So many people showed up to speak Thursday at a public hearing on NextEra Energy’s wind farm application that the Reno County Planning Commission had to extend the hearing to another day.
More than 50 people addressed the seven-member board during the nearly 8-hour hearing at the Atrium Hotel. But asked for a show of hands from those still in the audience at 11 p.m. who wished to speak, at least 35 hands went up.
So the board recessed the hearing, to resume at 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, at the same location.
At the conclusion of public comments, NextEra will be allowed time for rebuttal.
The Florida-based developer needs a conditional use permit to construct the 220-megawatt wind farm in the southeast quadrant of the county, a couple of miles north of Cheney Reservoir.
Though the company previously stated the development would include 81 turbines, it has identified 88 primary sites and three alternates. Fifty-two of those are within the zoned portion of the county, thus requiring the permit.
The meeting included an hour-long presentation by the applicant, which Planning Commission Chair Lisa French noted had the burden of proof, as well as a presentation by county staff – which included a recommendation for approval of the permit.
While at least a dozen people spoke in favor of the project, including the Hutchinson / Reno County Chamber president and manager of Hutchinson’s Siemens Gamesa turbine manufacturing plant, the vast majority of speakers were opposed to the development, sought additional restrictions or asked for the elimination of specific turbine sites.
Each public speaker was allowed five minutes.
The hearing was mostly civil and calm, though at one point a brief heated exchange between a speaker and audience members had to be gaveled down by French.
Some speakers praised NextEra, while several others accused the company of being dishonest.
Following is a sampling of what was said:
Love of Country
– “I love my country very much,” said Jason Utton, vice president of Renewable Energy Development with NextEra Energy, noting he’s an Army veteran. “Frankly, one of the reasons I love it is the freedoms we enjoy, including the right to peaceably assemble and exercise our free speech. Another is the right to own private property and develop the land as we chose.”
The project, Utton said, will employ 250 people during construction and 15 to 20 operational jobs. It will also generate annual payments to landowners, based on the megawatt ratings of individual turbines. Those payments, he contended, will help farmers stay on their land.
“I recognize there are people here today who are passionately against wind energy,” he said. “They don’t like the way turbines look, or they read misinformation on the internet and have fears about health and property values. Some are miles away and, for whatever reason, oppose it.”
“The fact is, wind energy is safe,” he said. “We’ve been working around it for generations. The overall weight of evidence from 80 scientific studies is, when properly sited, there are no negative impacts on health.”
Reno County homeowner Matt Amos is also a veteran, who lost both his legs while deployed with the United States Marine Corps in the Middle East.
“I chose to retire and wanted to move back home,” he said. “I grew up in Andale and went to high school there, a lot of times hunting at Cheney Lake. I chose this land for the view. These things are going to destroy that view… My family made significant personal sacrifice for this country, and we chose our slice of paradise in rural Reno County. It’s my home and my family’s home and I intend to protect it. I will fight for this land and not give it up… You need to adopt stricter restrictions. When we met with the developer, they would not compromise. You need to remember your obligation to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of Reno County and fight alongside us.”
Christopher Ollson, of Ollson Environmental Health Management, a consultant to NextEra, contended “categorically” that shadow flicker created by turbine blades could not trigger seizures because they don’t rotate fast enough, though it could be considered a nuisance if people were exposed to more than 30 hours of flicker a year.
“It takes more than 60 revolutions per minute (to trigger a seizure), and turbine blades are no more than 20 revolutions per minute,” he said. “GE turbines are 18 per minute.”
They have three blades, another speaker later noted, and “that puts it in range.”
A study contracted by NextEra using computer modeling found 10 locations within the proposed Pretty Prairie project with more than 30 hours of flicker. Six of the homes were participating landowners. For the four that are not “we are working to mitigate the impacts,” said Project Manager Spencer Jenkins. “We may decide to shift or remove those contributing turbines.”
