Public officials are fond of pointing out that all of Kansas City International Airport’s electricity is now generated from wind – namely the Cimarron Bend wind farm in Clark County, in far western Kansas.
But as wind power development grows across Kansas and Missouri, not everyone is happy.
About an hour’s drive north of Kansas City, the Osborn Wind Project has divided neighbors since its 2017 opening. Here, one hears the familiar arguments about wind towers: Some call them eyesores, and some detest the constant noise and flickering red lights at night.
Among the strongest opponents has been the nearby Shatto Milk Company, a local favorite known for its reusable glass jugs. The owners were concerned that the turbines could affect the health of their animals.
Now, fights over wind turbines are spreading east across Kansas as giant wind farms sprout up closer to larger cities such as Hutchinson and Pittsburg. In the past 10 years, more than 30 new wind farms – including several in eastern Kansas – have been built or proposed across the state. Not everyone welcomes them.
Opposition to wind turbines is driven by both legitimate concerns and conspiracy theories. Largely debunked arguments about the dangers of turbines share space with understandable worries that they may spoil the view.
Proponents tout the cheap, clean energy that wind farms generate, electricity that can benefit rural and urban residents alike. Kansas now generates more than 40% of its energy from wind. The state ranks second in the nation for wind generation, which powers nearly 2 million homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association’s market report.
For leasing their land to turbines, property owners can cash in on annual lease payments while giving up only a small portion of their land. Likewise, wind companies pump revenue into cash-strapped counties. Missouri has doubled its wind generation over the past five years but still ranks 24th in the nation with less than 5% of the state’s energy coming from wind. More than 70% of Missouri’s electricity is generated by coal.
In the northeast part of the state, turbines sit idle every night near Kirksville at the High Prairie Renewable Energy Center, Missouri’s largest wind farm. That project underscores another complaint with wind power: that the giant spinning blades can inadvertently kill wildlife. After four bats and 52 birds, including a bald eagle, were discovered dead at the site, Ameren Missouri agreed to shut off the turbines at night. Now, the utility wants to raise customer rates in part to cover losses from cutting its nighttime generation at High Prairie.
In Kansas, the opposition to new wind farms is often fierce.
At a July meeting in Labette County, about 45 people bowed their heads inside a southeast Kansas high school cafeteria as a woman prayed for guidance.
Behind the woman was a county map with tracts of land shaded in green that showed which owners have leased their properties for a new wind farm coming to Labette County. The 3 ½-hour meeting, like others on this topic, grew testy before it was over.
While the towering turbines are estimated to bring millions of dollars in new investment to a corner of the state that has for decades struggled economically, this group doesn’t want them anywhere near them.
John Williamson spoke against the wind farm that night. “It might surprise you that there are people here who won’t take money to sell out their neighbor,” he said.
When wind farms first came to Kansas, developers were attracted to the Flint Hills region. But because the area is home to the last remnants of the tallgrass prairie, an internationally important ecosystem, the Kansas state government stepped in and created protections.
“You think abortion is a hot issue? Build a wind farm in the Flint Hills,” said Pete Ferrell, who was approached in 1994 about putting a wind farm on his property in Butler County. That was before the state passed a moratorium protecting the area from wind development. But many of the same arguments he heard back then are still proliferating today.
And one central question has yet to be definitely answered: Who owns the viewshed?
When Ferrell was putting turbines on his property, he received a lot of grief and harassment from people who thought it ruined the view.
“When people get in my face about this, I say to them, ‘Now, show me the check where you paid for the view of my property. I can’t find that check,’” Ferrell said. “If you think that much of this view, since you don’t want me to put up a wind farm, what do you got?”
Although the fight in his area has settled, Ferrell said he still hears how landowners are getting flak for a choice that farmers and ranchers must make to survive.
“I talk to other landowners who are going through this, and the ones who have publicly admitted they’ve signed up – man, they catch the wrath of God,” Farrell said. “From friends they’ve known their whole lives. It’s horrible. I had people disown me in the Flint Hills, even though they don’t live here.”
But if he had the choice to do it again, he would, he said. The wind payments have helped Ferrell to keep ranching. After all, wind easily integrates with farming once construction is completed, allowing cows or corn to co-exist alongside turbines.
“There are a lot of landowners out there who are struggling, and wind is my best cash crop. It grows even in drought,” Ferrell said. “I’ve had several years now where drought forced me to de-stock, and it was the wind payments that kept me going, and I know landowners are in the same bind.”
