Standing near the corner of his property in southeastern Reno County, Nick Egli looked east and pointed to the proposed locations for several 500-feet-tall wind turbines.
Egli is standing on a grass airstrip he’s spent the last 10 years building. He pictures a few more homes, some hangars and, eventually, a residential community for pilots of small planes.
“If there’s turbines there, you’ve completely killed everything I’ve been working on the last 10 years,” he said.
It’s the latest of several projects NextEra has already completed in the state. And the company isn’t alone.
Businesses from all over the world have cashed in on Kansas’ abundant wind in the past decade. Most projects went up without much fanfare.
But stiff opposition facing the Reno County project has raised some anxiety in the industry as companies consider its implications for future development.
Over the past 4 years, NextEra Energy signed deals with Reno County landowners to plant giant wind turbines on their property. It’s one step in a long process that needs a go-ahead from county officials.
Developers chose this part of Reno County because it has plenty of wind, it’s close to transmission lines that transport the electricity to places that need it, like Wichita, and it had enough willing landowners.
“Farming has not been an especially lucrative income producer,” Randy Jackson told the planning commission during one of several hours-long public hearings. “To continue to own our property, we need to take advantage of every income potential we have.”
But Jackson was among the few to speak in support, and most of those were landowners benefitting from the project.
The majority of speakers voiced their opposition.
“We could have chosen to live anywhere but we chose to live here,” Matt Amos said. “Had I known that this was going to happen, I would have not have chosen to live here.”
One after another, the stream of voices filled the conference hall.
“Why is this wind farm being built so close to concentrated populations of people and wildlife?” Darcy Gray of Andale asked. “I’m not opposed to wind energy, but the location does not make sense.”
Nick Egli also spoke at the hearing. But he ultimately blames his neighbors who signed leases, not county officials.
He recalled what one of his neighbors told him.
“He said, ‘Well, I’m going to make $4,500 a quarter,’” Egli said. “Really? That’s what you’re selling me out for?”
Egli isn’t against renewable energy. He’s actually an electrician and has installed solar panels on the roof of the house he’s building. It will provide him with enough electricity that he won’t need to connect to the grid.
He just wants what he calls sensible setbacks.
A setback is the distance a wind turbine has to stand from something, like a property line, road, or house. Egli thinks that if turbines are placed 3,000 feet away from the property lines of people who didn’t lease their land to NextEra, it would resolve concerns about noise and shadows.
But while he calls it sensible, a 3,000-foot setback from property lines would be the largest in the state. That type of setback in Kansas typically runs about 500 feet.
Setbacks have been a sticking point from the beginning, including for the Reno County planning commission. After failing to reach a consensus, the commission rejected the proposal.
He said this is the first project in the state he’s ever seen rejected by a county planning commission. Previously, if projects got enough landowners to sign leases, it was generally a sign the community was on board.
A decade and a half ago, local officials did stop a wind farm in Waubansee County. It created a controversy that led to a case that went all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court. But the trend has been decididly more pro-wind since.
While the decision in Reno County was unexpected, Peterson doesn’t think it’s a sign developing future wind projects is going to get harder in Kansas.
“It may be new to these portions of the state,” he said, “but we develop as an industry in many communities that are very similar.”
And NextEra’s Reno County project isn’t dead yet. The three-member county commission has the final say and will take up the issue June 11.
Like the landowners who support the project, Reno County stands to gain financially from its approval. Tax revenue from the turbines will generate as much as $39 million over the next 30 years.
But for those still opposed, it’s about more than just what the county will gain. It’s about what they could lose — a quiet home on a lonely prairie.
“I’m going to be able to tell our kids that I did everything I could,” Egli said, “before I had to sell our place I built for generations.”
This story has been updated to include a previous case of opposition.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment and energy for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org.
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