NextEra’s shadow flicker report showed her home could expect nearly 22 hours of shadow flicker a year, said resident Rachel Thalmann.
“It concerned me when I first heard it, but March 8 that concern became very real for us,” Thalmann said, reporting her young daughter experienced a seizure. “When I first ran in her room I thought she was having a stroke. She was gasping and moaning and very still. I couldn’t get her to wake up… Three nights ago, she had her second seizure. So that 21 hours and 44-minute flicker report became very real… ”
Over the next eight years my baby will be living at home there will be undue stress as she’s exposed to 166 hours of flickering outside our home. We didn’t ask for this… There is no black and white guarantee the flicker will not affect her… We have a letter from a child neurologist who advises against having a turbine near our home… We can’t play the odds when it comes to the health of those we love… But it’s out of our control. You’ll be deciding for us. In our home, this is an ethical conversation. It’s not about aesthetics.”
Planning Commission member Ken Jorns drew grumbles from the large audience when he asked Thalmann whether she couldn’t mitigate the risk with “remedial measures” like “pulling curtains or… spending time in the basement.”
Drew Thalmann also spoke, asking the commission to at least impose a minimum 2,500-foot setback.
The flicker study, noted Nikki Schoenhals, was based on the expected amount of flicker “in one window four feet high.”
“It did not take into consideration multi-level homes or outdoor living,” she said. “I have four windows on the west that cover 126 square feet. It was built that way to see the setting sun. Now there will be a turbine across the road in my setting sun. The amount of flicker is greatly underestimated.”
She was also much concerned for the safety of her daughter, who is an equestrian and trains horses. When a shadow moves across a horse it often becomes spooked, she said, and may bolt.
“Can she train them not to?” Schoenhals asked. “Sure. But she shouldn’t have to. Does she have to spend time training someone else’s horse to get accustomed to the shadow when they won’t have to anywhere else? It may seem like a minor issue, but it’s not to us. A horse in panicked flight is very dangerous and we should not have to deal with this. The health and safety of my kids is my priority.”
“Turbines do emit noise and if there is too much noise over a period of time, that leads to health effects,” said Ollson. “So you need proper siting for a good night’s sleep.”
Ollson, however, claimed a 2014 study in Canada of 1,200 people found no effects on sleep for a sound level of 46 decibels as close as 860 feet away, “the benchmark for proper siting.”
A separate study in the Netherlands, he said, found the sounds of animals and passing cars more often awakened people in rural areas at night than wind turbines.
“I’ve been around the towers, and you only hear them when it’s really quiet and the blades are turning,” said Tom Ast of Ingalls, who lives 1 ½ miles from a turbine. “When the wind is strong you don’t hear them…It’ been good for our local school district.”
“My home is in the middle of the NextEra Wind (farm) in Pratt County,” said Travis Davis of Coats. “I’m a not participating landowner. You’re presented with the image that everyone in Pratt County is happy and there is no complaint. Not everyone is happy. That’s far from the truth….”
” Pratt County has 2,500-foot setbacks, supposedly the largest in the state. But that’s still under a half mile, and I’m surrounded by it…. It’s not a peaceful environment. I see turbines when I come home; when I look out any window or door. It looks like they’re attached to my home. Nothing mitigates these. They’re always here. The lights are blinking from sunset to dawn, every 1.5 seconds… The blade noise is surround sound, 24/7, 365 days. On good days it sounds like a train… Other days it sounds like they’re testing a jet engine north of my home.”
Frank Newby, an aeronautical engineer, was on a committee in Pratt County that drafted its regulations in advance of that county’s wind farms.
“I spent five years on the board, and for 2 ½ we were writing them,” he said. “Originally we proposed a mile (setback for turbines) from the principal dwelling. We did two years of research on health. It doesn’t affect everybody, but it does affect kids with seizures, those with post-traumatic stress, epilepsy, dementia and Alzheimer’s. Both the flicker and the noise showed up.”
“It definitely needs to be looked at,” he said. “At least 2,500 feet.”
