Wind energy debate in Kansas has natural allies at odds

Sunday, December 5th 2004, 3:15 pm
By: News On 6

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) _ Environmentalists and local preservationists seem natural allies in debates over clean energy, but they're split when it comes to bringing new wind turbines to Kansas' scenic Flint Hills.

Backers of wind-power projects see them as a way to generate electricity without burning coal or natural gas or splitting atoms. But critics contend allowing turbines to sprout will severely damage the nation's largest remaining swath of tallgrass prairie.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is in the middle of the debate, considering proposals to promote the development of wind farms in most of Kansas while protecting the prairie.

``Developing wind power is right,'' said Joe Harkins, the governor's top natural resources adviser. ``And preservation of a natural resource that has such great significance to the ecology and culture is right.''

The Flint Hills cover more than 6 million acres in eastern Kansas, stretching from the Oklahoma border to almost the Nebraska border, offering scenic and broad prairie vistas. There's also enough steady wind in places to attract developers.

And industry officials and watchers said technological improvements, allowing bigger, more efficient turbines, also have made wind power more attractive. Kansas' first wind farm, with 170 turbines in Gray County, operated by a Florida company, began operations in 2001.

J.W. Prairie Windpower, the Lawrence subsidiary of a German company, hopes to put 80 turbines in northern Morris County, with a generating capacity of 120 Megawatts, perhaps enough to supply 40,000 homes. It has leases with 30 landowners.

But Jennifer States, the company's managing director, said the project remains on hold because her company has yet to sign a contract with a utility to buy its potential power. States said one reason is Sebelius' cautious public statements on developing wind farms in the Flint Hills.

``I am an environmentalist,'' States said. ``I came to this because of my belief in nonpolluting resources.''

Last month, Sebelius called for restraint in turbine development in a 3-million-acre area identified by top advisers as ``The Heart of the Flint Hills.'' She wants developers and landowners to give counties a chance to put together guidelines for placing wind turbines.

Lee Allison, the governor's top energy adviser, said Sebelius also is considering proposals under which the state would purchase development rights from landowners in sensitive areas, giving those landowners a financial incentive to preserve the prairie.

Such ideas strike Rose Bacon, whose family has a ranch southwest of Council Grove, as good first steps. She'd like to see the state regulate the placement of turbines.

``The whole concept of the prairie and the Flint Hills is open spaces and broad expanses,'' she said.

But Bacon and others are concerned about more than how the turbine towers that rise hundreds of feet into the air will affect the view. They argue that construction of the structures and the roads to reach them will destroy native prairie.

``We have so little of the native grassland left,'' said Hoogey Hoogheem, an Ogden resident and past president of the Northern Flint Hills Audubon Society. ``We need to protect what we have here.''

Such talk rankles Dave Cosgrove, whose family farms and raises cattle north of Council Grove. He signed a lease with J.W. Prairie about a year ago, allowing the company to put up to 10 turbines on 600 acres, a deal that could net his operation $30,000 a year.

He said the ground the company chose is broken farm ground that already has transmission lines running through it.

Charles Benjamin, a Lawrence attorney who represents the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club and has done legal work for wind power companies, said such companies are naturally likely to locate towers near transmission lines, where the prairie already has been disturbed. Also, he said, the number of turbines will be limited by the capacity of the transmission lines themselves.

``There's kind of a mystery here, how this will ruin the Flint Hills,'' Benjamin said. ``Oil and gas exploration is going on. Cattle ranching is going on. Cell towers are out there.''

But Bacon worries that developers would want to put large numbers of turbines across the hills.

``We would not have a second chance to go back and redo this decision,'' she said.