A standing-room crowd that spilled out through the back door of the Reno Commission chambers Tuesday morning learned that the potential construction of a 220-megawatt wind farm in southeast Reno County is at least 16 months away, with a likely two years before it goes online.
About a half-dozen employees of NextEra Energy attended the meeting to answer questions from the Reno County Commission and, after invited by the commission, from the public.
A quick headcount showed at least 35 people in the commission chambers before the meeting started, with more standing outside.
Only 24 signed in, however, with those who indicated a leaning showing an even split between opponents and proponents of the project.
Of the six people who had questions – besides the commissioners – all seemed to be concerns about the project and its impact on development, land values and wildlife.
Spencer Jenkins, associate project manager with Florida-based NextEra, apologized for more residents not being aware of a December informational public meeting in Haven about the proposed Silver Lake project, and for leaving an impression among some that “this is happening now.”
“We didn’t want to come in unannounced,” he said. “We wanted to let folks know we’d be in the Haven area and looking at land.”
“Unfortunately we’re in the very early stages, and there’s not much specific information to give, but we’ll try to provide the best overview of what it will look like.”
“We’re not a company that develops a project and flips a switch and then disappears into the night,” Jenkins said. “We have a utility mindset. If we come into an area, we like to be there for the long haul. Our business model is based on long-term operation.”
The company has six projects in Kansas, with another about to begin construction in Pratt County. Its Gray County wind farm was the first large-scale wind farm in the state, he said.
“We currently have 51 full-time employees in the state,” Jenkins reported. “We make $4.9 million in landowner payments $1.4 million in charitable contributions each year.”
The company has had two meteorological towers in Reno County since 2016 gathering wind data and last summer “began to dig into that wind data” to see if a project was viable for the county, finding it “very promising,” Jenkins said.
In January, the company initiated environmental studies for the area it is targeting in the southeast quadrant of the county, which is generally from just west of Pretty Prairie east to the Sedgwick County line, and from the northern boundary of Haven south to the county line.
“We’re in the stage of a desktop study, looking at overall environmental conditions in the area,” Jenkins said. “After that, we’ll have consultants on the count doing wetland, avian and other wildlife studies. These run, at a minimum, a year in duration. They can be longer. It just depends on what’s found.”
While the study is ongoing, they will also be engaging with landowners.
Once the environmental study is complete, they’ll seek permitting, a process that generally takes three months. Construction should follow, which is expected to take about nine months.
No construction will commence, however, Jenkins said, until they have a long-term purchase agreement from an electric utility to buy the power generated by the wind farm.
“We’re still just looking at the project and it’s still in early stages,” Jenkins said. “We have full intent to proceed, but we have no real picture of what the project will look like.”
The farm will likely consist of 84 to 88 wind turbines, plus a new transmission line taking power to an interconnection point in Sedgwick County.
“Typically we can expect 250 direct jobs during the construction phase, anywhere from trucks coming into engineers, etc.,” Jenkins said. “Over the life of the project of this size, there will be $50 million in land payments may and it will add 15 to 20 full-time jobs in the county.”
By state law, the development will be property tax exempt for its first 10 years of operation. Other counties, however, Commissioner Dan Deming noted, receive in-lieu of tax payments from the company.
The company is paying Pratt County about $1 million a year in in-lieu-of payments for the Ninnescah Wind Farm.
Comments from residents that were not in the form of questions included concern expressed by Jason Seiwert of the St. Joe area about the siting of turbines pitting neighbors against each other, particularly out-of-state landowners who won’t have to live with the towers.
Seiwert also was concerned about the potential impact on growing communities like St. Joe, “which has tripled in size over the last 13 years.”
“My parents are retirement age,” Seiwert said. “They don’t live in the county, but they own property. They can benefit financially, but they’re asking me (whether to sign a contract.) I’m not going to tell my parents not to sign; I’m not going to mess with their livelihood.”
Nick Kurtegli noted he’s building a house at on Irish Creek Road, that’s on the north end of the projected area
“There’ve been three new houses within a mile of me, all within the last seven years,” he said. “There’s property being bought and houses built. That will stop immediately if there are turbines everywhere.”
“I bought my property 10 years ago on the edge of civilization on purpose,” Kurtegli continued. “There are less rules. I put in my own runway… In the end, what will that do to me and other aviators that want to come out here?”
He also raised concern about losing his unlit night sky.
Jenkins noted, however, that the only lighting will be red tower lights required by the FFA.
“People who might be here who are landowners, what is it worth to you?” asked resident Andrew Egli, addressing the audience. “What’s it worth to affect your neighbors. The power is in your hands; the power is with the people. It always has been.”
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