Wind energy proponent says Senate bills would kill development in Kansas

‘There’s a series of bills here, all taken together to do the same goal, which is to end renewable energy,’ says a renewable energy attorney

By: - January 28, 2022 11:56 am
Gov. Laura Kelly said construction of Inevergy’s new Grain Belt Express transmission line to carry wind-driven electricity to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana can create about 1,000 permanent jobs in Kansas. This image is of Evergy's Flat Ridge Wind Farm near Medicine Lodge. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

Evergy’s Flat Ridge Wind Farm, near Medicine Lodge, is one of the utility’s sources of renewable energy. Bills before the Kansas Senate would make developing wind energy impossible, the industry says. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Wind and solar farms would be banned in more than half of Kansas counties — and made nearly impossible in the rest — under a trio of bills heard by legislators this week.

One of the bills would require leases presented to landowners to come with a message in 16-point font urging them to hire a lawyer. One would deem projects “abandoned” if construction doesn’t commence within three years. The last would ban wind and solar farms on any land not zoned for industrial use — forcing 60 Kansas counties to consider zoning if they want to allow wind development.

And it would require wind developers to get a permit before they file signed leases with the county. But according to a renewable development attorney, a developer can’t get that permit until they’ve leased the ground.

“So there’s a bust here that I think is intentional,” said Alan Claus Anderson, vice chairman of Polsinelli’s energy practice group in Kansas City. “Maybe it’s accidental. Either way, it makes the person’s ability to lease the land impossible.”

The trio of bills, all offered by Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican, were heard by two Senate committees this week. A handful of landowners in rural Kansas supported the bills while the renewable development industry urged lawmakers not to move forward.

“There’s a series of bills here, all taken together to do the same goal, which is to end renewable energy,” Anderson said.

Thompson told committee members Kansas needed more transparency around industrial wind and solar development, claiming wind energy developers target unzoned counties and use “tactics that are secretive” to obtain leases to build their wind turbines.

“We’re not saying we can’t do these facilities,” Thompson said. “We’re just saying these communities are being so severely impacted that they need to know about it and at least have a chance to negotiate or push back.”

He echoed a refrain commonly employed by critics of wind facilities — yes, landowners who want a turbine on their property have the right to do so, but nearby landowners’ property rights are infringed by intrusive development.

“It would be the same as saying, ‘I want to shoot my gun at your property, but the bullet just magically stops at the property line,’” Thompson said. “It’s a health and safety risk.”

The bill requiring that land be zoned for industrial use before a wind project is built would also allow adjoining landowners to stop that rezoning. If 10% of the contiguous landowners sign a petition, it would go on the next general election ballot.

If a project is deemed abandoned after three years, a developer would have to file a plan with the county for construction. Otherwise, landowners could terminate their leases.

But Anderson said it takes longer than three years to complete the necessary studies, including those required by the regional grid, the Southwest Power Pool, to start construction. Developers have to have control of the site to get that done.

“So it creates, by the nature of the terms of this, an impossibility,” Anderson said. “So what does that mean? That means that these people cannot contract because companies will say, ‘I can’t work in this regime. We’re out.’ ”

Kansas has seen an explosion of wind generation in recent decades. At the end of 2020, it had the fourth-largest capacity for wind generation, with more than 7,000 megawatts. Wind makes up more than 40% of the state’s electrical generation.

To build wind farms, developers lease ground for turbines from farmers. They often tout the economic benefits of wind production for rural towns and counties and have offered additional funds for community projects.

But some rural neighbors who either aren’t offered leases or turn them down have regarded the turbines, often hundreds of feet tall with blades that extend even farther, as nuisances.

“Some people end up surrounded by these turbines with flashing lights, the noise, the health issues,” Thompson said.

Claims of adverse health effects are not widely supported by scientists.

Don Lueger, of Nemaha County, said there was ground leased in his community within a mile of St. Benedict where the historic St. Mary’s Catholic Church draws visitors.

He said the Soldier Creek wind farm nearby in the county was opposed by much of the community but forced on the area. His son plans to build a house on part of the family’s land but fears turbines could be placed nearby.

“To think that placing a turbine that close isn’t infringing on our property rights is ludicrous,” he said. “Something has got to change.”

Property rights 

Proponents of the bills, skeptics of industrial wind development, argue developers push projects on rural communities, signing up farmers’ ground before nonparticipating landowners know what’s happening.

“I believe (the bills) are absolutely mandatory to establish a broader scope of state regulations that protect landowners from lopsided tenant or industrial energy developer agreements that place excessive risk on trusting and again, if not naive, Kansas landowners,” said Bill Scopp, of Linn County.

Scopp said he has spent his career in equipment and leasing and reviewed a lease offered in Linn County that he believed unduly benefited the developer at the expense of landowners’ rights. Scopp did not say whether he had ever been offered the opportunity to lease his land to a wind developer.

He complained that wind developers could tie up land for years with a sign-on bonus before farmers receive monthly payments from the wind farm.

Beverly Kavouras, of McPherson County, said developers “prey on” unzoned counties, though various developers attempted to establish five wind projects in McPherson County, which is zoned. McPherson County instituted a moratorium on wind development.

And while landowners without wind turbines say the projects infringe on their right to enjoy their rural property, restricting the ability for landowners who want to lease to developers is an assault on their freedom to contract.

Anderson called it a “pretty remarkable” one.

“The end result of this bill does end the ability for landowners to contract, use their property rights and participate in commerce as they deem fit with their land,” Anderson said.

The Kansas Association of Counties called the proposal to only allow wind farms on land zoned for industrial use an “assault on local control” because it would force unzoned counties that are interested in wind development to go through the expensive, time-consuming process of developing zoning. And the bill offers no funds for that.

Kimberly Gencur Svaty, public policy director for the Advanced Power Alliance, said she and her husband, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Svaty, had purchased ground with a wind lease already on it. They also negotiated successfully over months with an energy company for a wind farm. On another piece of ground, they opted not to lease for wind.

She took “umbrage with an individual calling many landowners trusting and naive.”

“I am so proud of my land,” Gencur Svaty said. “It’s not something that I ever thought that I was going to get to own. … It’s really been one of the greatest joys of my life, so I don’t treat any interactions with my ground and my property lightly.”

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.