With much of the Flint Hills region off limits for wind turbines, developers have built massive wind farms in the windy stretches of western Kansas. But now transmission lines that carry energy out of the area are approaching capacity.
Southeast Kansas became particularly attractive because it has few large cities and has a collection of counties with strong wind potential that didn’t have any zoning regulations. That means developers can build with just a landowner’s permission.
In Labette County, with a population of about 20,000, Texas-based RWE plans to build 50 to 80 turbines.
Matt Tulis, communication manager for that company, said the opposition in southeast Kansas is not unusual. RWE has nine projects across the nation, primarily in Texas and Oklahoma, but this would be their first in Kansas.
There are several studies that must be completed to ensure the project’s viability. But private landowners have already begun signing leasing agreements, as is standard practice.
And the battle is well underway.
On one side, Labette County Neighbors United wants an 18-month moratorium on wind projects to allow the group to do more research and to wait to see how a wind farm in neighboring Neosho County works out.
For the two county commissioners who want to bring the wind farm to Labette County, a moratorium is a nonstarter. This would be Labette’s third wind moratorium, and the commissioners don’t want to scare away an economic investment that could lower taxes, recruit young professionals like doctors to the area and reduce poverty.
“We might as well take advantage of it, because if we don’t, other counties will,” Commissioner Cole Proehl said.
Dodge City’s Ford County was among the first in Kansas to land a wind farm. And local leaders are now working on adding a seventh.
Wind energy has been well embraced in the area because people have seen the economic benefits it can bring, said Joann Knight, Dodge City/Ford County Development Corporation director.
“Probably the biggest comment we get is ‘When are they going to put one on my farm?’ It’s not been fought against negatively, by any means, out here,” Knight said. “It’s been very well received, and we’re continuing to grow.”
Wind farms don’t create many jobs, but the ones that are created are stable and well paying, Knight said. “If you’re a community that’s dying because you’re primarily elderly and haven’t had a lot of good job creation and you need that and those young families coming in, it’s definitely a good starting point,” Knight said.
Labette County has lost 35% of its population in the past 40 years. Children there are twice as likely to live in poverty as the state average, and overall life expectancy is nearly three years shorter than average.
“Those middle class, blue collar, well paying jobs just left,” Proehl, the commissioner, said. “We haven’t been able to replace those.”
RWE plans to pay landowners with 200 acres leased and a turbine between $9,000 and $15,000 a year, Tulis said. Landowners whose property is part of the project but does not end up with a turbine still could make as much as $6,000 a year. That’s because developers try to get leases signed before they receive final regulatory approval for specific turbine locations.
Proehl sees payments to landowners and the funding the county government will get as a “lifeline.”
“People have moved away. We have fewer people supporting the same infrastructure level,” he said. “This is a way for somebody from the outside to come in and provide some much needed revenue to the county.”
Competing interests have set up difficult decisions for county commissioners across the state. Oftentimes, people on both sides of a wind fight point to the power of property rights.
“I’m absolutely all for property rights. But I always ask them: Whose property rights – yours or the neighbors?” said Russ Evy, a Wichita planning consultant who works with counties. “Because you both have them.”
Unzoned counties, in particular, face difficult decisions. If they don’t act, wind developers may proliferate across the county as they sign leases with individual landowners. If counties try to implement zoning to control wind towers, they’d have to begin regulating all sorts of building projects. That’s led many to adopt short moratoriums that target wind projects.
Evy has worked with multiple counties embroiled in the wind debate. He said he’d like to see some basic statewide regulations of wind development so these fights don’t continue to play out all across the state.
“I’ve sat through 100 hours of debate on multiple wind farms, and honestly, at the very end, I don’t know how I would vote,” he said. “Honestly, after these meetings, I see both sides perfectly mirrored.”
‘I DON’T WANT TO SEE THEM’
In late August, the three Cherokee County, Kansas, commissioners confronted developers from RWE after learning the firm was asking landowners about leasing land for turbines.
The commissioners also heard from their counterparts in Neosho and Labette counties who cautioned against allowing wind farms.
Neosho County Commissioner Paul Westhoff said the area is too densely populated for wind farms. It isn’t like the wide open plains in western Kansas or Texas, where single homes might be separated by miles.
Two of Cherokee County’s commissioners came to the meeting already convinced that wind farms weren’t in the county’s future.
“This is a personal fight for me. I don’t want to look at them. I don’t want to see them,” said Commissioner Lorie Johnson.
