Wind Energy - Visual Impacts and Public Perceptions
Elk River Wind back
Developer: Greenlight Energy / HMH Energy Resources / Iberdrola Renewables
Despite its status as the third windiest state in the nation, wind development in Kansas had been slow until recently. In May 2009, Kansas passed an a Renewable Energy Standard with the goal of 10% renewable energy by 2010 and 20% by 2020. As of July 2009, Kansas has1012 MW of built wind power (up from only 465 MW in the previous year), which is concentrated in seven large developments. Nearly another 6000 MW of wind energy have been proposed, although many of those projects are in the earliest stages of development and have uncertain futures.
Eastern Kansas has a very well connected transmission system. When the feasibility of transmission interconnection is factored into wind resource potential, Kansas ranks number one. By contrast, the western part of the state is both less populated and has less existing transmission. However, in June 2009, it was announced that Prairie Wind Transmission LLC and ITC Great Plains had reached an agreement to jointly develop an $800M set of transmission lines that would build capacity for the transmission of up to 765,000 volts of wind energy by 2013. Such transmission development would increase the amount of energy exportation to nearby states.
Kansas is also home to many coal plants, with over 75% of its electricity coming from coal. In 2007 and 2008, former Governor Sebelius vetoed a bill three times to allow two to three additional coal plants in Kansas. She argued that wind energy should be used to meet new electricity demand. When Sebelius stepped down as governor to work in President Obama’s administration, Lt. Governor Mark Parkinson assumed her position. Soon after, his administration passed an energy bill that built incentives for renewable and energy-efficiency, but also cleared the way for Sunflower Energy to build one of two proposed coal-fired power plants and reduced the ability of the state regulators to limit coal development.
Siting and Zoning top
Kansas has no major siting or environmental regulations that govern wind development. However, in 2003, Governor Sebelius established the Wind and Prairie Task Force, with the mission of developing guidelines for wind development in the Flint Hills region. Task Force members were appointed by the State Energy Resources Coordination Council (SERCC).
The Wind and Prairie Task Force was unable to come to a consensus on wind power in the Flint Hills, providing the Governor with a choice of two options. Option A (“Management of Wind Development to Conserve Grasslands of Statewide Importance”) would institute a full ban on wind turbines in areas designated by the Nature Conservancy as “intact prairie.” This option was primarily developed and advocated for by Dick Seaton, Audubon of Kansas member and president of the Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie Heritage Foundation. Option B (“Finding Common Ground in the Flint Hills”) would create a region where wind development would be discouraged and another where it would be prioritized. After receiving the report, Governor Sebelius went with Option B, which would create a “Heart of the Flint Hills” region where wind development would be strongly discouraged. The process of mapping the “Heart” region was influenced by the politics of wind development in the region and the location of some proposed wind farms. The Elk River project was not affected by this designation since it lies just south of Highway 400 where the “Heart” begins.
Wind opponents have had some success delaying or canceling other projects. Despite its lack of legal standing, the “Heart of the Flint Hills” designation helped stop three other large wind projects in the Flint Hills region. Additionally, County Commissions in Butler and Waubasee Counties have passed zoning restrictions on further development and have voted against projects within the “Heart.” These actions have led wind developers to propose projects just outside of this designated area in counties without zoning restrictions. Although no projects have been developed within the “Heart” region in the period following its designation, wind opponents have had little to no success in blocking proposed sites outside of the Flint Hills area.
Wind development in Kansas must be approved by local governments, generally requiring sanction both the Planning Commission and the County Commission. The public has the chance to comment on proposed projects at the County Commission hearing. Butler County also created wind guidelines in late 2003 that required more public input, environmental and human impact reports. However, these guidelines were created after the Elk River project had begun the approval process, and did not apply to this project. Wind siting legislation has been proposed multiple times in Kansas’ state legislature committees, receiving strong support from conservative legislators. These bills ranged from building a state siting policy with noise, height, and aesthetic restrictions to temporary moratoriums on wind development in the Flint Hills region. No siting regulations have passed up to this point.
Public Discourse top
Greenlight Energy and HMH Energy Resources proposed the Elk River Wind Project in 2002. Initial opposition formed early when the proposal came before the Butler County Commission. The County Commission voted 3-2 in favor of the project in early January 2003. The proposal was immediately opposed by a nearby landowner, David Murfin, on procedural grounds. According to an article in the Wichita Eagle, Murfin’s lawyer claimed that Murfin was not notified of official meetings and that Commissioner Bill Shriver was biased because he planned to lease his land to a different wind developer on a separate project. Another nearby landowner, Steve Trent, a falcon trainer, joined in Murfin’s case. In November 2003, a Butler County district judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. However, the judge did not accept their main arguments. Rather, the judge ruled that the County Commission’s decision was too heavily based on the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) money the county would receive from the project. Butler County, Butler school districts, and the local community college were to receive a shared $175,000 per year for the next ten years. The judge called for the County Commission to review the Elk River project again.
