Controversial wind power bill comes amid local project changes
PITTSBURG, Kan. — With a new bill in the Kansas Legislature threatening to impose restrictions on wind farms, renewable energy proponents and industry players are pushing back. But in the southeast corner of the state, at least, where unexpected changes were recently announced to plans for a wind farm with turbines in two counties, some say they would welcome stricter regulations.
Earlier this month, Apex Clean Energy announced it was selling the Jayhawk Wind project, located in northwest Crawford and southwest Bourbon counties, to two other companies. Electricity generated from the wind farm will now power a Facebook data center in the Omaha, Nebraska area, Apex said, rather than being sold to electricity company Evergy, as previously expected.
Apex also casually included in its press release significantly reduced figures for the number of jobs that would be created by Jayhawk Wind compared to those it presented last year when the company received the blessing of the Crawford County Commission after negotiating several agreements with the county. Last year it was said the project would create 300 temporary construction jobs and 30 long-term positions — numbers that were reduced in this month’s announcement to 115 and 7, respectively.
At last Friday's Crawford County Commission meeting, County Clerk Don Pyle noted that newly proposed legislation, Senate Bill 279, would create new restrictions on the placement of wind farms. The bill would limit wind turbines to one per square mile and prevent their construction within 1.5 miles of any home or public building.
“And it would actually make it so that a lot of the places where they’re currently operating probably wouldn’t have been permitted,” Pyle said.
“Anyway, they were looking for some feedback because they’ve got a hearing on it Monday,” he added.
“And they need it today,” Commission Chairman Jeremy Johnson said.
“I see that that’s in line with the Kansas Legislature’s new policy of announcing hearings the day before, or a couple days before, and not allowing people time to prepare testimony. That’s helpful for everybody,” Johnson said sarcastically. “Not really,” he added.
Besides the Kansas Senate hearing on SB 279, also on Monday, the Polsinelli law firm — the same firm involved in Jayhawk Wind negotiations with Crawford County last year on behalf of Apex — hosted a press conference broadcast via Zoom to announce the release of its “Annual Economic Impacts of Kansas Wind Energy 2020 Report.”
Although the Polsinelli report includes the word “annual” in its title, Alan Anderson, practice vice chair at the firm, acknowledged that while Polsinelli prepared reports on Kansas wind energy between 2012 and 2014, its 2020 report is the first it has released on the topic since then.
Nonetheless, at Monday’s press conference announcing the release of the report, Kimberly Svaty, policy director for the Kansas Advanced Power Alliance, said wind energy has had a significant economic impact in Kansas over the past two decades.
If SB 279 passes, “the report would basically turn into a post-mortem, if you will, on what the economic impact of wind was in Kansas for those 20 years,” she said.
Anderson said at the press conference that the bill's purpose is to stop any further construction of wind farms statewide.
“Make no mistake at all, Senate Bill 279 would end all wind energy development in Kansas,” he said. “Any of the provisions within the senate bill are so extreme, no one could site a project, not even close. And that’s frankly the intent of the bill. This isn’t a bill to actually talk about rational siting, it is to end wind energy development.”
The bill is “not an attack on the wind energy industry,” however; rather it represents “a taking of the property rights of everyone who wants to participate in a project in Kansas,” Anderson said.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Svaty said that support for SB 279 is not primarily coming from the fossil fuel industry.
“It’s not coming from another form of generation source,” she said. “I truly believe that there are landowners, particularly those that have moved from more urban areas that want a rural way of life while they’re working also in an urban area, that, you know, they just want to maintain their view.”
Dozens of supporters of the bill submitted written testimony, however, including some who said their families have lived in their rural Kansas communities for generations.
“I live one mile from where I grew up,” wrote Janet Beene, who lives in rural Bourbon County in the footprint of Jayhawk Wind. “Aside from my last two years of college, I have lived here my entire life. My family operates a 350-head registered cow/calf operation. My daughter and I are the third and fourth generation to work on this land.”
While Beene did comment on the wind turbines’ impact on her view, writing that her “beautiful pastures with amazing sunsets will never be the same,” she also presented supporters of SB 279 in a different light than Svaty did, writing that it is newcomers to the area that have been willing to sign leases with wind energy companies.
