OSWEGO – The committee tasked with exploring wind energy development in Labette County met with a developer for a German utility on Monday and asked questions about a potential wind farm.
The five-member committee – Sandy Krider, Rod Landrum, Lori Whitworth, Mel Hass and Kevin King – visited with Brandon Hernandez, a wind development manager for RWE Renewables in Austin, Texas, in the third floor courtroom of the courthouse in Oswego. County commissioners met with Hernandez first. RWE Renewables is looking to develop the Elm Creek-West Wind project in a 99-square-mile area of southwest Labette County.
So far, RWE Renewables has lease agreements that cover 10,016.5 acres split among 72 tracts. Hernandez showed committee members a map of the target area, which is Meade Road west to Douglas Road and 19000 Road (the Big Hill Lake Road) south to 8000 Road. As he told commissioners, as more data comes in and leases get signed, the project area will get smaller and smaller until finalized.
Committee members asked questions of Hernandez on their study topics before members of the public attending the meeting and those watching the meeting on Facebook Live through Renewable Energy Awareness-Labette County could ask.
King asked Hernandez about fire hazards. Hernandez said fires on turbines are rare, but RWE has multiple action plans in place through construction and development to deal with those situations should they occur. The base of the towers are graveled and the turbines themselves have internal components, or trips, to stop fires from progressing if they start. Hernandez said if fire caused by RWE structures damages buildings or other property, RWE is responsible for that damage.
“That’s the first concrete answer I’ve gotten yet,” King said.
Hass discussed setbacks and acoustics at length. Some in the audience seemed annoyed by the number of questions he asked, though the committee is charged to find answers to their questions and report recommendations based on unbiased research to the county commission.
Hass asked about tower height to lead into his topic and Hernandez said tower height is determined by what turbines are available and what the FAA and county commission will allow. He said wind companies set certain heights for the turbines based on the wind resource or other factors and determine if they can get the permitting for that. If the FAA does not allow that height of tower, the next lowest height will be offered.
Setback distances, the distance of the turbine from property lines for non-participating residents or residential foundations for participating leaseholders, depend on a number of issues. One issue is the fall down distance, which is generally 1 1/2 times the height of the turbine. This is important if the tower experiences catastrophic failure and falls.
Hernandez said he’s never heard of a fall down or fire on RWE projects.
Whatever the setback, it will never be shorter than 1 1/2 times the fall down distance, Hernandez said. He said RWE will work with the county to establish setback distances or will follow any wind zoning policy that’s developed. The reason for setbacks is to keep landowners safe, he said.
Hass asked a number of questions related to acoustics, or the sound produced by spinning blades on the turbine.
Hernandez said multiple studies indicate the decibels created by turbines are minimal. At the tower base you can hear it slightly. He compared it to a lawn mower or a loud conversation.
“It’s incredible how efficient and quiet these machines are,” Hernandez said. He added that studies show no physical or psychological impact on people from the sound a turbine makes.
Hass lived in the middle of a wind farm in DeKalb County, Illinois, for a number of years before selling his property and moving to Labette County. He reports hearing the turbines more at night because of the night inversion factor. Also, in certain weather conditions the sound carries more.
Hernandez offered to look into a couple of the issues Hass brought up, including the impact on sound of linear or random patterns in turbine placement and the acoustics created by the spinning blades. He said the pattern used, linear or random, depends on the wind resource available.
Hass asked if the sound level increases the farther away from the base that you are. Hernandez said his experience at the wind farms he’s visited is that the sound does not increase or decrease at greater distances. He said he hears the wind more than the turbines.
“That’s … from my own experience but the position of where I am in relation to the turbine hasn’t affected how much I hear,” Hernandez said.
He said the turbine location studies he’s seen show little to no difference in sound from location to location. Turbines do not pose a sound threat to homeowners in or near the turbines, he said.
“As a whole, these … pose no health issues in that area or other areas to locals,” Hernandez said.
Hass said he would have to agree to disagree with Hernandez on that, based on his own experience.
“You’re asking him his information,” committee member King told Hass. “We don’t care about yours.”
Hass also asked about shadow flicker, a phenomenon he experienced in Illinois, when the blades spin in the dawn or evening sun and their shadow moves across the landscape. Hernandez said studies show no negative health effects from flicker. The way to mitigate this issue is setbacks, he said.
