Wind turbine debate reemerging in Senate

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A debate over wind turbines is about to reemerge in Kansas with new legislation that critics say could severely restrict — if not kill — an industry that has invested billions of dollars into Kansas.

Republican state Sen. Mike Thompson, chair of the Senate utilities committee, is backing legislation that would impose a new series of regulations for wind turbines, including setback requirements as well as studies of sound and shadow flicker.

The bill would give county commissioners the power to approve the construction of new wind turbines.

“This bill is designed to stop wind development in Kansas,” said Jeff Clark, president and CEO of the Advanced Power Alliance, a trade association that promotes renewable energy sources such as wind.

“If you were in the wind business in Kansas right now…this guy’s looking to put you out of business,” he said.

The bill, Clark said, is “almost unending in its focus on stopping wind development.”

The bill is reminiscent of a debate that played out in 2019, when lawmakers considered new setback requirements that were described as some of the most restrictive siting requirements for wind turbines in the country.

The legislation was introduced in response to complaints from rural Kansas residents who  complained that the state’s wind industry hurts property values, poses health risks and disrupts their overall quality of life.

The 2019 bill was turned back in a legislative committee, but Thompson introduced new legislation this year that is much broader in scope after meeting with various community groups with concerns about wind turbines.

Thompson said the bill is intended to protect residents who live where wind farms might locate.

“I just want to do what’s best for Kansans,” Thompson said. “The main thing is to protect those landowners, and that is the big deal. These are real problems they’re having.

“I don’t think the wind companies are necessarily considering all of that,” he said.

Opponents of the bill say Thompson has a bias against renewable energy sources, pointing to comments he recently posted on Facebook after the deep freeze that gripped Kansas last month leading to rolling blackouts to conserve energy.

“Wind turbines are frozen up. Solar is useless,” he wrote. “This is why the expansion of renewables is dangerous for us going forward. We are putting too much reliance on sources that cannot meet our needs, especially in times like this.”

After the freeze, it was shown that Texas’ widespread power outages were not caused by problems with wind turbines.

Thompson has been meeting with various groups to discuss the implications of the wind farms, including one last year in Fort Scott and another in Cameron, Missouri.

A  group out of Ohio — Greenwich Neighbors United — that fought a wind farm in Huron County west of Cleveland posted a 2018 video with Thompson challenging the wind-generating power of turbines.

The group also recently posted a link to Thompson’s new turbine legislation.

The video featured James Taylor, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute where Thompson is listed as a policy adviser.

The Heartland Institute is a free-market think tank that’s been critical of renewable energy sources. Taylor blamed increasing electric rates in Kansas on the emergence of wind power.

“Man has tried to harness the power of the wind for centuries,” Thompson said in the video.

“Each and every time, it has been replaced by something more reliable. Will it be different this time? You decide.”

Thompson joined the Heartland Institute’s Board of Policy Advisors in 2019 but said he doesn’t receive any pay from the organization.

He said the bill is not related to his association with the group.

“I am listed as a policy adviser. I haven’t done anything with the Heartland. I’ve never been paid by them,” he said.

As chairman of the utilities committee, Thompson — who does not believe human activity contributes to global warming — said he’s only trying to protect residents and determine the right balance of energy sources.

“I’ve talked very honestly with the wind companies, and they understand my position and why I’m there,” he said.

Critics say the bill could have been anticipated after Thompson won a seat in the state Senate.

Out-of-state wind interests spent more than $100,000 trying to defeat Thompson during last year’s general election.

“It’s no secret. He doesn’t like wind energy, for whatever reason,” Clark said.

“Now as the Senate committee chair, here it comes. It’s now on paper. The onerous attack on killing an industry in Kansas is here,” Clark said.

Thompson’s bill established new setback standards, including keeping turbines at least a mile away from the nearest property line without a turbine, at least 1 1/2 miles away from the nearest home and at least 3 miles away from an airport, park or hunting area.

The law sets new density requirements for wind turbines (no more than one per square mile) and outlaws nondisclosure agreements between energy companies and landowners during negotiations over a proposed lease.

It also enumerates in exacting detail how the sound studies are to be carried out.

It also requires an assessment that would determine the hours per year of shadow flicker that could be “perceived” at homes, schools, medical offices and other buildings within 1 mile of a turbine.

The legislation also demands that landowners be provided language — in 16-point type — that spells out their rights.

Clark said the standards in the bill are not based on scientific justification and could potentially limit economic opportunity for farmers to sign leases with wind developers.

“People have been struggling and eeking out a living growing crops…when it rains too little or rains too much or commodity prices are low,” he said.

“When a wind farm comes to a landowner, this is an economic opportunity that allows them to have some stability and some predictability in their revenue for the farm.”

There are 41 wind farms in Kansas that pay about $36 million in yearly lease payments.

The industry has invested about $13.5 billion in Kansas and produces about 41% of its power.

Representatives of the industry note that wind farms have to go through a planning process in counties where the land is zoned.

Generally, setbacks for wind turbines run from 1,000 to 1,500 feet but can vary depending on a county’s preference and landowner restrictions.

Wind farm developers have to meet with property owners, obtain federal and state permits, as well as reach agreements for road maintenance and payments in lieu of taxes with the counties.

In counties where land is not zoned, wind farm developers still have to meet many of the same requirements — any one of which can kill a project.

For example, if developers can’t reach an agreement with a county for improving roads serving the wind farm, the project probably won’t happen.

Thompson said his bill is only intended to bring uniform regulations for wind turbines.

“This is just trying to make a standard guideline across the state, and that’s really the key,” he said.

“What we’re seeing is a patchwork of different things in different counties because some of these counties are not zoned.

“Some counties do a better job of protecting their residents than others.”