Greater public opposition began forming in early 2003. As discussion began to stir around the Planning Commission’s approval of the farm, residents were divided on whether the project should be approved or not. By March of 2003, Jim Hoy, an English professor at Emporia State University, and Larry Patton, the Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at Butler County Community College formed Protect the Flint Hills. The fifteen members incorporated as a nonprofit and set up a website to receive donations.
Figure 1: A photo simulation that appears on the Protect the Flint Hills Website
Protect the Flint Hills' opposition to the project was heavily centered on the aesthetic impact of the wind farm on the scenic Flint Hills. Economic and wildlife concerns also appeared to be of concern. Only 3% of the tallgrass prairie in America remains today, and much of that is in the Flint Hills region. In letters to the editor, Protect the Flint Hills advocates claim that the scenic beauty of the Flint Hills is unique. Larry Patton, president of Protect the Flint Hills, also previously opposed turning the Flint Hills into a national park because “we could preserve the prairie better than the government.” The lack of environmental concern was further exemplified by the numerous concerns that the view of the Flint Hills from the Kansas Turnpike would be ruined. Journalist Mark McCormick said his favorite memories of the Flint Hills were “…hurtl[ing] down the turnpike, sun in my face, wind in my ears,” and claimed that the Flint Hills have remained “unchanged for generations.”
In addition to Protect the Flint Hills, the Flint Hills Prairie Heritage Foundation formed out of concern over the environmental and visual impacts of the Elk River project and other nearby wind projects. About forty individuals made up the foundation, with much overlap with conservation groups like Audubon of Kansas and the Nature Conservancy. The primary wildlife concern was the impact on the prairie chicken, which were said to stop nesting near wind farms, as well as the greater impact on the Flint Hills ecosystem. The Prairie Heritage Foundation’s website is now defunct.
A few strong proponents also emerged in the Flint Hills case. Pete Ferrell is a rancher whose property hosts fifty of the turbines. Ferrell often cites the turbines as a savior to the cattle ranching business and a cultural extension of the windmill his great-grandparents had used to pump water on the same property. Ferrell now tours Kansas promoting wind power. He and his sister founded a wind advocacy group in Beaumont, and he has become a traveling consultant for a variety of local groups across the state who are interested in wind development.
The Kansas Sierra Club supported the former Governor’s “Heart of the Flint Hills” designation, along with a number of conservation efforts in the Flint Hills. The group refused to take an official position, as local chapters of the national organization are discouraged from taking positions on individual wind farms. However, after the construction of the Elk River project and the failure of a number of other proposals in the region, the Kansas Sierra Club came out in support of the construction of more wind farms in the Flint Hills region. In 2005, the group conducted a study of the scenic impacts of meeting the Governor’s 20% wind goal. Even if all new wind capacity was located in the Flint Hills and two other scenic areas, claimed the Sierra Club, only 0.7% of Kansas’ scenic land area and 2% of the wildlife area would be impacted. The study did not assess how many acres would be affected by the view of the turbines.
Figure 2: An opponent's artistic representation of turbines on the Flint Hills
Public debate about the project was largely carried out through traditional news outlets. The Wichita Eagle and the El Dorado Times devoted heavy coverage to the Elk River proposal. The Kansas Energy Information Network documented over 200 articles (not including letters to the editor) about the Elk River project and others in the Flint Hills area through 2006. Many of these articles are no longer available online, but their volume and titles speak to the amount of debate on the proposal. Many letters to the editor are documented on the Protect the Flint Hills website. Both sides continually argued with each other in letters to the editor. The debate stretched beyond the papers too; elementary students discussed their opposition to wind farms in a Kansas Park Trust essay contest. A comprehensive policy analysis about the controversy and Kansas’ policy failure was written by Brian Dietz in the Kansas Law Review. Dietz concluded that only an adequate state policy could remediate the patchwork of regulations.
Despite the mirth of controversy, debate, and opposition, the Butler County Commission re-approved the project in late 2003, this time without taking the PILOT into account. David Murfin and his lawyer were the only ones voicing opposition at the hearing. However, by 2005, the lawsuits had begun. First, the Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie Heritage Foundation sued the developers involved in the case in a federal court over the potential environmental impacts of the Elk River project. This suit was thrown out because it failed to make a proper legal claim. Just three days later, a group of landowners sued the County Commission over the county’s right-of-way to construct transmission lines that would cross their property, as well as a call for greater decommissioning funds. This suit was also dismissed in May 2005.
With the failure of the suits, construction on the Elk River project began and was completed in late 2005. Once the turbines were up, most local opposition to the project died down. Ed Hodges, an initial opponent of the farm and one of the plaintiffs in the right-of-way case said, “I don’t think they’re a great thing, but the things we were told we were going to put up with are just not true.”
British Petroleum, who purchased Greenlight Energy, proposed a 200-250 MW expansion in 2007. The expansion, labeled Elk River II, would be located farther south in Cowley and Elk Counties, neither of which are in the “Heart of the Flint Hills” region. However, there has been little to no activity on the part of BP or any opposition groups since 2007, indicating that the project may be at a standstill.
