Sedgwick County Commission pauses to consider alternative energy rules
What appears to be a plan to harvest clean energy in the Wichita area has been shut down — at least for the next 6 months — while county commissioners gather more information. But a bill introduced in the Kansas House might make the delay a moot point.
No one has applied for wind or solar farm permits in Sedgwick County, and most of the county is off-limits because of a buffer around airports. But several landowners on the outskirts of Wichita have leased their properties for the purpose of renewable energy development, especially at the border of Reno County, where the world’s largest utility company, NextEra Energy, is positioning itself to open a wind farm close to Cheney Reservoir.
House Bill 2273 would establish a state law to keep wind turbines away from homes, parks, public buildings, refuges or public hunting areas, like Cheney. The wind turbines would have to be at least 1.5 miles from any residential property or public building and 3 miles from any airport, local, state or federal wildlife refuge, public hunting area or public park.
If the bill passes, it would also require developers to submit detailed plans to county commissions and give a public notice of an application for a permit with detailed information, including the number and location of turbines. County commissions could also impose other reasonable conditions on the developers. The bill is scheduled for a hearing on the House floor on Tuesday.
NextEra would not confirm whether it has plans to move into Sedgwick County. The company has developments in 35 states, including at least six wind farms in Kansas, and plans to invest $40 billion in the United States over the next two years, according to its website.
Kansas has more than tripled its wind energy production since 2008, making it one of the top five producers in the country. It ranks second in energy potential, meaning there’s room to grow, according to the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Proponents of renewable energy say it can help curb the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. More than 100 active oil and gas wells produce more than 100,000 barrels of fossil fuel a year in Sedgwick County, but commercial renewable energy production has not taken hold in the area.
Others aren’t sold on the idea that large-scale renewable energy is a net positive.
Sedgwick County Commission Chairman David Dennis said the board was not taking a position by prohibiting any permits to alternative energy developers. The board needs more time to figure out how it will regulate renewable energy businesses, he said.
“If they do come in, we need to be ready,” Dennis said.
Dennis’s district includes most of the county’s renewable energy farm leases, and he said he’s been following the Reno County situation closely. He wants the commission to study how to regulate the farms after hearing several complaints from citizens who might be affected by the operations.
For some, the wind turbines are an eyesore, he said. Some worry the noise from the hundreds-of-feet-tall wind turbines could cause sleep deprivation. Could the flicker from the turbines turning in front of the sun cause epileptic seizures? What about planes? What about birds?
Local experts say a great deal of research has already been completed on the subject, and operations throughout the country have been successful. Most of those energy farms, however, have been set up in unpopulated areas. Any development in Sedgwick County would likely be in someone’s back yard.
Sedgwick County Concerns
Before the moratorium was imposed, wind and solar energy companies could have applied for a conditional use permit under existing “utility major” zoning requirements. The application would be reviewed by the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission before approval.
If a permit was given, a protest could be filed and the board of commissioners could then impose additional zoning standards tied to the permit, Dale Miller, director of the planning commission, advised the commission at a recent staff meeting.
“You could add whatever you think is appropriate, even if it isn’t specifically in the code,” Miller said.
Dennis, the chairman of the board, said he thinks the guidelines need to be clear and consistent before the permits are granted. He said he worries about the health effects, such as epileptic seizures, and noise from wind turbines.
From firefighters to county appraisers, Dennis said nearly every department in the county will have to learn how to manage wind and solar energy farms.
Wind mills 45 feet and shorter — like those an individual might have at their home or farm — are exempt from zoning requirements.
Adrienne Byrne, director of Sedgwick County Public Health Services, said there’s no conclusive evidence that wind turbines cause health problems, but they seem to “increase the risk of annoyance,” especially near homes.
The risk of seizures from large turbine blades flickering is “minimal,” Byrne said, as long as the blades aren’t reflective and rotate slower than three times a second.
Susan Erlenwein, director of Sedgwick County Environmental Resources, described renewable energy as being like a pharmaceutical commercial.
“It’s great for the first 10 seconds of the commercial and then the last 20 seconds show all of the bad side effects,” Erlenwein said.
The wind turbines kill hundreds of thousands of birds, including eagles and other raptors, and bats that fly into their blades, Erlenwein said.
Solar panels, Erlenwein said, could also confuse and kill ducks and geese.
“Some birds think the glare from those (solar panels) is water surface, and they’ll land on those,” Erlenwein said. “If they’re waterfowl, a lot of those need to run on the water surface to take off again, and they can’t do that on a solar panel, so they’ll die.”
What’s happening in Reno County
In December, the Reno County Commission voted against a moratorium that would have delayed NextEra Energy from getting a permit to open an 80-plus-turbine wind farm near Pretty Prairie.
NextEra applied for a permit on Thursday or Friday, a spokesman with the company said on Tuesday morning after this story was first published in print and online. The company and the public are expected to present their cases at a public meeting on April 4.
Matt Amos, who started the group Reno County Citizens for Quality of Life to keep county government accountable in its dealings with NextEra, said Sedgwick County is doing the right thing by putting regulations in place before any big companies move into the county.
Amos said his group is a grassroots organization made up of about 25 people who live around where a NextEra wind farm is planned in southeastern Reno County. Unlike some campaigns across the country, the Reno group does not receive contributions from the fossil fuel industry, Amos said.
The group worries about the health effects of wind turbines and how they might harm wildlife, like ducks, geese and bald eagles, near Cheney Reservoir. Its members also say NextEra will tear up Reno County roads and leave Reno County residents with the bill to fix them.
“It’s all about freedom and property rights. You’re free to do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t negatively affect the health of myself or my family,” Amos said. “We’re not anti-wind. We just want to make sure these companies pay their fair share and act responsibly and that our county also benefits from these deals.”
He and the other members of his group have been putting up signs around Reno County and attending public meetings, where they push for answers from local officials.
“These multi-billion-dollar companies want their operations to seem like they’re all bunnies and rainbows, but at the end of the day they’re going to go with the option that makes them the most money,” Amos said.
“There’s always a middle ground. That’s what we’re trying to fight for here (in Reno County),” Amos said. “It appears that’s what Segwick County is doing as well.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of fossil fuel produced in Sedgwick County.