sometimes all it takes to derail a major industrial project is an itty-bitty snake.
About seven years ago, Finney County was on the verge of landing the Buffalo Dunes Wind Farm, a 250-megawatt project that includes 135 turbines that eventually spread over land in Haskell and Grant counties, until concerns raised about disturbing the habitat of the longnose snake pushed the project farther west.
Lona Duvall, president of the Finney County Economic Development Corp., said the Sierra Club brought forward concerns about disrupting the snake’s habitat.
“Unfortunately, the wind farms move so quickly that if they have anything that comes up against them, they just move on to the next available site. We weren’t able to overcome those concerns,” she said.
The longnose snake, a non-venomous, yellowish or cream colored reptile with black blotches on the body separated by pink or reddish areas, grows to about two to two-and-a-half feet. It prefers grassy or brushy, semiarid regions, and especially loves open prairies with sandy soils or rocky canyons, something the southwest part of the state has in abundance.
Its territory ranges from northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, including a swath of south-central and southwest Kansas, including Finney County. In Kansas, it has been protected since 1987 by the Kansas Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act.
TradeWind Energy of Lenexa developed the Buffalo Dunes project. A portion of the project consists of transmission lines that pass through Finney County to connect to the Sunflower substation in Holcomb, but for the most part, concerns about snake habitat have held up consideration of the county for wind projects.
DuVall said the potential environmental conflict has made other wind companies a little wary of trying to build in Finney County because they want to avoid time consuming hurdles that would delay a project.
She said companies also have wanted to move quickly due to the “precarious nature of the production tax credit” at the federal level. The credit provides a tax incentive for wind power and has been in danger of being eliminated several times. Currently, it is in effect through the end of 2019.
“Plus, the power is typically pre-sold,” DuVall added as another reason for wind farm developers’ haste. “Before they even build the farm, they’ve already got end users for that power, so they need to get the power online as quickly as possible.”
The Buffalo Dunes project is owned by Enel Green Power North America, Inc., and generates enough power to provide electricity to about 85,000 households. The electricity generated is sold under a long-term contract to Alabama Power Co., a subsidiary of Southern Co.
Finney County’s loss has been Grant County’s gain. According to its website, Grant County received $440,000 from Buffalo Dunes in 2015 in the form of Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) and budgeted an estimated $400,000 from the wind farm for 2017.
Bob Dale, Grant County economic development director, said the county saw a big impact during the farm’s construction as it brought in construction workers who stayed at hotels and purchased food and fuel in the county. In addition to PILOT money to the county, the wind farm also generates royalties for farmers who allowed their land to be used for the turbines.
“During the construction, it was a wonderful boost to the economy,” Dale said, adding that the wind farm was roughly a $400 million investment in the area.
At roughly the same time that Buffalo Dunes was under construction, the Abengoa plant at Hugoton and Mid-Kansas Electric Company’s Rubart natural gas electric generating station east of Ulysses were both under construction, which also had a nice impact on Grant County.
Dale said the wind farm developers were “good stewards, good neighbors” during construction, and they restored the roads to the condition they were before and in some cases improved them, and paid for some culverts and crossings that had to be removed during construction.
“All in all, I think it was a good experience for everybody. Everybody’s had a positive outlook on it,” he said.
Dale said he is aware of Buffalo Dunes also working out some kind of deal to benefit the schools, as well, but didn’t have details.
As for Finney County, Duvall hasn’t given up hope on the possibility of landing a wind farm in the future.
“We know that we’re good for wind. We know that companies look at us often, but until they can be assured they can get in and get it done quickly, it’s not something they’re likely to spend a lot of time on,” she said. “They’re great programs for rural communities because they provide some economic opportunities for smaller rural communities. We’ll continue to be supportive of the industry, and supportive of the region.”
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