Sherrie Sonderegger and her husband Billy, drove from Amity, Missouri, 280 miles east of Hutchinson, to share their experience with a NextEra wind farm.
“NextEra put in 96 turbines in 2016 and our lives have not been the same since,” she said. “It’s 1,800 feet from our home. The wind people told us at a meeting prior to construction it wouldn’t be any louder than a refrigerator. I’m here to tell you, I’ve had several refrigerators in my 44 years and I’ve never had one as loud as these turbines are. It sounds like a helicopter that won’t land. We have 12 to 15 of them within a 2-mile radius of our home.”
She hadn’t had a migraine headache in over 18 years, but began having them soon after the turbines turned on.
“I have a headache daily now,” she said. “They’re not all migraine level. But most week’s I’m down two to four times with a migraine that won’t go away.” If she leaves home, she’ll find relief after about the third day.
The turbines also interrupt their sleep, Sonderegger said.
Planning Commission member Bruce Buchanan asked NextEra to address a letter received this week from an official at the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, which had previously issued a letter of support, but was now suggesting the company needed to do more to protect wildlife, especially threatened or endangered species.
“We were surprised when we received the letter the day before this hearing,” Jenkins said. “We continue to work with KDWPT.”
“That was not an answer,” Buchanan replied. “Specifically, the extreme eastern terminus of the transmission line is in wetlands, and there’s concern about the location being too close to Cheney Reservoir.”
“The location of the transmission line is voluntary, on private landowners,” Jenkins said. “Those items are still in negotiation. The transmission line route isn’t fixed.”
The recommended 3-mile buffer from state parkland “is recommended, it’s not a rule or regulation,” Jenkins said. “The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks was aware well in advance where the locations were. We’d have not have placed them there if anything had come up in the previous conversation indicating a 2-mile buffer was not adequate.”
The KDWPT letter, from Zac Eddy in the agency’s Ecological Services Section, also noted a habitat assessment that was supposed to be done before siting – particularly for the endangered Whooping Crane which migrates through the area – had not been completed.
“I speak for the Eagles,” said Teresa Tallant of Mount Hope. “This (avian report) indicates bald eagles are not listed or expected in Reno County… The key to understanding that is that the observation occurred at the site of the proposed towers. Eagles don’t land in pastures. They go to lakes. There were over 300 eagles there (at Cheney Reservoir) in 2014. Go on any weekend and you’ll see photographers on the side and the refuge area… I respectfully ask you to reconsider the towers north of Cheney Reservoir. I’m not opposed to wind; I’m opposed to its effect on wildlife in those areas.”
Commission Chair Lisa French, noting the wind farm is within the U.S. Central Flyway for migratory birds, asked how NextEra will monitor bird mortality and make the information publicly available.
The Pratt wind farm site manager, Adrian Herrel, explained staff at the windfarm do “environmental inspections” every day, including recording bird kills and they contract with a company to also monitor the issue.
The tracking, however, is only done for the first year and he didn’t know if or how the reports – used to determine if a federal “taking permit” is required if a certain number of birds are killed – were publicly available.
“If we know a species is migrating through the path of concern, we can shut down part or all of the site to protect an endangered species,” Herrel said.
“They have 20 Whooping cranes at Quivira right now,” said Ed Petrowsky, who was on a committee in Pratt which drafted that county’s wind regulations.
“They’ve never shut down for that,” he said. “I’ve not seen it happen one time. They’re in the direct center of the flyway for the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping crane. It’s been that way for centuries. But they have a total disregard for the Endangered Species Act.”
“What do you expect hawks and predators to do when there are wind farms,” which create flight turbulence? Petrowsky asked. “You lose your predators. You lose 40 to 75 percent of your predators.”
The result, he said, is that “varmints” come in.
“You have to look at the whole ecological system,” he said. “Everything has a cause and effect.”
