Opinion

This is how Kansas can be a climate leader, thanks to our unique prairie ecosystem

January 4, 2022 3:33 am

A partially melted tire hangs on a tree near Paradise, Kansas. The surrounding land was scorched by a wildfire in December 2021. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Susan Alig is a native prairie enthusiast, mother of two young sons and a team leader with the Kansas City chapter of Mothers Out Front, a group advocating for solutions to climate change on behalf of the next generation.

They say nothing focuses the mind like a hanging. If that’s true, events in December should have Kansans focused on climate change.

First, Dust Bowl conditions made an unwelcome return to Kansas, with high winds and drought transforming precious western top soil into dust clouds that closed I-70, blew over semi trucks and arrived in Kansas City as grimy raindrops. Second, wildfires coated the iconic prairie town of Russell in ash and char at a time of year when there should be windswept snow instead. Third, opponents of a proposed solar farm in Johnson County achieved planning and zoning restrictions likely to harm the project, while Reno County banned all new wind projects.

Kansas is making a huge mistake by blocking clean energy projects. Climate change is coming for us, and this is our moment to lead. Not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because we would benefit from it. The solution to climate change is simple: We need to produce energy without burning fossil fuels, and we need to take carbon from the air and put it in the ground. The only questions are how long it will take and who will lead. By helping the prairie help us, Kansas can make itself a key player in the future of energy.

As a prairie state, Kansas is perfectly positioned to produce energy without burning fossil fuels and take carbon from the air and put it in the ground. The energies of the future are wind and solar. Prairie states like us have a lot of … you guessed it: wind and sun.

As a prairie state, Kansas has abundant opportunity for sun and wind energy production. (Mischa Keijser/Getty Images)

Kansas is in the top five windiest states and the top 10 sunniest states, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. We’re already the breadbasket of America; let’s be the new Permian Basin, too. The Midwest plains could generate $15 billion dollars of revenue from wind energy and $7 billion dollars from solar. Revenue from renewables will soon match or surpass revenues from corn, soybeans, and beef.

Kansas cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

The prairie also perfectly positions Kansas to sequester carbon. Prairie plants’ intricate root systems can sequester carbon for a thousand years. Agricultural techniques like no-till and permaculture can leave carbon in the soil instead of releasing it into the air. Native prairie restoration projects can share the same land as solar or wind installations. Such restoration projects have the added benefits of enhancing biodiversity and beauty. 

Kansas should be innovating ways to use the prairie to put carbon back in the ground and it should be legislating and advocating for monetary rewards in the form of carbon offset credits. The world’s attention is currently on tree-planting: Kansas should demonstrate the value of native grasslands in removing carbon at the same time we produce clean energy for the nation.

Everyone and every level of government has a part to play in this transition. The state should pass solar and wind energy friendly legislation and regulation. It should enable the formation of community choice power groups, which would incentivize development of clean power generation by adding competition to the energy market. Local governments should welcome solar and wind generation facilities instead of regulating them out of existence. Individuals should resist the urge to automatically oppose energy projects in their communities and instead work to make the projects better by adding requirements for native plantings on site.

Kansas has a deep cultural memory of human-made ecological catastrophe, though many of us don’t realize that’s what the Dust Bowl was. Plowing the prairie and exterminating the buffalo caused apocalyptic dust clouds and widespread suffering.

Unchecked climate change will be worse. After the dust clouds and fires of December, we must focus on the ways we can solve this crisis and make a better future for our state. This is our wake-up call. It’s time for this prairie state to get back to our roots and help the prairie help us be a climate leader.

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Susan Alig
Susan Alig

Susan Alig is a lifelong Kansan. She received degrees in history and law from the University of Kansas, where she worked in the archives at the Dole Institute of Politics. She is a native prairie enthusiast, mother of two young sons and a team leader with the Kansas City chapter of Mothers Out Front, a group advocating for solutions to climate change on behalf of the next generation.

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