Plan to limit turbines riles growing Kansas wind industry

Source: By John Hanna, Associated Press • Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2021

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas legislative committee’s leader lit a political prairie fire with a proposal that critics say would end investments in a wind energy industry that has grown into the state’s largest supplier of electricity.

State Senate Utilities Committee Chairman Mike Thompson said Wednesday that he is trying to protect landowners who fear that a proliferation of large turbines in their rural areas will drop property values and harm their quality of life. Thompson, a conservative Shawnee Republican, is pursuing a bill that would impose statewide regulations limiting turbines to one per square mile and keeping them 1.5 miles from any home or public building.

The proposal has split fellow Republicans and inspired a strong backlash not only from environmentalists but also economic development officials who see wind energy as a jobs creator. Thompson said he’s not backing off, but he also hadn’t scheduled a committee vote after two days of hearings this week.

An industry that once supplied only a small fraction of the state’s electricity has since been celebrated by governors of both parties and gained influence at the Statehouse. It’s happened in a state where a Republican-controlled Legislature has for years ignored proposals for combatting climate change and some GOP lawmakers are openly skeptical of climate science.

“These landowners who have built retirement homes out there in the country are getting run over and having turbines sited too close to their homes,” Thompson said. “I don’t intend to let this issue drop.”

But Alan Claus Anderson, vice chair of the national Polsinelli law firm’s energy group, which represents wind companies, called the proposed regulations “pretty extreme.”

“No one could site a project — not even close,” he said during a Statehouse news conference this week.

The Polsinelli firm released a report this week saying that wind companies have paid nearly $1 billion to landowners and $658 million to local governments, and created 22,000 jobs over 20 years.

Wind farms became the state’s largest source of electricity in 2019, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, accounting for about 41% of it compared to 33% for coal-fired power plants. Kansas has more than 3,000 turbines and 40 wind farms, according to industry supporters.

Continuing growth cheers environmentalists, who haven’t seen much interest among legislators in the debate over climate change. In 2015, lawmakers even repealed a mandate for generating a portion of the state’s electricity from renewable resources — though the targets have since been exceeded.

The growth also has sparked a backlash from some property owners in rural areas and small towns. They’ve complained about noise from whirring blades, “flicker” from their shadows, lighting for turbines at night and the marring of once-glorious views.

“Now, our way of life will never be the same,” Janet Beene, whose family has a farm southwest of Fort Scott, inside the footprint of a planned wind farm, said in written testimony. “The beautiful pastures with amazing sunsets will never be the same. And what about the pasture and cropland that is being destroyed for this so-called ‘green energy’?”

Supporters of the bill argue that property owners face the negative effects of large turbines even if they refuse to allow them on their property because their neighbors can’t resist companies’ payments. They said county officials are often ill-equipped to deal with “industrial wind” and its attorneys, making state regulations necessary.

“It would also curb industrial wind companies from intimidating and bullying the counties and towns of Kansas into submission,” Nick Aberle, a Sabetha farmer, testified this week.

Wind energy advocates said they’ve always been sensitive to such concerns because they want energy to be sustainable. They also argued this week that the industry has gotten better in making siting decisions.

But the concerns they’re raising that Kansas will see dollars and jobs go to other states could prove crucial to stopping Thompson’s bill.

“We’ve had a lot of investment in the state,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican. “I think most folks are in favor of clean energy.”

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