Proposed, controversial restrictions on wind turbines pop up again in Kansas

Titus Wu
Topeka Capital-Journal
The Kansas Legislature is again considering legislation that could limit wind turbines in Kansas, in addition to other restrictions.

The deadline for bills this year to be considered by the Kansas Legislature is coming soon, but Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, is still spicing things up.

Thompson, the Kansas Senate Utilities Committee chairman who hasn't hidden his distaste for renewable energy, held packed hearings this week on the controversial Wind Generation Permit and Property Protection Act, an item he supports.

The act would mainly define setbacks for wind turbines, or how far turbines have to be kept from property lines, roads, occupied buildings and more. Only one turbine would be allowed per square mile, in addition to other restrictions on sound and light emitted.

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"Make no mistake at all: Senate Bill 279 would end all wind energy development in Kansas," said Alan Claus Anderson, an attorney with a law firm that has represented wind developers in the state.

Wind energy proponents say just the setback requirements are too extreme. When put on a map, it would allow for some development but not enough for an actual project. This bill could come with economic consequences as a result.

"The largest developers in the nation, the largest builders in the States, they all have multiple assets operating in Kansas," said Kimberly Svaty, of the Kansas Advanced Power Alliance. "They're all saying that they will not invest a penny in the state of Kansas. And that's very real. ... it underscores the competition that the state is in for jobs and investment."

Kimberly Svaty, director of the Kansas Power Alliance, an organization representing the wind energy industry, speaks at a news conference on March 23.

According to a report by Anderson's law firm, over two decades, the wind energy industry has created 22,002 jobs directly and indirectly in Kansas. Around $48 million is put into the state economy annually through landowner lease payments. And almost 42% of Kansas electricity is generated by wind. 

Residents say turbines affect quality of life

But some residents of rural Kansas said the costs of living near turbines outweigh the benefits.

"I would really like to be able to sleep with my own bed at night. As time has gone on, it became obvious that that wasn't going to happen," said Bryan Coover, who lives near a wind turbine complex in Neosho County. "If the wind is blowing, you can't sleep at home."

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Others complained of the flashing lights from wind turbines, and some brought concern over how wind projects could bring a decrease in their property values. 

Supporters of the bill portrayed wind developers as "Big Wind" trampling and imposing its will over small counties and communities. Many detailed their harrowing experiences fighting wind projects in their local areas.

"We felt pushed to make quick decisions to keep moving forward with a process, all while being criticized and browbeat by the opponent," said Diane Haverkamp, city clerk for the city of Corning. "The opposition was led by the wind energy and their unlimited resources. Their money in power added fuel to the fire."

Wind energy industry seeks partnerships

But Svaty and Anderson denied that narrative. They said the wind energy industry has tried to form great partnerships with all levels of government, and developers have given numerous donation money to Kansas communities as a result of their projects.

"From the wind industry's perspective, we have tried to always be great partners, with our community, with our landowners," Svaty said. "There is a known of having some disposable income floating within that community that comes about as a result of having a wind farm and those direct payments to landowners, to the county, and that cannot always be completely calculated."

If anything, the bill would be taking away the rights of property owners to lease it out for wind energy, Svaty argued, and the industry respects the right of counties to zone out wind turbines. This legislation would override that county's right to include or exclude wind farms.

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This isn't the first time this act has been proposed. The same bill came about in the Kansas House in 2019, though that died in committee.

Whether this time the legislation will make it anywhere close to passing remains to be seen, even with the backing from Thompson. There is only around a week or two left for all non-vetoed or non-budget bills to be considered.

But just the simple act of proposing the Wind Generation Permit and Property Protection Act puts the wind industry at unease, Svaty said.

"The message this bill sends out ... is maybe we aren't a stable environment, maybe we are not a place you should consider locating if we're going to do such a disruptive bill after we've had such a successful industry," Anderson said.