Wind Power Fuss Blows Hard

AAPG Member Has the Charge

Forget school finances and gay marriage. The issue that's had the Kansas governor's phones ringing is wind power.

The debate has created some stereotype-breaking alliances and pitted landowners and environmentalists against other landowners and environmentalists.

And right in the middle is AAPG member and Kansas state geologist Lee Allison. Allison is chairman of the state's Energy Resources Coordinating Council, which is being reconstituted as the Kansas Energy Council, the primary energy planning and policy arm of state government.

As head of the council's Wind and Prairie Task Force, Allison's job has been to bring together conservationists, developers, property owners (such as fellow AAPG member Scott Ritchie of Ritchie Exploration Inc. of Wichita, firmly in the opposition camp) and others and try to strike a balance.

The group recently issued its report and guidelines for developing wind power in Kansas, which by several measures is No. 1 in the United States in potential for the industry. While there is plenty of wind and desire for development in western Kansas, proposals to establish wind power complexes in the scenic Flint Hills has whipped up a tornado of contention, Allison said.

The Flint Hills run north and south, roughly dividing the eastern third of the state from the western portion. Because the Permian-age flinty outcrop was unsuited for farming, it contains the largest tract of "untilled" tallgrass prairie in the continental United States, Allison said.

That makes the area a treasure to conservationists and an opportunity for eco- and agritourism.

But untilled doesn't mean undeveloped. The region has transmission lines and capabilities lacking in the western part of the state, and is closer to urban areas, making it attractive to wind power developers, Allison said.

"It has split so many communities in so many ways," he added.

Both Sides Now

Among traditional environmental groups, the Audubon Society opposed development; the Sierra club, historically a supporter of wind power, has taken no stand on the Flint Hills.

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Forget school finances and gay marriage. The issue that's had the Kansas governor's phones ringing is wind power.

The debate has created some stereotype-breaking alliances and pitted landowners and environmentalists against other landowners and environmentalists.

And right in the middle is AAPG member and Kansas state geologist Lee Allison. Allison is chairman of the state's Energy Resources Coordinating Council, which is being reconstituted as the Kansas Energy Council, the primary energy planning and policy arm of state government.

As head of the council's Wind and Prairie Task Force, Allison's job has been to bring together conservationists, developers, property owners (such as fellow AAPG member Scott Ritchie of Ritchie Exploration Inc. of Wichita, firmly in the opposition camp) and others and try to strike a balance.

The group recently issued its report and guidelines for developing wind power in Kansas, which by several measures is No. 1 in the United States in potential for the industry. While there is plenty of wind and desire for development in western Kansas, proposals to establish wind power complexes in the scenic Flint Hills has whipped up a tornado of contention, Allison said.

The Flint Hills run north and south, roughly dividing the eastern third of the state from the western portion. Because the Permian-age flinty outcrop was unsuited for farming, it contains the largest tract of "untilled" tallgrass prairie in the continental United States, Allison said.

That makes the area a treasure to conservationists and an opportunity for eco- and agritourism.

But untilled doesn't mean undeveloped. The region has transmission lines and capabilities lacking in the western part of the state, and is closer to urban areas, making it attractive to wind power developers, Allison said.

"It has split so many communities in so many ways," he added.

Both Sides Now

Among traditional environmental groups, the Audubon Society opposed development; the Sierra club, historically a supporter of wind power, has taken no stand on the Flint Hills.

A map of the tallgrass prairie lands by the Nature Conservancy is used by both sides to support their positions.

Some ranchers are excited at the prospect of leasing their land at approximately $2,000 per year per turbine. Others, like Ritchie, who has a 20,000-acre ranch in the Flint Hills, say the installations would foul the scenic vistas for landowners and tourists.

"Kansas is presently promoting and enjoying tourism across these areas," Ritchie said. "People won't come to ride the prairies under 35-story wind towers with rotating turbines and blinking lights on top," he said.

