EL DORADO — No one in the Flint Hills of southeast Kansas will argue with the fact that it can get pretty windy.
But whether that wind should be harnessed by giant windmills to generate renewable energy is still a touchy subject.
Wind-generated electricity is considered friendly to the environment, compared with power generated by coal- or natural gas-fired plants. Air doesn't run out or require invasive drilling or mining -- and it's free.
Still, opponents say that putting up so-called "wind farms" in the region would at best spoil the view of the tallgrass prairie, and could even cause environmental harm.
"Audubon of Kansas favors the development of wind energy in appropriate areas," said Ron Klataske, executive director of the environmental group. "In the right place, it's a win-win situation. In the Flint Hills, everybody loses."
Three companies propose building in Butler County, a largely rural area containing a section of the Flint Hills.
Locations in southwest, western and central Kansas are also being scouted, and experts say that 10 or more wind farms eventually might be built.
"The wind industry has been growing very rapidly," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. "Kansas is, in a sense, overdue for all of this."
Developers typically spend $1 million or more for each windmill, called a turbine. A wind farm might contain 100 turbines, leading to a total cost of $100 million.
Farmers and ranchers benefit because they receive at least $2,000 a year in payments for each turbine they allow on their property.
But the farms can spawn disputes. On prairie like the Flint Hills, they can tear up pristine land, and 200-foot-tall turbines can destroy gorgeous vistas. In Butler County, public officials are sharply divided over whether to allow them.
Kansas over the years has been singled out as a leading place for wind farms.
Last year the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonpartisan citizen lobbying group, pronounced Kansas the No. 1 place in the nation for wind power when considering wind speeds, land use and the availability of transmission lines.
The dispute has pitted landowner against landowner, politician against politician. Even the welfare of prairie chickens, which don't like being near structures, has become an issue.
Little opposition greeted the first major wind farm near Montezuma in southwest Kansas near Dodge City.