Margie Stewart of Junction City said she was representing the Audobon Society of Kansas and American Bird Conservancy in objecting to the plan because of the potential impact it could have on songbirds and engendered species, notably the Whooping Crane.
“The developer proposed to flag transmission lines,” she said. “That’s good. But how are whooping cranes or any other birds going to protect themselves from the blades.”
“New research shows turbines create an industrial disturbance which affects the cranes negatively, affecting their ability to feed and gain weight for their long migrations,” she said. “Second, the guidelines suggest avoidance of native prairie. Only 63 percent of the turbine sites are on cultivated ground. Thirteen hundred acres is in native grass… The (KDWPT) recommends turbines not be sited within three miles of KDWPT managed property. Yet, as the letter states, nine of the turbines are within that 3-mile corridor… How can this project be environmentally responsible when it violates so many of our state’s guidelines?”
“I speak for farmers who are leasing land to NextEra,” said Laura Yowell, a participating landowner. “We’ve always been able to use the resources on our land to produce an income and for the welfare of the community… Fracking increases the number of earthquakes and groundwater pollution, and wind doesn’t do that. Farmers are facing difficult times. Kansas had 35 farm bankruptcies in 2017… You can’t control the weather or the price you sell what you produce for. Prices and yields are declining while production costs are up. I have wind turbines ar land in Harper and Kingman counties and get more from wind than wheat, oil and gas. I urge you to accept the windfarm and help farmers stay in business.”
Participating landowners Randy Johnston and Eric Hacking both expressed support for the project.
“It’s been in the family nearly 100 years,” Johnston said of the farm. “My great grandfather bought it. Farming is not lucrative. We need to take advantage of every opportunity. Oil production property supplements farm income. Now we can support it alternative clean energy.”
“If you’d asked me three years ago, I’d have said no,” Hacking said. “I was uninformed. I was ignorant. I did not understand the benefits of it… I did a lot of research, looked at a lot of studies. The health risks are extremely low and benefits to the environment are extremely high… It benefits the schools, and it benefits the farmers… I may not live here, but I drive by wind farms all the time and you get to the point you don’t notice anymore.”
“The people in favor of this project are landowners who will benefit,” said Matt Amos. “I ask that you recognize that. The purpose of zoning in Reno County regulations is to support the public’s health and safety. As you look at this, recognize it’s an industrial facility. Use that lens when you consider protection of the community… The county is experiencing (population) loss. Consider your assets and weaknesses. The southeast quadrant is the highest growth area… Building an industrial wind farm in this area will destroy one of the county’s greatest assets.”
Allen Albers of Cunningham leases land for NextEra’s Pratt and Kingman windfarms.
“My three brothers and three cousins live within a half mile of a tower and we’re not afraid of the ill effects… I have a new $400,000 fire station within two blocks of my house because of that money coming in. Even houses that didn’t get towers are benefiting from it.”
“I’ll say a good word for NextEra. I think we’ve been treated well… They’ve hired excellent people. I’ve not seen any problem with them moving into the community.”
Harry Lobemeyer questioned assumptions in the economic analysis by Fort Hays State which found an overall positive $133 million impact over 30 years.
“Many of those landowners (who have lease agreements) live outside of Reno County,” he noted. “The permit application shows 32 of the 88 are out of the county. That would reduce your input 36 percent.”
The estimated impact from the worker payroll is also based on the assumption the workers will live and eat in Reno County.
“Which is not guaranteed,” he said. “As close as Wichita and Sedgwick County are, that’s not a valid assumption.”
The economic impact study suggests a benefit from taxable spending by employees, but the project is as close to Wichita restaurants and hotels as Hutchinson, noted Commissioner Harley Macklin.
“Was that taken into account?” he asked.
“Crews stay close to the project area,” Jenkins said. “It was taken into account.”
“Often our wind techs have to go out and do their job wearing hunter orange,” Jenkins said. “The land still belongs to the landowner. They are free to use the land as they like… Obviously, there is a safety factor, but it goes back to a partnership with the landowner.”
