Osage County board OKs permit for wind farm near Kansas border; Osage Nation opposition remains as Silver Spoke Wind Farm plan moves forward
PAWHUSKA – About 100 people heard diverse viewpoints on wind energy at an Osage County Board of Adjustment public hearing Thursday, but the board approved a conditional use permit for the next wind farm to be built in the Tallgrass Prairie region with little fanfare.
Silver Spoke Wind Energy Center is a roughly 10,000-acre project that will place up to 64 turbines in northwestern Osage County near Foraker and Grainola and north to the Kansas border. After completion, access roads and turbine pads are expected to occupy roughly 50 acres of the project overall.
The 158.6-megawatt project is scheduled to come online in 2020 and is the second Oklahoma project – along with the giant Wind Catcher project in the Panhandle – that is in the planning and construction stages by Chicago-based Invenergy, an international wind, solar and natural gas power company.
Timing of both projects is set to take advantage of maximum federal renewable energy production tax credits, slated to decrease after 2020.
Invenergy Vice President James Williams said a large portion of the equipment required for Silver Spoke was purchased prior to 2016 to qualify under the program and that the company has several projects in progress across the country with the goal of completion before a step-down in the tax credits begins. They drop to 80 percent in 2021.
“We are very busy and we have many contracts working and we are working as a team to bring those to fruition,” he said. “We have over 900 employees, and many of them are devoted to development and production … Of course none of that means that wind projects aren’t going to be built after (incentives decrease).”
This is the third project to come before the Osage County Board of Adjustment. The board approved Osage Wind, which became operational in 2015 over the objections of the Osage Nation, which still has an active case against the company based on a mineral rights claim that could result in awarded damages.
The adjustment board then voted against nearby Mustang Run in 2014, but that decision was overruled when the power company took the matter to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
With the three projects combined, Osage County will have about 216 turbines across 21 miles of landscape from U.S. 60 west of Pawhuksa, north through Foraker, Shidler and Grainola to the Kansas border.
Public testimony at the Osage County Fairgrounds Ag Building was primarily in favor of the project Thursday, but several spoke against it. Both sides mentioned preserving the natural landscape and saving wildlife and adjoining land values verses progress and economics and increasing value of developed lands.
The board declined to go into executive session to discuss the matter and only one board member commented prior to the vote.
“This is the third one we’ve considered,” said board member Rick Hedrick, who cast the one dissenting vote. “We passed one, we did not pass one. In my mind a lot of the issues are the same. The only differences over the three has been the location … It’s the same types of things we’ve seen before, heard before.”
Testimony from people who lived nearby was different this time. Joe Bush, owner of Tower Hills Ranch, was a vocal advocate for wind power years ago and reiterated his support. He noted he has upgraded his cattle herd as a result of his new income.
“This board voted against my wind farm the first time,” he said. “Thankfully, the Oklahoma Supreme Court rectified that injustice.”
“I like the way it looks. I sit out on the back porch and I enjoy the wind farm. I enjoy the money it brings. I enjoy the financial stability. I like having a better-funded school district, a stronger community.”
Williams said the project should bring 200-300 construction jobs to the area during construction and five to eight permanent full-time positions for operations and maintenance. The county stands to receive $18 million in property taxes over the life of the project payments to landowners with turbines will be paid roughly $45 million.
Janice Finton, principal at Shidler Schools, said wind farm revenue has helped sustain the school and she hopes the new project will allow the school to reinstate programs like vocational agriculture and wood shop for its 200 students.
“In June 2017 we got $285,000, and that new tax revenue really helped,” she said. “In June 2018 we’re told we will get $235,000. That’s significant after 10 straight years of state budget cuts. When I started 12 years ago we received $1.2 million in state aid. Two years ago, when the energy taxes began, we received only $700,000 from the state.”
Bob Hamilton, director of the 40,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, said the Nature Conservancy supports wind energy but cautioned that the placement must be carefully considered and that the sweeping views of Tallgrass Prairie beyond the preserve need to be saved for future generations.
Candy Thomas, director of strategic planning and self-governance for the Osage Nation, read a statement from Osage Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, which was printed April 22, 2017 in a Tulsa World business perspective.
”The Osage Nation will oppose wind farms forever …” the chief wrote. “We will show our opposition in every way possible, including public statements, advocacy and by legal means if necessary.”
After the meeting Thomas said that, per the chief’s statement, the same objections raised with the Osage wind farm may be raised with Silver Spoke.
Allen Eaton, a resident of the Grainola area said he wants the turbines on his land and, at age 73, is looking forward to the income for his ranch and for his children.
“I worked in the oil fields for 30 years. If you want to talk about an impact on the land? That is an impact,” he said. “These wind turbines don’t hurt anything.”
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