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County discusses potential wind farm

OSWEGO – Labette County commissioners on Monday afternoon met for an hour with a German utility representative whose company is interested in developing a wind farm in Labette County.

After the session, commissioners agreed to meet again soon to discuss scheduling and organizing a meeting to hear from the public its views on the potential for developing a 50- to 75-turbine wind farm in western Labette County. The wind farm would generate between 200 and 250 megawatts of power and connect with transmission lines in the southern part of Labette County via a substation RWE would build in that area. The power from turbines will travel in underground cables between turbines before reaching the substation.

Commissioners visited with Brandon Hernandez of RWE, the German utility company that’s exploring the development of a wind farm in the western half of Labette County.

The commission organized a committee to research wind energy and its impacts on the county, and that work is done. Commissioners want to review those reports and hear from the public as part of the process before making a decision about wind energy in the county. A moratorium is in place until March to allow the commission to complete its work.

Hernandez said if RWE moves forward, construction would not start on the wind farm until the second quarter of 2023. At the end of that year, he said the company would want all turbines producing electricity. The company is in the earlier stages of the development, collecting wind data and signing lease agreements from landowners.

The turbines likely will be 500 feet tall at the tip of the blade, though the paperwork with the FAA will request 650-feet heights just in case a taller turbine is necessary. The arrangement of the turbines has not been determined.

On setbacks, Hernandez said the company starts with 1,000 feet from property lines or structures, which would be double the height of a 500-foot-tall turbine.

“Personally I think that’s a little close,” Commissioner Lonie Addis said. “But I think that’s still something we can work out.”

He didn’t know if the other two commissioners had similar views on the setbacks from properties.

Hernandez clarified the setbacks later in the session. When asked by Commissioner Brian Kinzie, Hernandez said the company recommends 1.5 times the turbine height from a property line and twice the height from a home.

Commissioners also reviewed other issues with Hernandez.

Compensation for the county

Some wind farm companies will make payments in lieu of property taxes. These payments can go to the county and/or schools within the county.

Hernandez said RWE’s counsel will need to get involved to give an accurate number of what these payments could be. Generally, this compensation can be more than $20 million. But that takes into account multiple agreements, including the volume of road improvements the company pays for to assist in moving heavy construction equipment around and bringing in the wind turbine parts.

“It is substantial,” Hernandez said.

What would stop the project

Commissioner Cole Proehl asked Hernandez what would stop the project on RWE’s side.

Hernandez said the county continuing the moratorium on construction sends a signal to RWE that the county is not interested in the project and that it should reallocate its resources.

If the FAA finds an issue in the company’s plans, that could strike the project, too.

He said if he has a feeling the county is interested in the project, RWE would continue its research and initiate studies for environmental aspects of the project. Addis said he didn’t know if all three commissioners were on the same page on the project.

Commissioners fell short of granting approval for the project. Each of them wanted time to study and wanted to hear from the public.

Proehl said he thought commissioners saw the benefits of a wind project for all in Labette County. So the commission is willing to at least look at this opportunity and its benefits without saying absolutely yes at this time. He said he thought both sides would be reasonable in any future discussion.

If the project does not fit for Labette County, Proehl said the commission would be upfront and relay that decision quickly.

But he said he was ready to get more specifics on the project.

Decommissioning

Hernandez also discussed decommissioning the wind farm, if and when it comes to that. Addis said wind turbines will change the Labette County skyline for decades to come and he wanted future generations to know that money is in place to take down the turbines when the time comes, no matter who owns the wind farm at that point.

Hernandez said RWE spells out that language in agreements with landowners and sets aside money for that work.

The company prefers to repower the turbines in about 20 or 30 years since they are in the ground and agreements forged at that time would last another 20 or 30 years.

Other issues:

— Hernandez said issues like wildlife will be studied by a third party in the coming months and years before the project construction begins to determine what if any impact the turbines would have on wildlife, including birds or raptors. These studies will show how much habitat may be disturbed by the project. This study is done in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said most areas of the nation have some migratory bird pattern. The idea is to find the area where the turbines would least impact that. “This particular area doesn’t have as many environmental concerns in our initial review in regards to avian life, bats,” Hernandez said.

— Road agreements, in which the company and the county agree which roads can be used and how the county will be compensated for the company using them, will take time to address. But now is too early in the process to begin those, Hernandez said. RWE would pay for needed road improvements in the footprint of the wind farm.

— RWE may or may not use the laydown yard at Great Plains Industrial Park during construction, Hernandez said. He said the company may prefer to create a laydown yard within the footprint of the project because that’s where offices would need to be, too.

— Addis asked Hernandez what was driving the development of wind farms in Kansas, especially in Labette County compared to rural areas where wind farms first popped up, such as in Gray County. Hernandez said it’s the availability of land and transmission lines. “And those are the big driving factors as well as these are still fairly rural areas,” Hernandez said.

— Commissioners acknowledged that wind farms are polarizing. No matter which way they decide, some constituents will be upset, Kinzie said. Proehl asked Hernandez how RWE avoids lawsuits in these developments. Hernandez said he tries to be upfront from the start because RWE does not like lawsuits. He said the company is still involved in a suit over an appraisal. He said he has been here three to four years before any construction would be able to start just to get the information out there and communicate with commissioners and the public.