He is president of Ark River Pheasants, a company that employs 10 hunting guides who will all be impacted by the wind farm, said Steve McMaster.
“On average, our outfitters will have 10 deer hunts,15 turkey hunts, 20 waterfowl hunts and 50 upland game hunts,” McMaster said. “This will bring in about $70,000 to each outfitter per year. Using NextEra’s 30 years of profit projects, that’s $2.1 million per outfitter. Add the 10 together that’s $21 million just to the outfitters. Ninety percent of the money is from out of state hunters. That’s new money, coming into the state.”
“Predators won’t go under turbines to collect dead animals,” he said. “Do you think deer will get anywhere near? Or turkey or pheasants or quail? Many guides use this flyway, the exact flyway these turbines are over. What will that do to the migration of these birds? What about other species of wildlife that are endangered? Are they going to shut down turbines for Monarchs?
He spoke with someone who had a contract with NextEra, who was assured they could continue to hunt on their land, McMaster said.
“But as you dig into it further, there’s a statement in the contract that says they couldn’t discharge a firearm without written consent from NextEra.”
“There will be multiple small businesses affected by this,” McMaster said. “Think about your neighbors and think about small businesses.”
“We’ve received claims,” about interference with television signals, Jenkins said. “We’ve not been able to validate them, but we made sure the landowner’s concerns were addressed.”
They’ve not encountered interference with cell phone reception and they “comply with federal and state rules” about weather radar.
“There’s no difference than other physical obstructions,” said Sam Massey, a developer for NextEra. “What’s indicated on the radar is that these are fixed structures. An operator knows what it is…. There are over 100 wind farms across the country. Tens of thousands of turbines cohabitate with weather radar. I’ve not seen any interference in with radar predicting the weather.”
“My wife and I recently traveled to Colorado,” said Buhler resident and businessman Daniel Friesen. “If you go to Denver on I-70 there are a lot of turbines. I was aware of the debate going on. There’s a peaceful beauty to turbines when you’re 20 miles away, but I said ‘let’s get closer.’ We got within 2,000 feet of one, and I asked her again what she thought. We both agreed the massive tower at the location, if permanently placed in our back yard, would be devastating. I encourage every staff member in this process to put yourself in the property owner’s shoes. Go do that. Go look far and close and see how impactful it is.”
The FFA has determined the proposed wind farm is a low hazard, but that’s only because it only considers the obstacle hazard for public airports, said Andrew Peters with the Sunflower Air Base. The Hutchinson Airport is more than five miles away, but the Sunflower glider port is within three miles of several turbines.
For unpowered gliders that use the airbase, he said, the towers present three hazards. Those include obstacle clearance, wind turbulence and a lack of emergency landing space. Besides Sunflower, to other small airports are within three miles of a turbine.
Peters, and four other speakers, requested setbacks from the airport of five to eight miles.
During construction of the Pratt wind farm, said Travis Davis of Coats, “less than a mile from my home, it went on day and night. They built these things using massive floodlights for the better part of a year. The traffic was unbelievable, delivery and truck traffic… I was concerned about public safety with a year’s worth of transient workers swarming around my home.”
“I stand before you as a minority, among the 1 percent of the county that needs your help, your protection,” said Nick Egli. “I ask you to make a decision that won’t negatively affect hundreds of us for the rest our lives and our children’s lives to benefit 52 families, many of whom don’t even reside in Reno County. The numbers are large… If you weigh it out, spread it out and realize many of the numbers are imaginary anyway, it doesn’t seem worth it… Most of us here have been more involved with county government in the last year than we’d ever want to be. We’ve lost sleep, lost time at work, lost time with family we’ll never get back. But it was necessary and worth it. This should say something… We’re people like you who’ve had their lives interrupted. We’re under attack. Take five minutes to imagine this spinning monstrosity between you and the sunset… Not one of us has asked you to shut it down. We just ask for responsible siting of them. ”