Figure 3, 4: Elk River, before and after
Since its completion, the Elk River project has become infamous among wind opposition groups worldwide. An anonymous “before and after” aerial photo of the project circulates on many anti-wind websites. This image juxtaposes a pre-project scenic, green pastoral landscape with a post-project image of a landscape dominated by wind turbines that stretch as far as the eye can see. The “after” picture also shows signs of environmental damage, with large ruts extending next to some of the roads. The pictures were posted by a Protect the Flint Hills member on the photo-sharing website Flickr under the title “Raping Wild Kansas”. The text accompanying the photo claims that the developer has “demanded these photos be removed from websites.” Similar construction photos appear on the Protect the Flint Hills website.
While there seems to be community support or acquiescence for the Elk River Wind Project now that it is built, it is worrisome that the Kansas wind siting policy calls for little public input in the process and minimal concern for recording visual and environmental impacts. Lawsuits were nearly the only way for opposition groups to enter the process, creating an intellectual and monetary barrier of entry to participation. The Flint Hills are an important national scenic and cultural resource. Despite the fact that the Flint Hills span millions of acres, this 8,000 acre wind development was seen as a significant mar on the landscape. Even though Butler County passed a zoning law in 2003 limiting the size, noise, and general location of wind farms, this has encouraged the development of wind in the other eleven Flint Hills counties, some of which have no zoning laws whatsoever.
The objection to the Elk River case from Protect the Flint Hills was unabashedly aesthetic, a position that many wind opponents have avoided taking on the grounds that it appears too superficial or subjective. Protect the Flint Hills seemed to value the countryside for both its environmental significance and the scenery visible from the highway. The Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie Heritage Foundation, rather, framed their concerns as primarily about wildlife and habitat issues. These concerns gave the Prairie Heritage Foundation more room to sue, whereas little grounds for an aesthetic lawsuit existed.
As wind opposition groups use the “before and after” photo of the Elk River project to reoutinely represent wind energy’s visual impacts, the picture will unfortunately not represent the policy failure that is hidden beneath the surface. Kansas stands at an important crossroad for new energy development. The lack of state wind siting guidelines may mean continued political stalemates about how and where new developments should proceed.
Full Bibliography top
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“Kansas governor announces deal on transmission lines.” Kansas City Star. June 1, 2009. http://www.wind-watch.org/news/2009/06/02/kansas-governor-announces-deal-on-transmission-lines/ (Accessed July 27, 2009).
“Kansas Wind Energy.” Kansas Energy Information Network, May 4, 2007. <http://www.kansasenergy.org/wind.htm>. (Accessed July 7, 2008).
“Meeting the Governor’s Wind Energy Goals: Projected Impacts on Scenic Areas of the State." Kansas Sierra Club, 2007. <http://kansas.sierraclub.org/Wind/GovWindGoalAnalysis.pdf>. (Accessed July 12, 2008).
“Protect the Flint Hills.”2008. <http://www.protecttheflinthills.org>. (Accessed July 07, 2008).
“Proposed and Existing Wind Projects in Kansas.” Kansas Energy Information Network. http://www.kansasenergy.org/documents/WindProjects.pdf (Accessed July 27, 2009).
“Wind and Prairie Task Force.” State Energy Resources Coordination Council, 2004. <http://kec.kansas.gov/wptf/sercc_wptf.htm>. (Accessed July 9, 2008).
Dietz, Brian. “Turbines vs. Tallgrass: Law, Policy, and a New Solution to Conflict over Wind Farms in the Kansas Flint Hills.” Kansas Law Review, October 20, 2006. <http://www.law.ku.edu/lawrev/dietz.pdf>. (Accessed July 13, 2008).
Hamm, Steve. “Wind: The Power, the Promise, the Business.” Business Week, July 3, 2008. <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_27/b4091046392398.htm>. (Accessed July 9, 2008.)
McCormick, Mark. “Flint Hills don’t need propellers.” The Wichita Eagle, February 20, 2005. p1B.
McCormick, Mark. “Turbines are fine, but why on my prairie?” The Wichita Eagle, November 26, 2005. <http://www.windaction.org/opinions/535>. (Accessed July 10, 2008).
O’Toole Buselt, Lori. “Butler Co. wind farm moves ahead.” The Wichita Eagle, December 16, 2004. 1A.
O’Toole Buselt, Lori. “Project could span 8,000 acres of prairie.” The Wichita Eagle, March 26, 2003. 1B.
Figure 1 - “Protect the Flint Hills.”2008. <http://www.protecttheflinthills.org>. (Accessed July 07, 2008).
Figure 2 - Epp, Phil. "Artists against wind farms." <http://www.artistsagainstwindfarms.com/windfarms/phil-epp/phil-epp-poster.html> (Accessed July 30, 2008).
Figure 3, 4 - "Raping Wild Kansas - After the Elk River Wind Complex." <http://www.flickr.com/photos/prairiefireimaging/2072022783/> (Accessed July 30, 2008).
Last updated January 2012.
This work by Roopali Phadke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.