The current footprint for NextEra Energy’s wind farm in Reno County would be the most densely populated area the company has proposed for any of its seven wind farms in Kansas, the County Commission learned Tuesday.
The reason, NextEra Energy representative Spencer Jenkins said, in explaining its selection despite the density, is the segment of the county targeted for the 220-megawatt development “has good wind, world-class wind.”
“It’s better than any county to the south even,” said Jenkins, Project Manager for Development.
Its proximity to the electric grid in Wichita is another key factor in its desirability, he advised.
The commission heard on Tuesday from several NextEra officials in advance of a planned vote next week on whether the county will impose a moratorium or attempt to sign some kind of operating agreement setting minimum requirements on the development.
Representatives from Pratt County, where NextEra has two wind farms, also attended Tuesday’s commission meeting at Reno County officials’ request to answer questions from the board.
Reno County Commissioners traveled to Kingman on Monday to talk to the commissioners there.
Proponents of a moratorium on development, meanwhile, again addressed the board – for a seventh consecutive week – with several of the speakers accusing the Florida-based corporation of being dishonest about its activities and intentions.
NextEra was scheduled to host an “open house” about the project Tuesday evening in Haven.
Officials indicated Tuesday the company would be applying for a conditional use permit for the Pretty Prairie Wind Farm by mid-December, with expectations of having the 80-plus turbine project completed by the end of 2019.
To determine the population density of the projected development – a figure County Commission Chairman Ron Hirst requested several weeks ago – they drew a mile circle around each of the proposed turbines and counted houses, Mark Trumbauer, another project manager explained to the commission.
They did the same thing for the developments in Ellsworth and Lincoln counties, and the Pratt and Ninnescah wind farms in Pratt and Kingman counties, “as a baseline,” Trumbauer said.
The Ellsworth project, encompassing just under 78 squares miles, had 151 homes within its perimeters, or 1.93 homes per square mile. The Pratt/Ninnescah farms are on 88.2 miles of land, with just 85 homes, or less than one per square mile.
The Reno County project, on the other hand, current involves 61 square miles of land encircling 183 homes or three homes per mile.
If you look at the density of turbines within each project, however, Trumbauer noted, the opposite is true, with Ellsworth the densest project and Reno County the fewest turbines per section.
The Ellsworth project has 253 turbines within its footprint or 3.2 per square mile. The Pratt/Ninnescah farms are about half that, at 1.54 turbines per mile. The proposed Pretty Prairie Wind Farm would have 1.3 to 1.4 turbine per mile.
“We feel its compatible, in terms of turbine per square mile, with the Pratt/Ninnscah density,” Trumbauer said.
The entire population of Pratt County, however, the commissioner learned later in the morning, is only 10,000 people and there has been virtually no housing development in the area that is home to the wind farm for years before its erection.
Hirst said he’d also done his own assessment on density. Since he didn’t have turbine sites, he measured homes per township and found a density in Reno County up to 10 times that of townships in Kingman and Pratt counties.
NextEra could meet a minimum 2,000-foot setback from any occupied residences – whether participating on non-participating landowners – and proceed with the contracts it has in Reno County, the commission was advised, and the company is willing to “memorialize” that as the required setback for its project here, Trumbauer advised.
It could not, however, meet a proposed 2,500 foot or nearly half-mile setback requirement within the existing proposed footprint, which is the minimum setback established by the agreement in Pratt County.
Requiring a 2,500-foot setback, Jenkins later warned the commission, in response to a direct question from Commissioner Dan Deming, “could jeopardize the project,” because several proposed turbine sites involve smaller – just 5 or 10 acre – pieces of ground.
Other things the company was willing to agree to, Trumbauer told the commission, include a maximum “shadow flicker” caused by turbine blades of 30 hours per year, guaranteed for no more than 30 minutes per day, on any house within the project boundaries. That would equate to about half the year with brief, though daily shadow flicker.
With a density of three homes per square mile, they can’t eliminate shadow flicker, but they can control it, he said.
“We can accomplish that by really good siting of turbines on that section of ground,” Trumbauer said. “There’s a science to how to locate these; we know exactly how much shadow would be cast for how long through modeling.”
They also would promise sound from the turbines would generate no more than 50 decibels of sound “at a non-participating property line,” Trumbauer said. “That’s no greater than a conversation between two people in a suburban area. It’s also equated to the hum of a refrigerator.”
The proposal did not include a minimum sound level for participating properties or any closer distances to the turbines.
The company also agrees to follow the agreement whether neighboring properties are in the zoned or unzoned portions of the county, Trumbauer said.
Lastly, he said, the company would agree to a system for resolving complaints that included reporting all complaints and their resolution to county planning and zoning, “with a time certain to have a response and to resolve it.”
The complaints would be resolved internally by NextEra, but the county would receive reports.
In response to a question from Hirst, who said he’d heard “there’s quite a bit of land leased outside the footprint,” Trumbauer said they have no contracts for siting turbines on land outside a footprint previously provided to the commission.
One of the residents who spoke after NextEra officials, however, challenged that, providing the commissioner her own map marked with X’s showing several landowners she’d spoken with outside the proposed boundaries which she said have signed contracts.
Jenkins clarified a statement by Trumbauer that the boundaries have not changed from a map presented two weeks ago with the caveat that if the 2,000-foot setback is required, the footprint could change, but he did not directly answer whether other contracts have been made outside the original boundaries.
He then outlined the project timeline NextEra is going by.
There are “two drivers” determining the project must go online before the end of next year, Jenkins said, including a contract with the customer buying the electricity and a requirement to qualify for production tax credits.
“What we foresee is we’ll be filing the (conditional use permit) application in mid-December,” he said. “With the planning process, that will involve six weeks of review and public comment before it goes to the planning board for a recommendation. Two weeks following that, it will come to the commission. So it will be February before we receive potential approval. If approved, we’re looking at March for a road use and maintenance agreement and any decommissioning agreement.”
In March, he said, they’d hold a job fair, with construction starting in April.
The turbines are built sequentially, from the ground up, which will take from April to November.
Sam Massey, director of renewable development at NextEra, told the commission the company approached the county three years ago to start the development process, looking for “a reliable business partner and someone we could count on.”
“I’d like to remind everyone we’ve been here three years,” Massey said. “It’s not like we’re rushing in at the last minute. It would be unfortunate if in the last hours something would derail this. We’ve been extremely communicative, extremely engaging to the community.”
Asked who at the county they contacted, Massey named County Planner Mark Vonachen, “when we came in 2015 to understand the rules and design our project based on that.”
Resident Amy Brown, incensed at the claim NextEra announced their plans three years ago, noted the first announced public meeting was in December 2017 – after which the company apologized for not informing more people – and it’s first meeting before the commission was in March 2018.
“I’ve heard Mr. Massey stand here for a second time and threaten the Reno County Commission,” that it would not do the project if it is delayed, she said. “Today we hear Mr. Massey say they’ve been working on this three years and are looking for a reliable partner. We should be too. We should be looking for a business partner who is forthright and honest in its statements to this commission and the residents of Reno County, plain and simple. The topic of economics is important but more important is human health.”
Brown asked the company to show scientific proof behind its proposed 2,000-foot setback and why it shouldn’t be greater based on noise, vibration and shadow flicker issues.
“We need the scientific support that’s the basis for your planning,” she said.