TOPEKA — A Senate bill scheduled for public debate Monday would heap an unprecedented level of government regulation on Kansas’ thriving wind industry that in two decades attracted $14 billion in investment to a state economy struggling to find new opportunities for growth.
The measure is to be heard in the Senate Utilities Committee led by Republican Sen. Mike Thompson, a climate change denier and alternative energy skeptic who believes bad politics outmaneuvered good science on the environmental influence of burning fossil fuel. The committee’s bill would impose new obstacles to locating wind farms based on light, sound and distance metrics. The bill would raise legal issues in terms of property rights an by retroactively muddling contracts signed as far back as 2011.
Advocates of wind farms said Senate Bill 279 would prohibit growth of an energy resource celebrated by GOP Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer and praised by Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius, Mark Parkinson and Laura Kelly. Kansas has 41 operating wind farms and three under construction, but wind industry supporters said on the Kansas Reflector podcast that if the bill became law it would bring to a standstill a Kansas industry ranked fourth in the nation in terms of electricity generating capacity.
“It’s onerous. It’s anti-renewables. But it’s also anti-business and anti-investment in the state of Kansas,” said Kimberly Svaty, who works with the Advanced Power Alliance on behalf of clean energy policy in Kansas and 13 other heartland states.
Alan Anderson, an attorney with the Polsinelli law firm who represents energy developers, said the bill would derail wind projects and damage businesses established to build and maintain turbines and other electricity infrastructure. It would weaken control of wind development decisions by elected county commissioners by imposing a new set of mandated written by state legislators, he said.
“What it’s saying is, ‘In Topeka, we want to decide what people can do in Ford County or Thomas County or counties throughout the state related to their own use of land,'” Anderson said. “It would completely remove your ability to use your property rights for wind energy development. Period.”
The wind farms in Kansas haven’t arisen without controversy. At the county level, projects have been blocked or revised. It takes years, under the current system, to work through the regulatory process and complete agreements with landowners. Some people don’t want towering turbines and blinking lights in their line of sight. Others view turbines as an eyesore made more painful when the landowner profiting from the endeavor lives next door.
Thompson worked until 2018 as a Kansas City television weather forecaster and in 2019 founded the Academy for Climate and Energy Analysis, which was set up to amplify his perpectives on energy and the environment. He markets himself as a public speaker on the “climate change canard” and how “renewable wind energy blows smoke.”
“For over 20 years, the public has been subjected to a constant barrage of falsified, exaggerated and alarming claims about how man has altered the climate of this planet,” the senator said on his website. “The truth is far more complex than you might imagine. Unfortunately, public policy on virtually everything we do is being codified based on ‘sound-bite science.'”
Thompson also contends “green energy sounds appealing, until you find out how costly, inefficient and problematic it is. Wind farms drive up the cost of electricity, place property owners at risk and add to environmental problems.”
He also posed to social media assertions the February power outages in Texas were due to frozen wind turbines and worthless solar collectors. He said coal, nuclear and natural gas would “be our savior.”
“Expansion of renewables is dangerous for us going forward. We are putting too much reliance on sources that cannot meet our needs, especially in times like this. It is insanity,” Thompson said.
While Thompson and other politicians pointed to frozen turbines or solar panels as cause of the disaster in Texas, investigators believe the primary issue was inadequately winterized natural gas facilities. Federal regulators also warned a decade ago Texas power plants could fail in sufficiently frigid conditions. In addition, the decision by Texas to isolate itself from two national electric grids made it difficult on an emergency basis to funnel electricity there from Kansas and other states. The blackout disaster caused approximately $195 billion in damage.
Guts of bill
Under Senate Bill 279, otherwise known as the Wind Generation Permit and Property Protection Act, would establish the maximum concentration of turbines at one per square mile. The rule could greatly expand the size of wind farms.
The setbacks from each turbine to any residential property or public building would be 12 times the turbine’s height or 1.5 miles, whichever was greater. Turbines would be banned closer than 20 times the unit’s height or 3 miles, whichever was greater, from any public park or hunting area, federal wildlife refuge or airport. A turbine couldn’t be built within 1 mile of the property line of someone not in business with the developer.
Turbines would be equipped exclusively with navigational lights activated by infrared or radar technology used to detect nearby aircraft. In addition, turbines would be prohibited from generating noise levels in excess of 40 decibels.
Reports would have to quantify the level of “shadow flicker,” or shadows created when low-horizon sun shines through rotating blades, at each residence, educational facility, workplace, health care setting and outdoor or indoor public gathering area. Those reports would have to document flicker at occupied buildings and roads within 1 mile of any turbine.
Separate assessments would be required of the risk to public safety posed by falling ice, blade breakage and tower collapse. Those reports would outline measures taken to avoid those events and what steps were planned to deal with lightning strikes.
Plans would have to be produced for financing removal of wind turbines as well as all transformers, overhead power collection conductors, electric poles and underground infrastructure at depths of four feet or less.
Wind farm developers also would be required to deliver to landowners a document in 16-point type with the message: “This is an important agreement our lawyers have drafted that will bind you and your land for up to (blank) years. We strongly encourage you to hire a lawyer to explain this agreement to you. You may talk with your neighbors about the wind project and find out if they also received a proposed contract. You and your neighbors may choose to hire the same attorney to review the agreement and negotiate changes on your behalf.”
Anderson said county commissions already possessed authority to determine the course of wind development without state government adding to bureaucratic burdens. He said Ford County had six wind wind farms — about 15% of the state’s total — and the county commission wouldn’t have proceeded with expansion over the years if there hadn’t been community support.
“When they had the first project, they were able to look at that and decide: Should they do more?” he said. “They did a second. They did a third. They did a fourth. They did fifth. Certainly, in a republic such as ours, they would be able to vote in new commissioners that would go differently on that question. They haven’t. And the reason is because the positives are so significant.”
He said it would be no surprise if lawsuits were filed challenging implementation of the Senate bill, especially restrictions that didn’t provide due process or restricting use of property.
Retroactive regulations on leases signed a decade ago would appear contrary to the business certainty arguments of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Farm Bureau.
“Actually,” Svaty said, “it provides a lot of certainty if this piece of legislation were to move forward. I think every single developer … has said that they will not invest another dollar in the state of Kansas. That they won’t be able to make the business case to invest in the state of Kansas, and not just in wind, but in renewables in the future. Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa — they’re all going to be standing around and applauding because they are going to to pick up the slack of investment that Kansas would have otherwise received.”
Timing of the legislation is odd given market problems in the agriculture economy that led to a rash of Kansas bankruptcy filings, Svaty said. She’s not aware of any Kansas landowner with wind turbines on their property who has filed for Chapter 12 relief.
Svaty said laws attacking the viability of wind farms could trigger a domino effect of regulation on all sorts of industrial, manufacturing or transportation operations. It might inspire challenges to existing businesses based on odor issues that could jeopardize operation of feedlots, she said.
“At some point, you have to look at the precedent that this is going to set for other industries,” she said. “It becomes really difficult when you start going down the path of restricting things to outlandish levels.”