For nearly a decade, Cowley County worked with wind-energy companies to bring in a facility. Endless tests were run, leases obtained, bureaucratic hurdles cleared.
Scratch the project.
The wind farm was set for the northeast corner of the county. That falls squarely in the area that Gov. Sam Brownback has included in a voluntary agreement with wind companies to keep new turbines out of the Flint Hills.
“I can’t believe the governor would do that,” said Goff Searl, a commissioner in neighboring Chautauqua County, which also is included in the plan. “That’s economic development he just said no to.”
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“We don’t have plans for (a wind farm), and I’m not saying we’d do one. But denying someone’s right to do it, that’s not right,” he said.
Whether turbines should be in the Flint Hills — and it appears they mostly will not be — is part of the dialogue over how best to leverage the sprawling, environmentally sensitive tallgrass prairie that Brownback has called “an ecological jewel.”
Of the more than 400,000 square miles of tallgrass prairie that once covered North America, only about 4 percent remains, and most of that is in the Flint Hills.
The governor has his eye on economic development of a different kind: tourism. Tuesday, he’ll hold an economic summit on the Flint Hills. Among his ideas: expanding hiking, biking and horseback riding.
“We want to have it be the horseback-riding Sturgis of America,” he said earlier this year, referring to the annual South Dakota motorcycle rally.
He set the stage for the summit by announcing his plan for restricting wind-energy growth in the Flint Hills on May 6.
The plan has drawn support from conservationists, utilities and some Flint Hills ranchers, as well as the Wind Coalition, a Texas-based organization that includes all but one of the wind developers operating in Kansas.
But some county officials, legislators and landowners are irate that they weren’t consulted about the plan or even told about it. Some are concerned about closing off an economic development opportunity in their counties; others are concerned about property rights.
Last week, Cowley’s three legislators sent a joint letter of protest to Brownback. Cowley County Commission Chairman Gary Wilson even fired off two e-mails to President Obama to express concern.
“He probably won’t give me the time of day,” Wilson said, “but I’m outraged. I have to try to do something.”
Designated as the Tallgrass Heartland, the protected area covers nearly 11,000 square miles — more than double the size of the area first established in 2005 by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. It extends south to the Oklahoma border, west to include most of Butler County, north into Riley and Pottawatomie counties and east to Topeka and Burlington.
The plan is voluntary for wind companies and isn’t enforceable by the state, the companies and state officials agree. It took effect the day it was announced, needing no further approval from the Legislature or a state agency.
Existing wind farms and proposed ones that have an agreement to sell power to a utility are allowed to continue in the area. They won’t be allowed to expand, although existing transmission lines can be upgraded.
“What the governor has done is remove any confusion surrounding what is and what is not an environmentally sensitive area,” Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said.
Wind companies, which invest hundreds of millions of dollars in facilities, were sometimes confused about where they could go in Kansas. Brownback is clearly pointing them westward, where wind and space is plentiful.
“This issue has been debated for some time,” said Jeff Risley, director of Lawrence-based Climate and Energy Project, a nonprofit that supports wind energy and energy efficiency in the Midwest. “Now we can tell the world the rest of Kansas is open for business and wind development.”
Elk River Wind Facility, which has been in Beaumont in southeastern Butler County since 2005, is the only one of the state’s eight existing wind farms that operates within the area. It will remain, but won’t follow through on plans to expand by building 25 more turbines in nearby Elk County.
The Caney River Wind Project in Elk County won’t begin operation until next year. It can continue because it’s the only proposed facility that has an agreement with a utility to purchase power.
The revised protected area appears to affect only two or three proposed plants.
A second wind farm in Elk County, just east of Howard, won’t happen. Developer Gamesa Energy had paid for leases up through this summer, a county official said.
Marion County isn’t sure what’s going to happen with its early plans for a wind farm. Marion businessman Rex Savage obtained a conditional-use permit for the project from the county earlier this year. The site appears to be outside the west border, U.S. 77, but Savage said he would need more time to verify that.
There’s no doubt Cowley’s proposed site was inside the protected area. The news upset county officials, who thought they were close to getting the project done.
BP Wind Energy needed only to obtain a power purchase agreement with a utility and it would start building, allowing the area’s economy to breathe some fresh air.
“Times are tough,” said Wilson, the commission chairman. “Out here, it would be a boon to the local economy.”
Wind farms have a varying economic impact.
For Cowley, there would have been early construction wages, plus annual licensing fee payments of up to $500,000 and lease payments. That would have turned over three to five times in money spent in the county, Wilson said.
Kansas has exempted wind farms from paying property taxes. So some companies try to make themselves attractive to counties by agreeing to make “gift” payments in lieu of those taxes.
For Elk County, Caney River Wind will make an annual payment of nearly $1æmillion to the county the first year of operation and increase it 2æpercent each year for 20 years, County Commissioner K.R. Liebau said. That’s nearly a third of the county’s existing budget of $2.8æmillion.
“I appreciate the awesome look of the Flint Hills,” said Liebau, a rancher, “but we are a very, very poor county. This can do nothing but help the county. I’m in favor of expanding the one we’re getting someday, but Brownback has kind of put a nix on that.”
Elk River Wind’s economic impact for Butler County is minimal.