“Bourbon County is like our neighboring county, Neosho County,” Beene wrote. “Apex searches for counties in which there is one landowner that owns a large percent of the land in the footprint. This person does not care about what happens to Bourbon County. He and his family are move-ins. It became very clear though that Apex was in tight with him.”
Another Bourbon County resident, Anne Dare, submitted testimony that her experience with developers of the local wind farm taught her “just how heartless and dirty the wind industry is.”
Bryan Coover of Galesburg in Neosho County, who also supports SB 279, submitted testimony that there are “over 500 rural homes inside the area affected by nuisance sound levels that exceed World Health Organization standards” at another Apex-involved wind farm, the Neosho Ridge Wind project, which he lives within the footprint of.
“As part of a group of impacted residents, we filed a lawsuit before construction started in an effort to stop the impending noise impact, safety and health concerns, and loss of property value and quality of life,” Coover wrote. “Delaying tactics by Apex resulted in most construction being complete before a court date arrived. The lawsuit was withdrawn.”
While several Southeast Kansas residents submitted testimony in favor of SB 279, they were not the only ones to do so — or to specifically mention some of the same renewable energy industry players involved in the Jayhawk Wind project.
City council meetings in the tiny town of Corning in Nemaha County in Northeastern Kansas “became total chaos” when attended by Polsinelli’s Anderson, along with several other representatives of NextEra Energy, which Anderson was then representing, according to testimony in support of SB 279 from Corning City Clerk Diane Haverkamp.
Svaty said there are other supporters of the legislation “certainly that are very passionate about conservation and ecological consideration,” but wind energy businesses, she said, are themselves environmentally sensitive organizations.
“As humans continue to populate more, there’s just going to be a demand for more businesses, more services, more sprawl, and that’s something that I think people are grappling with,” she said. “So, there’s a lot of not-in-my-backyard associated with these pieces of legislation.”
Asked what specific kinds of jobs are created by wind farms, Anderson on Monday pointed to temporary construction jobs, a smaller number of long-term jobs required to operate the wind farm, and the economic impact of workers and their families moving into communities and spending money on everything from daycare to eating at restaurants.
“Those jobs are distributed throughout the state, so it’s not just going to Topeka, the Kansas City metro, Johnson County, Wichita, these are now distributed throughout the state and in fact often are concentrated in rural areas,” Anderson said. “And rural areas often haven’t had the same kind of job growth, and that can’t be lost because that’s critically important to those communities.”
In discussing jobs created by wind energy projects, though, Svaty noted that not all of them are in rural areas, saying that “you also can’t discount the engineering firms […] you know, entities like Polsinelli, other law firms that do a lot of legal work, there’s a lot of work that goes on in finance.
“So you have a tremendous number of jobs in the rural areas operating on the facilities themselves, but then you also have a significant number of jobs […] in more of the urban areas on the engineering/finance side, legal side, biology, meteorology, we could go on and on,” Svaty said.
In discussing the broader economic impact of wind energy development in Kansas, she also brought up factors being taken into consideration by business players not only in the biggest cities in the state, but farther afield, on Wall Street.
“So when you have an organization, hedge funds like BlackRock and others, that are talking about the historic amount of money invested in clean energy technologies, renewable energies, whether it’s wind, solar, green hydrogen, energy efficiency, or the companies themselves that are seeking new energy solutions, those entities have a choice for where they can put their capital,” Svaty said. “And a piece of legislation like Senate Bill 279 is a very strong indicator that perhaps Kansas, which has had a thriving renewable energy industry, might not be the welcoming place that it once was.”
According to the Polsinelli report, wind energy projects have provided more than $657 million to local governments in Kansas over the past 20 years in the form of direct donations from developers as well as through taxes.
In Crawford County, donations from Apex agreed to last year included an initial one-time payment of $135,938, annual payments of $121,875 over the next nine years, and a tenth-year contribution of $60,938. County Counselor Jim Emerson said Thursday that the new owners of Jayhawk Wind, WEC Energy Group and Invenergy, are taking over responsibility for all contracts with the county related to the project that were originally agreed to by Apex.
Despite the recent changes to the Jayhawk Wind project, and the concerns of some neighbors and those living within the footprint of wind farms statewide, if you ask Anderson, wind energy has been a win for every Kansas county where there’s been a project.
“There’s not been a county where there’s not been a successfully sited project,” he said.