The task force came up with several recommendations on siting and guidelines for local governments. It also offered two options for the state to consider regarding the Flint Hills:

  • Option A: Have the state or regional authorities provide regulations and standards, enact a one-year moratorium on projects in the Flint Hills, repeal a tax exemption for wind developers and establish a seven-mile buffer around the tallgrass prairie as mapped by the Nature Conservancy.
  • Option B: Restructure the tax exemption and prioritize the grassland into three classes — "no development," "restricted development" and "allowable in any suitable location."

Developers tend to favor Option B, said Jennifer States, managing director of JW Wind Power LLC of Lawrence, Kan., a subsidiary of German developer Juwi.

The task force was charged with developing a blueprint to encourage development of the wind power industry in Kansas while protecting environmental resources.

"It recognizes the importance of protecting ecologically significant areas while allowing rural economic development and meeting Kansas' growing energy needs," she said. "We can attain balance and we can achieve it all."

While some ecological concerns, such as impact on prairie chickens, have been raised, the aesthetic issue is most often heard, States said, adding that many opponents have second homes in the Flint Hills.

"Those who live and work in the Flint Hills tend to be supporters," she said, "because the economy is really looking for opportunity for economic development in rural areas."

Combat Zone

Ritchie estimates 70 to 80 percent of Flint Hills landowners oppose the "industrial wind complexes."

While the area has been cut by transmission lines and roads, the view is largely unspoiled, he said. "There may be one road every three or four miles, and homes about the same distance.

"Even the transmission lines hide behind the hills — on most days you can't see them," he continued. "The transmission towers are well below 200 feet, so they don't have blinking lights on them. They're not rotating and they're not on ridge tops. That increases the wind and the distance from which they (wind turbines) can be seen."

Using a petroleum industry example, Ritchie said "a 20-foot tank battery is less intrusive" than 70 to more than 100 turbines stretching over hundreds or thousands of acres.

Ritchie also said wind power currently requires tax subsidies to be viable, and added that Kansas exports 22 percent of the power it generates, "so we're not short of energy.

"The better case is, 'Here's this last bit of native prairie — let's don't throw it away.' "

According to Ritchie, most task force members agree that wind has a role to play in the state's energy future, but development should take place where it won't impact the native country as much and where communities favor the new industry.

Ritchie and Allison agree that coming to grips with the issue on a statewide level is a priority. With no state oversight in place, the task of regulating development falls to local government. The problem there is that some counties have fairly comprehensive zoning laws, others have limited zoning and others have none.

Learning Curve

Guiding the state effort has been a learning experience, Allison said. The SERCC was established in 2002 by Republican Gov. Bill Graves. Of the 13 members, three were appointed by right of their positions — the state ratepayer advocate, chairman of the Corporation Commission and the state geologist.

Allison said he was a "compromise" as chairman because he represented a science agency without a stake in any disputes.

The council was continued under Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who recently decided to increase the body to 23 members and rename it the Kansas Energy Council.

Allison said he spent a month carefully choosing members for the task force, and drew complaints from both sides that the membership was "stacked" in favor of their opponents.

He said Sebelius' instructions for the task force were clear: Preserve the grasslands while encouraging wind power in the state.

The economic incentives are significant, he said. A wind installation may represent a $150 million investment. While the completed project may employ fewer than 10 full-time workers, other impacts include purchasing supplies, parts and services locally and taxes or in-lieu-of-tax payments to local governments, he said.

The installation is emissions free, and the relatively small footprint doesn't decrease the amount of cropland.

"Western Kansans see it as a major increase of income on their farms," he said. While ranching remains "marginally profitable, farming is under lots of pressure … to keep the family operation alive."

Besides the visual aspect, opponents raise concerns about impact on wildlife and fragmentation of local ecosystems.

"Bird kills have been mentioned, but that can be reduced with proper siting a design," he said. Spinning turbines also emit a low, throbbing sound, he said. It isn't an either-or choice, however.

"The governor gave very explicit instructions — preserve the prairie and develop wind potential," Allison said.

Navigating the environmental, social and political concerns has been a learning experience, Allison said. His training as a scientist helped.

"There is a lot of technical information to bring together and come up with analysis and options — we're exploring for a solution here," he said. "There are a lot of kinds of data that normally don't fit together. That's what we do in the oil and gas business."

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