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Kansas wind energy supporters defend local control, economic investments

by Noah Taborda for the Kansas Reflector

Kansas wind energy representatives and advocates guaranteed a senate panel Tuesday that a bill currently under consideration would end industry investment and development in the state if approved.

Senate Bill 279 would establish state regulation of wind generation facilities, replacing county commission discretions on the establishment of these sites. State law would define turbine setbacks from businesses, homes, and parks, among other areas, and set caps on sound and light emitted by turbines.

Proponents of the bill have urged legislators to give them leverage to block these projects, but opponents backed a decision-making process and zoning laws they said have worked well for years.

“We don’t at this point have to guess what happens in the state of Kansas,” said Alan Anderson, vice chairman of the Polsinelli Energy Practice Group. “We have 20 years of operating projects, 40 utility-scale projects in 30 counties that approach projects. What we’re talking about here is an assault on the ability for someone to use their property to enter into commerce.”

Anderson joined county commissioners, wind energy advocates, and a former Senate president to push back against the bill in the second of two days of testimony before the Senate Utilities Committee. Opponents said concerns voiced by proponents of the bill were already being accounted for within the current county processes and praised the economic benefits of wind energy investment.

Kansas has more than 3,000 turbines across the 40 developments and 30 counties Anderson referenced. Nearly 50 people provided in-person or written testimony urging the Senate panel to reject the bill.

Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, and chairman of the committee, acted as a voice of concerned Kansans during the first hearing on Monday. He has previously called the expansion of renewable energy “dangerous” and described wind turbines as a public nuisance.

Thompson questioned Anderson’s assertion that county commissioners are best suited to make these decisions. He noted testimony in which Kansans said their complaints were not listened to and that the industry was pressuring county officials to ignore the pleas.

Anderson said all site decisions are subject to significant public input, although there will always be those who are not satisfied.

“If you look at Nemaha County, Marshall County and what you’re referencing is fantastic county commissioners who are doing what they think is best for the county, listening to constituents throughout the county,” Anderson said. “In the marketplace of ideas, they’re just not winning the day. And that’s OK, but they have to understand it’s not because they’re not being listened to.”

Kimberly Svaty, public policy director for the Kansas Advanced Power Alliance, said the proposed legislation would be the most restrictive in the country. Counties already have the authority and know-how to reject these projects if they need to, she said.

“There are three key components to developing a wind farm in Kansas,” Svaty said. “One, a great wind energy resource and land use compatibility. Two, community and landowner support. Three, environmental impacts. These three elements work in tandem. Without one, a wind farm will not be developed in a particular location.”

Local Benefits 

Jack Thimesch, Kingman County commissioner and a former state representative, said regulations in the bill do not work for his community. If passed, Kingman County would likely bow out of the industry, he said.

Kingman County has established setbacks for wind turbines, height limitations, and blade length limitations, all following hours of public testimony and input, Thimesch said. The county has been pleased with the economic development the project provided.

“We built a new jail. We replaced an activity and expo center in the city there that everybody is welcome to use. We are now in the process of taking that money and loan federal money, and we are going to put in five new bridges that have needed work,” Thimesch said. “Without this revenue and this income from this wind farm, we would not be doing any of this.”

Dave Kerr, a former Kansas Senate president, discussed the successful relationship Reno County and Hutchinson have had with Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy in establishing wind farms in the area. This partnership has brought 260 good paying jobs, enough electricity to power all the homes in Kansas, and economic benefits for landowners, he said.

The bill under consideration is not in line with anything he heard in months of negotiations and discussions over the site.

“I don’t recall a single time anyone said to Siemens, ‘We sure would like to have your jobs here, but we are not much interested in having any towers. In fact, we might establish setbacks and covenants so severe that you probably won’t be able to sell any units here,’ ” Kerr said.

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