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Green energy firms face new push in Kansas to restrict them

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Brian Grimmett
/
KMUW

Green energy companies and environmentalists are fighting renewed efforts in the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature to impose stricter limits on wind turbines and solar farms.

TOPEKA — Green energy companies and environmentalists are fighting a revived push in the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature for stricter limits on wind turbines and solar farms in a state where renewable resources account for nearly half the capacity for generating electricity.

Two Senate committees held hearings Thursday on bills backed by a key conservative lawmaker and landowners upset with wind turbines going up near their homes. Wind energy officials said the proposed rules would be so strict that no new wind or solar farms could be built in Kansas.

The measures are pushed by Senate Utilities Chair Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican who questions whether wind and solar farms can provide a reliable power supply. Thompson advocated such restrictions last year but stirred up enough opposition that his push ended with hearings.

Thompson argues that the proposals would protect landowners who decline to sign leases and would keep companies from becoming too aggressive.

“They always talk about the landowner who's willing to sign the lease. They never talk about the landowner who doesn't want it right next door,” Thompson said. “I'm worried about the people who are trying to go behind backs and get stuff done and it harms their neighbors.”

A bill before Thompson's committee would make it easier for landowners who've leased land for wind or solar farms to void those leases, particularly if there's no construction after three years. Another bill before the Senate Local Government Committee would set statewide zoning rules for wind and solar farms.

The Local Government Committee's hearing included testimony from a U.S. Department of Defense official who said statewide rules in Oklahoma had been helpful in preventing wind farm development from causing problems for military training activities.

And while the Kansas Livestock Association has qualms about tougher zoning rules in rural areas and limits for some landowners, lobbyist Aaron Popelka testified, “We do think this is a good discussion.”

“We do think some protections for nonparticipating landowners need to occur," he said.

But in advocating such proposals, Thompson is taking on what has become a major Kansas industry over the past 20 years.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewables such as wind and solar accounted for only 1.1% of the state's electricity generating capacity in 2002, while coal was the dominant energy source.

Those renewable resources have since supplanted coal as the largest source of generating capacity. Solar farms still provide relatively little power, but Evergy, the state's largest electric company, plans to make its first big investments before 2025.

Kimberly Svaty, who represents an alliance of renewable energy companies and investors, said Thompson and other backers of the bill are resorting to “scare tactics” about firms' activities when projects cannot move forward without willing property owners.

Rorik Peterson, a regional development director for the international firm EDP Renewables, noted that companies would be required to record leases with counties within 30 days but couldn't take that step without first getting building permits — which typically takes more than 30 days, he said. EDP has wind farms in three Kansas counties.

“The bill is effectively drafted to set up an impossible scenario for any project to move forward,” he said.