The five-member committee charged with studying the impact of wind energy in Labette County on Tuesday began digging into the weeds of topics related to wind development.
Tuesday was the second meeting for the group that organized in late December. The next meeting will be at 5 p.m. Jan. 28 in the Labette County Public Works building in Altamont, 901 S. Huston.
The Labette County Commission formed the committee to look into wind farm regulations after a German utility expressed interest in developing a wind farm in Labette County.
RWE is exploring the possibility of developing a wind farm in the western half of the county. The development, if it moves forward, would be a couple of years in the future, but commissioners want to be prepared and know the issues before then. Commissioners implemented a moratorium on wind farm construction, until November 2020, while the committee studies and makes recommendations to commissioners.
Each committee member – Sandy Krider, Mel Hass, Lori Whitworth and Rod Landrum – chose a topic to investigate in December. Kevin King chose his topic Tuesday because he could not attend the organizational meeting. Charlie Morse, the county’s sanitation officer, is facilitating the committee meetings.
Tuesday’s 2 1/2-hour meeting took place in the city commission room of the Parsons Municipal Building. Committee members allowed the 10 members of the public who attended to ask questions during presentations and discussions. The committee and commissioners want the process to be transparent and public input is an important component of that.
Hass, who lived in the footprint of a wind development in DeKalb County, Illinois, showed videos that detailed the construction and components of a wind turbine. Another video showed shadow flicker, when blades turn in early morning or evening sun and cast a moving shadow across property. The blinking aviation warning lights on the tops of turbines also create issues for homeowners.
Hass said his 3-acre property was a quarter of a mile from turbines, but the noise from the blades that were about 400 feet in the air was hard to escape under certain conditions. Horses avoided the protection of a barn in certain weather because of turbine noise. Turbine noise is louder in the evening.
Hass has spoken to the Parsons City Commission and the Labette County Commission about his experiences and he is studying the impact of setbacks on properties for the committee. While his home in Illinois was 2,500 feet from turbines, he thinks 3,000 feet may be needed.
Landrum is studying the impact on wildlife and said he’s been studying that issue and contacting agencies. He’s having difficulty getting return calls because of the holidays. He attended a recent Southeast Kansas Audubon Society meeting and wants to visit with wildlife conservationists to determine the impact wind farms have on wildlife. The issue is key because of the popularity of deer hunting in the county as well as the hunting of turkey and ducks.
Krider, Public Works director for the county, is studying the impact of wind energy development on county infrastructure, including roads. She said replacing the 6- to 8-inch rock base and chipping and sealing a road damaged by heavy trucks would cost $120,000 per mile in Labette County. Trucks carrying 100,000-pound wind turbine parts could damage roads and bridges. Krider is concerned about bridges because many of them have a weight limit of 6,000 pounds or more. This should limit traffic hauling heavy loads.
David Christy, who attended the meeting, said trucks carrying rock, concrete and building materials for the wind turbine sites will make multiple trips across county roads, shortening the roads’ useful life. This is one reason that Neosho County approved a road use agreement with Apex Clean Energy, which is developing a 139-turbine wind farm there. Trucks also make wide turns, especially when carrying the huge blades for the 607-foot turbines, which requires corners to be widened.
“That is going to be a constant battle and negotiation for the lifespan of these turbines,” Christy said of road work required to take the weight and volume of trucks.
Krider said when Kansas Gas and Electric removed transformers and other heavy components from a generating station on the Neosho River a jump bridge had to be installed to protect a weight-limited bridge in place near the dam. This metal bridge covered the existing bridge surface and kept the heavy loads off of it.
Krider said Labette County has 163 miles of paved roads, 971 miles of gravel roads and 22 miles of dirt roads. The county maintains 83 bridges that qualify for federal money in the event of disasters and 202 off-system bridges that do not. The county needs to replace a steel truss bridge on 8000 Road near Douglas Road and that bridge may cost $1.2 million.
In 2019, the county chipped and sealed 28 miles of roads in the county and that cost $282,940 for the asphalt and $53,200 for the rock chips.
Whitworth is studying decommissioning wind turbines and shared the early stages of her research Tuesday. She cited a Texas Law Journal article from 2016 titled “Wind Energy’s Dirty Word: Decommissioning” by William S. Stripling and information collected from the Institute for Energy Research. She said it’s difficult to find thorough, unbiased information.
“That is certainly what I am trying to do in studying this topic,” Whitworth said.
Decommissioning takes place at the end of the life of a turbine and involves removal of the turbine and returning the land near to original condition. Some of the below-ground-level structure will remain – the bases can go down 25 to 50 feet – but most could be removed to the depth of 3 to 4 feet below ground level. Companies also replant grass on the site.
Wind developers acknowledge that decommissioning is their responsibility. She said the wind developer NextEra Energy even uses that statement on its website.
“So they acknowledge that this is a need and they acknowledge responsibility,” she said.
She said even with that statement, counties should consider decommissioning agreements with wind developers. No Kansas law regulates decommissioning of wind turbines. That leaves counties and perhaps landowners to worry about those details. If landowners negotiate that with developers, the decommissioning agreement could vary from property to property. Then, if the company goes bankrupt, who would be responsible for taking down the turbine? Whitworth said her research so far shows the county should negotiate a decommissioning agreement and require financial surety from the company to help pay for turbine removal.
The alternative is to have a wind farm graveyard in the county, similar to projects abandoned in Hawaii and California.
Partial decommissioning from a developer would be another concern without an agreement. The company could remove salvageable turbine pieces at the end of the turbine’s useful life and leave the rest because there is no money to be made from taking them down.
“This is a topic the county should look into providing some regulations to address this issue,” she said.
Based on her research so far, Whitworth said the decommissioning agreement should spell out when decommissioning would start and how long the company would be given for turbine removal. Without such issues spelled out, a company could start removing a turbine within 12 months from the time it stops working and take another 17 years to complete removal.
The financial surety from the developer is key to make sure the money is available to decommission turbines. She said there is conflicting information so far on the cost of decommissioning a turbine. Another issue is how soon the developer should have the surety in place.
Quintin Saye asked committee members about the benefits of wind energy development, other than it’s green energy. Morse said the commission asked the committee to study a number of topics and economic impact is one of them.
Landrum said the committee will study both sides of wind energy development.
Hass said there would be an economic boom in the county when construction starts because of the number of workers in the area purchasing fuel, rock, concrete and hotel rooms. After that, there would be 12 to 20 full-time workers maintaining the turbines. Leaseholders also would benefit from hosting a turbine.
The committee also is to study if zoning regulations are necessary, though at least two county commissioners at this time do not want to implement zoning. Morse said the county has zoning related to building in the flood plain and for permitting wastewater systems, such as lagoons and septic systems.
Hass said from his experience in Illinois, he thinks the only way to protect landowners is implementing zoning for commercial wind farm development.
Kevin Gudde, representing Kansas Farm Bureau, said his organization does not support zoning. He suggested the committee visit with the wind developer and see what can be worked out up front.
The committee and those attending the meeting discussed other matters as well, including Neosho County’s experience with Apex.
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