The Reno County Planning Commission has nearly completed its public hearing on the application by NextEra Energy for a permit to build a 220-megawatt wind farm in southeast Reno County.
The board heard a 90-minute rebuttal presentation from a half-dozen NextEra employees and a participating landowner, and then the planning commission members asked close to 60 questions of the company over the ensuing hour.
Reno County staff, however, deferred presenting its rebuttal and final report until a later date, so the hearing was once more recessed, to resume at 5 p.m., either April 22 or 23 at Memorial Hall or April 29 at the Atrium Hotel. At that hearing, the board is also likely to go into executive session to discuss the application then return for a vote.
The date is expected to be announced next week.
In its presentation, the company attempted to address many of the concerns voiced by more than 100 residents who spoke during the 13-plus hours of public comment.
On several of the issues, the company indicated answers were pending.
For the most part, however, the company argued the 80-plus wind farm – it’s unclear at this point how many turbines are actually involved – will be more than safe for the public and efforts will be made to mitigate the danger to wildlife.
In his opening remarks, Spencer Jenkins, project manager for development, advised the commission that the company is exploring moving some turbines to address concerns.
That includes completely removing one turbine near a family whose daughter recently suffered from seizures and the family suspects epilepsy, even though the company assured residents shadow flicker from turbines could not trigger a seizure.
The company also agreed to remove a turbine and meteorological tower near a private airport and are discussing with flyers potentially altering two others or curtailing them during certain times of the year to allow for major flying events.
Jenkins advised the commission they continue to work to solve potential shadow flicker amounts that exceed the maximum 30 hour-per-year promise the company previously made, including potentially moving or repositioning some of those turbines.
A contracted environmental health expert from Canada, who has worked with the wind industry for half his career, again attempted to reassure the commission that adverse health claims have not been verified and suggested, with 60,000 turbines installed in the U.S. over 20 years – although the vast majority are in rural areas with sparse populations – they should be more widespread if true.
Christopher Ollson also referred back to a Canadian sound study that set a 45-decibel average as an acceptable level, though European studies and the World Health Organization, according to a report from Reno County’s Health Director, both set lower levels.
In response to a commission question, Ollson said the 45 dba (an annualized average) is the level outside the home and that inside the house, even if windows are open, would be 30 to 35 dB.
He also explained that shadow flicker is caused when shadows are cast across a window in homes, that it is not the same as a “long, lazy shadow” passing over outside and thus, in response to concern expressed by residents, it shouldn’t spook horses or bother drivers.
The officials stated that the size of safety zones determined for ice throws from turbine blades in winter were determined by the manufacturer at a test facility, which actually recorded the throws at various temperatures and wind speeds, and the maximum throw of 540 feet was less than the size of the turbine blade plus 10 percent.
There were numerous questions from the board about protecting birds and endangered fish, as well as a focus on weather radar.
Kim Austin, NextEra’s project manager for environmental services, and Adrian Harrel, site manager at the Pratt wind farm, explained that during the twice-annual Whooping crane migrations, the birds are being tracked by numerous agencies, so they know well in advance when they are approaching.
When they’re sighted at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, the company hires biologists to come and watch for birds outside the wind farm territory so the company can respond to mitigate any danger.
“I can do it in a minute and a half on my i-phone,” Harrel said when asked how quickly turbines could be turned off.
Harrel agreed with a speaker during a public comment session earlier this week that the turbines have never been shut off for the cranes.
The company also remains in discussions with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, and “we anticipate there will be some discussion about the flexibility of moving some of the turbines out of the 3-mile zone,” said Project Development Director Sam Massey, referring to a recommended three-mile buffer from Cheney Reservoir.
He didn’t comment, however, on how likely that would be.
Commissioner Bruce Buchanan asked whether the county could require the company to make records of bird losses, which have to be tracked for at least a year after the wind farm goes live, a public record, Jenkins said they could suggest it as a condition of the permit.
On weather radar, Massey informed the board the company is required to submit its turbine data to the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the National Weather Service, which does a preliminary review and advises whether any mitigation is required. Generally, the distance from a weather radar determines what must be done.
The preliminary report does indicate part of the turbine field falls in an area that may require mitigation, or at least consultation with local weather operators. They believe, however, Massey said, that the final plan will be only in the consultative and no action ranges.
The company also brought up one of its participating landowners during its rebuttal portion, who asserted it was his right to do what he wished with his land and that participating landowners shouldn’t “face harassment and aggression.”
“It’s no surprise most participating landowners remain silent, seated or absent from this hearing,” said Aaron Andra. “Some opposing this project look across their yard and see a wind turbine and say it’s going to cause them stress. On the other side is the stress the farmer in his field or the rancher who’s looking at his third crop in a row when the harvest is a loss or pasture grass is burned up from two years of drought and wonder how they’re going to feed their cattle.”
“You heard the majority in the proposal oppose it,” he continued. “That’s a false narrative. The real story is the majority of landowners chose to participate.”
As he finished speaking and went to sit, an audience member loudly said “bull….”, which drew a bang of the chair’s gavel.
Chair Lisa French in her closing remarks, however, commended the audience for its behavior over the four nights of hearings.
“I’ve been so impressed with the public response and the amount of work that has gone into this,” French said. “The organization and respectful attitude throughout has been wholly impressive and I thank you for that.”
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