ST. PAUL – From Burk Peterson’s back door in Anderson County, he can see the turbines stretched across his sight line from horizon to horizon in Coffey County 26 miles away.
At night he said, it is like he is being invaded by aliens, because the turbines’ red lights are synced to blink in unison.
Looking at Kansas wind maps and the marginal to poor winds in Southeast Kansas, some might wonder why wind energy companies would come here to harvest wind for power.
With wind turbines that stand nearly 600 feet tall and blades reaching another 200 feet in the air, the energy companies think there is a better chance to capture those winds, but opponents, such as Peterson, have concerns.
That was not always Peterson’s perception, or his friend Dane Hicks’, according to what they shared with concerned residents of Neosho County Tuesday evening. The two men were part of a group in Anderson County that stopped a wind farm project there.
At first they thought, “We’ve already got a nuclear power plant, what’s a few more bucks,” Peterson said.
“I thought, ‘You’re going to farm the wind. It’s free. You’re going to develop electricity… That’s amazing. You don’t have to pollute with coal and you don’t have to dig great big holes in the ground, what a neat idea,’” Hicks said, which is what led him to start researching wind energy two years before a wind farm was proposed in Anderson County.
He visited with a CEO of Westar Energy and learned wind energy is politically driven and the energy companies were not very fond of the forced purchasing of the subsidized wind energy for distribution, and he does not believe that opinion has changed, regardless of what might be said publicly.
“They are a mandated expense on power companies, and power companies hate for their costs to go up on anything they can’t budget for or control,” Hicks said. “The other thing is … the production ability of a windmill. You can only use that power when the turbine is turning. You can’t take that electricity and store it, put it in a big battery, and then tomorrow use it to light up half of Seattle. … When the wind stops blowing, there is no power, at least that you can produce and put on the grid. … You can’t shut down the power plant at La Cygne or the nuclear plant at Burlington. You’ve still got to have that power. After I gained that knowledge I went on my own quest.”
Because the wind farms could impact property values, and given the tax breaks the wind companies receive, property taxes are increased on area residents to compensate. As well, their electricity bills often increase. Also, people are taxed to pay the federal subsidies to build the wind farms, the men said.
Hicks said he understands it is tempting when someone says they will pay $6,000 or $8,000 a year to lease land. But they advised again that anyone who has not signed a lease with Apex Clean Energy to have a lawyer review the contract.
In Anderson County, he said, there were people who signed leases for their farmland, and given the way the lease was written, farmers were not allowed to move farm equipment across the fields to get from one pasture to another.
“Regardless of where you stand, it’s your business. I have my opinion, and it’s pretty plain. I’m not going to tell you you are crazy for thinking the other way, but for God’s sake get an attorney and look over that lease. … It’s worth 400 bucks to have them sit down and go over it with you. At least do that. Because in the absence of zoning in your county, my understanding is you don’t have any protection. The only law that is going to affect your property is the language that is written in that lease for that company’s benefit.”
Hicks said he could not understand any county not having zoning.
“Zoning is not just a pain in your butt; it’s protection for a land owner,” Hicks said. “I would not want to be sitting on a chunk of land I want to build a house on and not have those protections. If you’re going to put a couple hundred thousand into a home, you should have protection, something.”
Protections for landowners are not ensured, even with zoning, when it comes to wind companies.
Another reason the Anderson group was opposed was because of the possibility of eminent domain.
“That is a real hot topic in Kansas. In our state, the KCC (Kansas Corporation Commission) is the ones who hold the authority over eminent domain as it relates to utilities. The KCC’s official definition is, they can grant someone eminent domain over your property if they make a public improvement to the power grid. That’s it. It’s that simple. They build one improvement to the grid, defined by the KCC, they can take your ground,” Peterson said.
Lawsuits are still not settled for 28 holdouts regarding eminent domain laws used by Mid-West Electric Co. to take land for a transmission line from Spearville to North Fort Dodge by the Southwest Power Pool.
“The lawsuit is still going. You are talking about 100 acres for every mile of transmission line … . Yeah, you get paid for it under eminent domain, but what if you didn’t want to sell it,” Peterson said. “You don’t have a choice. Some guy with a map draws a line from one point to another and KCC grants them the authority because it is about the South Power Pool.”