Because Butler has zoning regulations covering the entire county, it can’t collect licensing fees, county administrator Will Johnson said. But Iberdrola Renewables, the Oregon-based owner of the facility, will give the county $150,000 annually for 15 years. It has the choice to stop that gift at any time.
An economic impact study of the wind farm hasn’t been done because it employs only six to eight people and most of its products and equipment are purchased from out of the area, Johnson said.
Left out of the loop
Loss of money isn’t the only reason Cowley folks are angry about the turn of events.
Being left out of the loop on changes for the restricted area is particularly galling to them.
“We’re disappointed that a decision like that was made without any awareness by us or an opportunity for us to be at the table for discussion,” said county administrator Leroy Alsup. “I don’t think anyone can buy into that process.”
Cowley County rancher Jerry Ashenfelter had about 1,300 acres leased to BP Wind Energy on the west edge of the project. Even though it appeared installation of turbines wouldn’t extend to his property, he said, “I’m very upset with our governor.”
“For him to come in and make this decision, kind of off the cuff, not really considering anyone here, not even mention it to county officials, I can’t understand that,” Ashenfelter said.
County officials in Morris, Marion, Elk, Butler and Chautauqua counties also told The Eagle they weren’t consulted. Some weren’t aware of the change until an Eagle reporter called last week.
Asked why Brownback didn’t consult with local landowners and county officials, spokeswoman Jones-Sontag said in an e-mail that county commissioners weren’t contacted. She didn’t respond to a request for a further explanation.
Cowley’s legislative delegation also didn’t know about the plan until after the fact. That prompted Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, and Reps. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, and Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, to send a letter to Brownback that said excluding county officials “appears to fly in the face of the concept of open and transparent government.”
Brownback, wind companies and coalition officials all acknowledged they have had discussions with one another in recent months about increasing the restricted area.
In fact, shortly after being approached about the change by Brownback in early February, Wind Coalition executive director Paul Sadler said he encouraged the governor to talk to the companies individually so specific issues could be worked out.
For RES Americas, a Colorado-based company in the process of developing the Reading Wind project in northeast Lyons County, it meant reaching an agreement with the governor to swing the boundary line slightly so its project would fall outside the revised box.
If Brownback hadn’t reached out to the coalition, Sadler said he probably would have told the governor to take his plan to the landowners for discussion.
“Property rights is a legitimate concern,” said Sadler, a former Texas state legislator whose coalition has 38 members in an eight-state area that includes Kansas. “We’re sensitive to that.
“But I’m very appreciative that Brownback called and extended the offer to sit down and talk with us. You don’t always get that.”
‘A cooperative endeavor’
Sadler said it’s in the coalition’s best interest to cooperate with Kansas. That’s why he sees no problem with companies respecting the voluntary plan.
“I won’t lie,” Sadler said. “It makes it easier if you have a relationship with the leadership of the state. Kansas is pro-wind development, encouraging wind development. We’d much rather deal with that through a cooperative endeavor than to be hostile and fight over every single thing.
“If we were in a state that said, ‘Get out of here,’ I wouldn’t even consider talking to them. But Kansas has been a state that has great natural resources and has put in place policies that encourage wind development. Under those circumstances, we’re more than happy to support (Brownback).”
All eight states the coalition covers have voluntary restricted areas, including Texas’ Hill Country just west of the Austin area, Sadler said.
“It’s not as formalized line or in a box (like in Kansas),” he said of the Hill Country, “but we’ve honored that agreement.”
Butler County sees no reason it would buck Brownback’s call for voluntary restraint, particularly since getting Elk River Wind produced so much controversy and a court fight.
“First, we haven’t had anyone knocking on our door to build one,” said Mike Wheeler, who has been a commissioner since 2003. “We went through torture to get it done the last time. Why wouldn’t someone go to western Kansas where you’d be welcomed with open arms?”
The Cowley project
It’s not clear what would have happened with Cowley County’s wind farm if the protected area hadn’t been expanded.
Some county officials and landowners said they were told by BP Wind Energy that it was close to getting a power-purchase agreement from a utility.
Some are convinced Brownback persuaded BP to cancel the project. Jones-Sontag said that’s not the case.
“We won’t speculate on why BP is choosing to build one place or another,” she said.
Karl Pierce, BP’s business development director who oversaw the Cowley project, said his company was on the verge of pulling out even before Brownback’s plan came out.
“I think there were probably already a few nails in that coffin,” Pierce said. He said BP had tried to get a power-purchase agreement since it took over the project in 2006 and still wasn’t close to getting one.
Two of the larger leases on the 30,000-acre project had expired in December and January.
“We were trying to decide what to do about the leases,” Pierce said. “We were in that decision mode anyway. Then this (expanded restricted area) came up and helped us make our decision.”
All that doesn’t make it easier for Cowley and other counties that felt left out of not only the process but also a much-needed economic boost.
“I don’t like it that others can tell me what I can do with my property,” said Lawrence Jontra, an Elk County rancher and former county commissioner. “That’s like telling me I can’t plant an oak tree.”
Sadler said he understands the frustration.
“Ultimately the county officials and the legislators from that region are going to have to have input as well,” he said. “And justifiably so. Are there going to be people upset with the process in the meantime? Absolutely.”
Angry as he is, Alsup said, “Hopefully we can turn this into a positive and do something else.”