She said she frequently drives past wind turbines in nearby Crawford County.
“It looks like a space zone with all the red flickering lights. It’s just absurd. I can’t imagine living underneath that. I can’t imagine living near it. I don’t want to. That’s as close as I want them.”
Johnson said she “moved to the country for a reason.” Aside from interrupting the view, she said, she is worried about the lasting effects of wind on her kids and grandkids.
“With all due respect, I’m ready to go to war,” she said. “I will fight for this with everything that I have.”
The three commissioners question the lifetime of wind turbines, federal subsidies for renewable energies and the impact on local roads.
The commission unanimously adopted a one-year moratorium on wind energy development in Cherokee County. For wind advocates and industry insiders, the fight against wind farm development in places like southeast Kansas comes as no surprise.
Brandon Hernandez, a wind development manager with RWE, attended the Labette County meeting to answer questions and give as much insight as he could. But he said he was caught off guard by some of the arguments, because they were based on inaccurate understanding of wind energy or on falsities.
Shortly after the prayer for guidance ended on that July evening, members of Labette County Neighbors United began presenting information.
“I’m not an expert on wind energy or any of that. I’ve researched it to the best of my ability for the last two years,” said David Oas, a Labette County resident.
Lonnie Addis, the only Labette County commissioner opposing the new project, said he’s concerned about sound sensitivity and the health impact of having turbines near children.
Despite a preponderance of evidence in peer reviewed studies that wind farms do not negatively affect health, those concerns continue to swirl at these debates.
Williamson, a Labette County resident, said that, like others, he got most of his information from wind-watch.org.
“It’s peer reviewed,” Williamson said. “It’s not a bunch of voodoo science.”
But wind-watch.org is a website run by citizens and groups with “concerns about wind power.” While some of the information it pulls is from reliable resources, such as the U.S. Department of Energy or university research, the information is shared with a stated goal to “provide a means for diverse groups fighting inappropriate wind energy projects to share information and strengthen each other.”
When looking for reliable resources about wind developments, Jeremy Firestone, director of the Center for Research in Wind, recommends looking at government, university and newspaper sources.
“There are some web pages where you have to dig in to see who is funding them,” Firestone said. “It comes up as ‘Save our shores!’ but it’s really just a front for an organization that doesn’t care about saving shores. They just don’t want offshore wind.”
Firestone, who studies perceptions of wind energy and developments, said many of the arguments against wind energy are the same across the nation.
“There are always opponents. There are not a lot of things in the U.S. where we can even get 60% of people to agree. I mean, look at our dysfunctional Congress,” Firestone said. “We don’t always move in lockstep, and that’s OK.”
But his research has shown that opponents of wind energy are usually outnumbered 5 to 1.
“If you just listen at meetings, you can get a really skewed understanding of how many people support it,” Firestone said.
When Josh Ghering spent two tours in Iraq, he said, he did it to fight for Americans’ freedoms. He returned to southeast Kansas to carve out a quiet life for himself and his family.
“When I was medically retired, I needed a nice, quiet place to live,” Ghering said. Now he is ready to pick up his mantle again to “fight for Labette County’s freedom.”
An unofficial leader and spokesperson for the Labette County Neighbors United group, Ghering takes his calling seriously. If a wind farm moves in, property values could decrease by up to 60%, he says.
However, Mike Busch, at Wichita State University, for years has researched wind farms’ impact on property values. His findings were consistent with research done throughout the nation, which found there is no material impact on property values.
“Even if some people don’t like having a wind turbine nearby, in the home market, that doesn’t seem to affect enough people to impact home values,” Busch said. “The market is made up of all homebuyers, and in that large market, there’s just not enough who it seems to have an effect on.”
Firestone studied and surveyed those who lived within 5 miles of a wind farm and found that most respondents would rather live next to a wind project than any other energy generation project, even commercial solar.
Brian Kenzie, a Labette County commissioner in favor of the wind farms, is fighting for his seat in office because of his stance on RWE’s development.
“I’ve talked to commissioners who have them, and it’s a blessing for most of them,” Kenzie said. “It helps their schools. It increases revenue for farmers. It’s a win-win-win.”
While Kenzie, a Republican serving his fourth term, does not believe wind energy is the only answer to electricity needs, he said Labette County cannot afford to pass up the financial opportunity, especially when citizens and farmers are hiring.
“Tell me another industry with $65 million (invested) that’s interested in coming to our county,” Kenzie said.
“They can kick me out, but the wind is coming.”