Whitworth asked about decommissioning, taking down turbines once they stop working, and if RWE works this issue out with landowners or the county. Hernandez said decommissioning is included in the lease terms and the goal is to restore the land to its pre-construction state. He said RWE would also work with the county on a decommissioning agreement. He said RWE will continue with the development if such an agreement is required by the county.
“At this point I see no reason not to. I think that would be a conversation between county commissioners and our legal team to determine verbiage that suits both parties,” Hernandez said.
When asked, Hernandez said decommissioning turbines can cost in the millions, depending on the height and number of them in the farm. He said RWE has 23 projects in the U.S. now and none have reached the decommission phase. But he would check that point.
Landrum asked about wind farms’ impact on wildlife and birds and raptors, especially eagles.
Hernandez described a process that RWE follows on projects. The process includes an environmental critical issues analysis by a third party. Hiring a third party to do this analysis improves transparency, he said, and these companies must follow state and federal standards in their reviews.
This study helps determine boundaries for wildlife areas and recommends project setbacks from these areas. He said these kinds of analyses are underway now and include studying impacts on birds and other wildlife and wildlife areas. Active eagle nesting areas are also identified to determine if their locations create a fatal flaw for the project, he said.
Hernandez offered to share research and resources for Landrum to further study this topic.
Landrum asked about turbines’ impact on raptors. Hernandez said he could provide internal and external studies that discuss the impact on birds from turbines and referenced a chart produced by the American Wind Energy Association. Wind turbines have the lowest impact on avian life and he said vehicles kill up millions of birds and wind energy in comparison kills tens of thousands.
“I’m not saying that turbines have or have not killed or injured avian life. It is small and minute compared to the overall human interaction that we as humans overall have to native life,” he said.
Landrum asked who pays for the studies that Hernandez was using as a resource. Hernandez said some studies are federally or state funded and others are from universities. RWE pays for its third party environmental resources.
Krider asked about how RWE would mitigate road damage during construction. Hernandez said RWE has road agreements with counties that spell out upkeep and maintenance issues and that roads are returned to their original condition after the project. If damage occurs, RWE will work with a third party contractor to repair them.
Hernandez also said RWE would purchase local resources when possible during construction and he also mentioned the economic impact the project would have on communities during construction.
Those in the audience or on Facebook Live asked questions about the MET tower, the device that will be installed on leased land in the near future to measure wind and other items for study by RWE. This data, collected over 12 to 18 months, will determine location and other aspects of the wind farm. One person asked if this data from the MET towers would be publicly available. Hernandez said it is proprietary data, but some generalizations from it could be shared.
Jan Owens asked about decommissioning and the life of the turbines. She was told turbines last from 25 to 30 years and they would not be left in the pastures. Turbines are recycled as much as possible and other parts will be hauled off.
Brian Kinzie, a former county commissioner, wanted to see the county get a road use agreement in place sooner rather than later. He said the wind development was one of many exciting things happening in the county.
“This is big,” Kinzie said.
Kinzie also asked where the electricity generated in Labette County would go. Would it benefit local residents?
Hernandez said it’s too soon to tell at this stage in the development. In the past, projects had local use for the power generated.
Hernandez was asked about ice throw, or the ice that could develop on the blades in the winter and then be thrown off when they start to spin. He said he would have to get information before responding.
Dave Oas asked why was Labette County attractive to wind developers now.
“I’ve been looking in this area for a long time,” Hernandez said.
There is a lot of engineering and data gathered before a county is chosen to explore for a development. A wind resource is the main reason a county is chosen.
“At this point and time this seems to be a good, potential area that we’d like to investigate further,” Hernandez said.
Oas said there is more wind on the coasts to harness.
Hernandez said wind speeds tend to vary here but technology updates make that possible for turbines to capture. But land availability is the main factor in exploring an area.
“This area is open,” Hernandez said, and it has potential.
Committee members and Oas thanked Hernandez for his openness to talk about the development.
Hernandez said transparency is important to RWE as it continues forward.
“We want to, as a company, give the best information possible,” Hernandez said.
The wind committee will next meet at 9 a.m. March 9 in the Mae Lessley Community Center in Chetopa. The next meeting after that will be at 5:30 p.m. April 8 in Edna. A meeting location has yet to be determined.
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