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‘A landmark case’: After Kansas residents stop wind farm, is more resistance ahead?

When Jim Warta looks out on his Ellsworth County pasture, he sees 11 towering wind turbines – and money.

“It’s good for the county, it’s good for the state, it’s good for America,” says the 77-year-old farmer, who built a new house with wind money.

When Matt Amos looks out at the land near his Reno County home, he sees peaceful countryside. And he wants to keep it that way.

“We’re just trying to protect our property rights, our property values and the health and welfare of our families,” Amos said.

Over the past two decades, Kansas has become a national leader in wind energy, fueled by sprawling wind farms in the wide-open west.

Now, however, wind developers are finding resistance as they seek to expand into more populated areas of the state.

Fearing damaged property values and harmful health effects, homeowners in central and eastern Kansas are fighting proposed wind developments that they say would forever alter the character of their communities.

It’s a conflict that pits Kansas’ reputation as a wind leader against property owners’ desire for a rural lifestyle, with the potential to affect Kansans’ electric bills.

Reno, a south-central county that’s home to the State Fair, is the epicenter of the fight.

After Florida-based NextEra announced plans to build more than 80 turbines, residents revolted. They launched a months-long campaign to pressure the company and county leaders to either force turbines further from their land or call off the project.

It worked. Although a majority of commissioners supported the project, landowners had signed a protest petition that required unanimous approval. One commissioner voted no, and that was enough to block the project earlier this month.

It was the first time a major wind farm had been rejected in Kansas in a decade.

The commission vote stunned wind energy advocates. They say the decision shows the need to step up efforts to educate Kansans about the benefits of wind, from the lack of pollution to the jobs and tax dollars it provides communities.

What happened in Reno County gives a talking point to those who don’t want wind power, said Dorothy Barnett, who lives in the county and is the director of The Climate and Energy Project, which promotes wind power and other forms of renewable energy.

“That’s really frustrating and really pretty scary for the state and for a state that has benefited so immensely” from wind, she said.

Wind can lower prices for consumers, said Gina Penzig, a spokeswoman for Evergy (formerly Westar and KCP&L). Wind at times costs less than other forms of power, and the savings are passed on to consumers, she said.

The growing resistance comes after Kansas has cemented a reputation as a wind energy behemoth.

No other state gets more of its electricity from wind than Kansas, at 36 percent. It also ranks among the top five states for total wind energy generation.

It’s not clear whether NextEra plans to abandon its Reno County project or challenge the county commission vote.

“On behalf of our customers and the farming and business communities of Reno County who would benefit from this project, we are disappointed that the conditional use permit for the Pretty Prairie Wind project was not approved,” company spokesman Bryan Garner said in a statement. “We are currently reviewing the county’s decision.”

Project opponents say they are not anti-wind, but that the turbines would have been too close to homes to stop potential health and safety problems.

“We’re kind of like a landmark case in a way,” said Nick Egli, who owns an airstrip that he says he would no longer be able to safely use because the turbines would sit too close.

“If we don’t get this crap stopped, we’re afraid they’re going to just run over people.”

Wind turbines aid farmers

An hour-and-a-half drive north lives Warta, who harvests wheat, soybeans and milo in addition to wind. Eleven turbines sit on land he owns a few miles from his house.

For all the current skepticism toward wind development, Warta’s experience illustrates why wind farms have flourished in Kansas and why they’ve been lucrative for some landowners. Developers have built at least 34 wind farms in Kansas over two decades.

The turbines installed a decade ago on Warta’s land are a small part of a vast wind farm that you can’t miss when you drive on I-70 just west of Salina.

They transformed his life.

“I had life before the turbines and life after the turbines, and it’s been a lot easier,” Warta said as he sat in the home he built in 2012 with the help of wind money.

Wind development really took off in Kansas in the wake of a fight over a planned coal power plant.

After Kansas blocked a proposed coal plant in Holcomb over pollution concerns, lawmakers compromised in 2009 by requiring utility companies to draw 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. In exchange, they left open the possibility of a smaller coal plant, though it’s never been built.

Developers constructed 15 wind farms between 2009 and 2013. The total electric capacity of Kansas wind farms doubled.

Many of the farms sprung up in western Kansas, in some of the state’s windiest areas, according to a wind map from the Kansas Corporation Commission. They sit in wide open areas, where farmers and ranchers own vast tracts of land and sometimes live miles away.

