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Wind farms are transforming the Kansas landscape. Here's an effort to tone down their lights

 Red lights shine atop turbines in Gray County.
Brian Grimmett
Kansas News Service
Red lights shine atop turbines in Gray County.

Kansas has nearly 4,000 turbines, many taller than the Statue of Liberty. People see blinking lights for miles, but now radars can help preserve the night skies.

Wind farms continue to spread across Kansas — but with new features that will tone down the way they interrupt wide open skies with red, blinking lights visible for miles and resented by many rural residents.

This year, Kansas will get its first two wind farms designed to produce less light pollution — High Banks north of Concordia and Sunflower Wind Farm about an hour west of Emporia. Meanwhile, state lawmakers are considering a law to make other wind farms follow suit.

A few states, such as North Dakota and Colorado, blazed the trail in recent years by adopting similar rules.

But Kansas, which ranks fourth in the U.S. for wind power, would be the biggest wind energy-producing state to mandate light mitigation.

Wind turbines haven’t just exploded in numbers, they’ve grown ever taller. Since 2016, 400 new turbines have gone up in Kansas with rotor hubs taller than the Statue of Liberty.

The state now has nearly 4,000 turbines, with hubs between 210 and 400 feet high.

The 233 turbines of High Banks will start rotating in December, becoming the highest-capacity wind farm in the state. With recently secured federal approval, the project will also rein in night-time lighting, a quality of life issue for people who live nearby.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Billy Wilkins, the High Banks project manager for NextEra Energy Resources, the country’s top wind and solar producer. “We try to understand, at least, what the community is asking.”

Commissioners in Republic and Washington counties urged the company to do its best to preserve the night sky with radar-activated lights that stay off except when aircraft approach, and NextEra agreed.

In the future, all Kansas wind farms may sport such lights. Wherever allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration, turbines would go largely dark. That would transform the night-time view in areas such as southwest Kansas, where red lights dot the landscape for miles upon miles.

Last week, the Kansas Senate passed a bill nearly unanimously to make light mitigation steps a legal requirement. The House has yet to consider the matter.

NextEra Energy Resources says High Banks — the first wind farm in Republic and Washington counties — will be capable of generating as much as 600 megawatts. That’s enough electricity to power more than 240,000 homes.

Federal records indicate it will have more power-producing capacity than any wind farm in the state, outpacing the three-county, 470-megawatt Flat Ridge 2 project built by BP and Sempra southwest of Wichita with 294 turbines that came online in 2012.

Sunflower Wind Farm in Marion County will produce up to 200 megawatts. Orsted, the company building it, expects to turn on the turbines by the end of this year.

Turning off the lights

Turbines have lights on them for the same reason as cellular towers and other tall objects. They pose a risk to airplanes — particularly smaller ones that fly closer to the ground.

But technology gaining ground in the U.S. and other countries uses radar to scan for aircraft. Called an aircraft detection lighting system, or ADLS, it flips on the lights like a giant, coordinated motion detector.

Germany will require all offshore wind farms in its territory to install aircraft-detecting systems by the end of this year. It gained its first offshore wind farm with such a system last year.

Companies building wind farms in the U.S. must secure approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to install the technology.

The lights need to start blinking by the time an aircraft flies within 3 nautical miles (3.45 miles) of a turbine and within 1,000 feet above a wind farm’s highest point.

The FAA reviews every turbine individually. In a wind farm with 100 turbines, the agency could approve 99 turbines for light mitigation, for example, but require traditional all-night-long blinking lights for one turbine located near a hill that poses line-of-sight challenges.

For both High Banks and Sunflower Wind Farm, the FAA approved light mitigation for all turbines.

In Kansas, state senators held an informational hearing last fall and bill hearings last month on whether to require light mitigation. The Senate voted nearly unanimously to make wind farms apply for FAA approval and then follow through for all turbines approved by federal regulators.

The bill would apply not just to future wind farms, but to those already up and running.

Operators of existing turbines would not have to act immediately. Instead, they would need to seek FAA approval to install the new technology whenever their next contracts with utilities and other power-purchasers take effect.

Rural residents sick of the red lights or worried that wind farms will inevitably reach their areas are urging lawmakers to act.

Bonnie Rasmussen of Frankfort wrote to senators that she fulfilled a dream a decade ago by building a house “away from the noise and lights of the big city.”

“There I enjoyed the morning sunrises and evening sunsets and the moon and stars of the night,” she said. “Now I am almost surrounded by blinking red lights from evening until way past sunrise. I have only one window which does not look out upon a sea of red blinking lights.”

Stan Basler, of Galesburg, said the noise and lights of turbines in Neosho County “has, to a degree, transformed rural living into industrial park living.”

Mike Kolman, of Cuba, near the under-construction High Banks, wrote that the lights — and daytime shadow flicker caused by turbine blades — will undercut quality of life there and compel folks to stay indoors more.

Wind farm controversies

Radar-activated lights are “a very effective tool for mitigating one of the objections, at least, to wind farm development, which is the aesthetics,” Jeff Schleicher, director of wind energy services at Terma Inc., told Kansas lawmakers at the hearing last fall.

And that’s why some developers install the systems even in states that don’t require it.

Red lights on turbines dot the night sky near Spearville in southwestern Kansas.
Brian Grimmett
Kansas News Service
Red lights on turbines dot the night sky near Spearville in southwestern Kansas.

Terma is one of just two companies that sell light-mitigation systems for wind farms.

The other is DeTect Inc., the company equipping High Banks.

Jesse Lewis, a senior vice president at DeTect, told lawmakers that a light-mitigation system costs $1 million to $2 million for a typical wind farm.

The Kansas News Service tried to verify with the FAA whether any existing wind farms in Kansas use light mitigation. The FAA said diving into its files to answer that question would take a lot of time.

However, Terma and DeTect both say they do not have any systems up and running in Kansas today.

Night-time lights are just one of a litany of complaints about turbines from residents who don’t want wind farms near them.

Like other wind farms in Kansas, High Banks sparked debate in Republic and Washington counties and left some residents angry.

But hundreds of residents opted to lease their land. More than 300 landowners will provide the space for the wind farm, and more than 150 landowners for the related transmission infrastructure that NextEra will install in Republic, Washington and Marshall counties.

Construction began in December.

Environmental impact

Light pollution is increasingly recognized as a serious environmental issue, contributing to the decline of fireflies, songbirds, bats and other animals.

Yet the red lights on wind turbines dwarf in comparison to urban, suburban and other industrial light pollution, and do not appear to be a high priority among conservationists worried about the effects of increasingly bright nights on animals.

One environmental group, Audubon of Kansas, testified in favor of requiring light mitigation for wind farms based on some evidence that it could reduce wildlife fatalities.

“Both birds and bats can be attracted to wind energy facilities” because of their red lights, Audubon of Kansas executive director Jackie Augustine said. “No lights is better than blinking lights.”

Turbines also pose daytime environmental challenges, prompting The Nature Conservancy to create a map that encourages wind farm development in areas with less impact on threatened species and bird migration routes.

The Conservancy supports “the rapid expansion of renewable energy” to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

Other conservation groups take a similar stance, because climate change and other human impacts are already having catastrophic impacts on animal species globally.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen covers the environment for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.