“I want my kids to be able to enjoy the things that I earned and my father earned and I don’t want it to be ruined,” Peterson said. “You are either for this or you’re against it. You aren’t just slightly on one side or the other because this is your land, the dream of America. You either view these things as something you are in support of or not. There’s no middle ground, but you’ve got to make up your own mind from fact. I urge you to do all the research you can.
“It’s all about the setbacks. At the end of the day, you don’t want to tell somebody they can’t do something with their land. I don’t think it’s right for me to say you can’t have a windmill on your farm either, but I do think it’s right for me to say you shouldn’t be able to have a windmill that ruins my property value and other neighbors’ who don’t want a windmill on their property.
“When you sign a lease, you’ve already given up your right. My problem is, if I decide to give up my land for couple of bucks that’s fine, but if he chooses not to, I’ve just ruined his right to ownership and I feel that is wrong. That is not how I treat my neighbors.”
Speaking of neighbors, Hicks said, he didn’t know what to think about people’s claims regarding the effects of flicker until one day he and Peterson were riding motorcycles under the turbines in Coffey County.
“I always wondered about that because I really didn’t understand the way that it worked,” Hicks said. “I was leading the ride, and I went over there because I had never really been underneath those towers except to drive by. … It’s hard to explain if you’ve never been around one. The wind was really blowing hard that day. I didn’t really see a shadow going across the ground. I can’t really explain what I did see and I don’t know if it is something I saw or just felt. But for some reason I felt my balance wasn’t right, like my equilibrium was off. It was the type of thing you didn’t notice at first, and the closer we got the more pronounced it was. It didn’t stop until we got outside of the flicker range of those turbines. Whatever that is, it was real for me.”
Gina Burnett said that is one of her main concerns with the size of the windmills and numbers. Her daughter was recently diagnosed with epileptic seizures and they still don’t know what is triggering them and the seizures are not yet controlled, and now they are faced with another possible trigger, according to their research on windmills. According to the county map, they are going to have turbines located on both sides of their property. She said Apex has tried to get their land, but it has not worked. Still, the neighbors have signed leases.
“It terrifies me for my daughter to live more miserably than what she is now if we can’t get something figured out,” she said.
Another issue for neighbors is going to be noise. When it comes to noise, Peterson said you can approach the turbines sometimes and you don’t hear a thing.
“Then the wind changes direction and it sounds like a jet engine coming at you,” he said. “Same with the pressure. People think of the fan blades like a regular fan blade that is pushing wind. That is not what these are. These things use modern technology that is the same as an airplane wing. It’s an air foil, so it creates a low pressure system that sucks the blades around. So, if you are directly behind it, you are going to feel an area of extremely high pressure. If you are in front of it you are going to feel an area of extremely low pressure.”
Those are some of the reasons most counties seek a 1-mile setback at a minimum. In Neosho County, the 1,000-foot setback is another concern because of possible tornadoes sending a windmill blade through someone’s home or vehicle.
Other opponents voiced a variety of concerns, many based on Apex Clean Energy pushing the project behind the scenes for more than two years rather than being open with all area residents who would be affected. Many were led to believe the county commissioners had a choice to let Apex in or not. The company said without zoning, it does not need the county’s approval.
One attendee said a pamphlet sent in the mail is promising landowners $1 million per lease, but having been around wind farms in California, she said it is not true. Landowners only get paid when the windmills are producing energy, and production in Kansas, for windmills across the state with higher wind ratings, is usually around 20 to 30 percent.
Brooke Beaver, Apex public affairs manager, told the Sun the company anticipates much higher production for the Neosho Ridge turbines of 48 percent or 49 percent.
LeRoy Burk told those present that they figured residents could pay a mill to a 1 1/2 mills in taxes and it would cover what the county would make from the wind farm while allowing residents to be good stewards of the land and nature around them.
“At the end of the day, it is a power plant. You can slice it up anyway you want to; it’s still a power plant,” Peterson said. “They can call it a farm, but that is not what they are doing. They are producing energy, not beans.”
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