The scramble to increase production proved a financial boon to those lucky enough to own a piece of windswept prairie in a project footprint. Today, the money is helping farmers offset income lost because of low commodity prices.

For the first 10 years the turbines were on his property, Warta said, he received a 3 percent cut of revenue from the electricity they produced. That recently increased to 5 percent. Without the turbines, he doubts he would still be farming.

“It gives you another form of income off of your property,” he said. “And farming’s just not a pretty picture right now.”

Reno County residents fight NextEra project

As the wind industry continues to expand in Kansas, developers are more frequently targeting counties that have more people.

Reno County has 49.7 people per square mile, according to the University of Kansas, more than any county west of it.

By contrast, Ellsworth County, where Warta’s turbines are located, has just 8.7 people per square mile.

Some Reno County residents quickly objected when NextEra said it planned a 2,000-foot separation between turbines and the homes of people not participating in the project. That’s the length of nearly seven football fields.

Some wanted the turbines further from homes, perhaps 2,500 feet from property lines.

Without more distance between them and the turbines, the residents feared a variety of consequences.

Some believed the turbines would produce inaudible noise – called infrasound – that can lead to stress, tinnitus, even heart problems.

“It causes a vibration and because you don’t consciously hear it – you subconsciously hear it – you can’t tune it out,” Reno County resident Kristy Horsch said.

NextEra commissioned an acoustical study from a Boston-based consulting firm that said sound levels would remain below 45 decibels, the maximum wind turbine volume recommended by the World Health Organization.

A 2012 Australian study found that wind farms do, in fact, emit infrasound, at levels close to what would be found in urban environments.

A review of 15 years of research on infrasound conducted in 2016 found some associations between exposure and sleep-related problems, difficulty concentrating and headaches for people living near the sources of low-frequency noise. Evidence related to chronic medical conditions was very limited, the review authors said in calling for more research.

Residents also worried the wind farm would damage their property values.

The Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research studied property values around 23 Kansas wind projects on behalf of the Hutchinson-Reno County Chamber of Commerce. The study found no statistically significant evidence that wind farms raise or lower rural residential property values.

But Egli says his property will be affected if he can’t safely use his airstrip.

“You cannot say it does not affect my property value,” Egli said. “You cannot say it doesn’t affect what I’m doing with my land.”

State law sought for wind farms

Wind energy advocates say a decision to relax outreach efforts several years ago made it easier for anti-wind sentiment to grow.

In 2015, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback had just repealed the mandatory renewable energy targets and made them voluntary. Despite the change, wind energy production was still growing.

So advocates scaled back their pro-wind push.

“We haven’t heard the level of rhetoric, the narrative about wind being good for Kansas … since that time,” Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Kansas Sierra Club, said.

Four years later, residents are fighting wind farms in several counties, including Marion, Nemaha and Neosho. Other counties – including Sedgwick – are considering moratoriums that would preemptively block any wind farm development.

While opponents succeeded in Reno County, Neosho County leaders recently advanced a wind project.

The county-by-county battles have people on both sides of the debate calling for lawmakers to intervene. Right now, there’s no state law that says how close a turbine can be to a home.

The House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee held a hearing this year on a bill that would have required turbines to be at least 1.5 miles from homes.

The legislation remains in committee after a vote to advance it failed.

Rep. Jim Gartner, a Topeka Democrat on the committee, said he kept telling people the location of the turbines is a local decision.

“You have county commissioners that you elect and they should be following the siting guidelines … they ought to be following some guidelines. And this process, if they don’t give you ample opportunities to come in and express your opinion, then vote them out of office,” Gartner said.

Pistora supports a state law. Some state guidance is needed because of the current “patchwork approach” to wind farm regulations, he said.

Tough conversations ahead

Ultimately, Kansas needs to acknowledge that future wind development isn’t necessarily going to take place in the wide-open spaces of western Kansas, said Barnett, the director of The Climate and Energy Project.

Landowners may need to decide what they’re willing to suffer through or be inconvenienced or annoyed by because of the threats to the climate, she said.

Amos, a Marine Corps veteran who lost his legs in Afghanistan, lives in a Reno County home that’s been adapted for his use. He told lawmakers he chose the location to be away from the noise and lights of the city.

In an interview, he said he and other homeowners just want wind farms developed responsibly, with regulations that protect those who live nearby.

“We have the commodity that these companies want. We have the bargaining chip,” Amos said. “It’s not the company that should be in control. It should be the county and people that are in control.”