Wind farm construction generates controversy in Butler County

? Construction work has begun on one of the state’s first wind farms and Butler County residents are wondering whether the project will help save area ranches, or be an environmental and financial disaster.

Four ranchers have leased 8,000 acres of tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills to PPM Energy, a U.S. subsidiary of ScottishPower, to build a 150-megawatt Elk River Wind farm. The $190 million project involves 100 wind turbines, expected to generate enough electricity for 42,000 homes.

The electricity will be purchased by The Empire District Electric Co., in Joplin, Mo., which will sell it to customers in Missouri.

Although two lawsuits are trying to stop construction, 22 miles of roads have been built and work has begun on towers that will hold the wind turbines.

Clinton Squier, whose family has ranched in the area for decades, has watched the construction three miles down the road.

“I just wonder if it’s going to work,” said Squier, 84. “Nothing like this has ever happened around here before. I hope it makes some money.”

“It could save a lot of ranches,” added his wife, Patricia.

Marce Brewer, a member of the Butler County Economic Development Board, believes the wind industry will help ranchers.

“Some of these ranches around Beaumont have been in the same families for a hundred years,” she said. “This could help them keep their ranches.”

But critics say the wind farm will ruin one of North America’s largest remaining tracts of tallgrass prairie, and won’t benefit anyone but the companies building it and selling electricity.

“This project will become the poster child of how not to be good stewards of a tallgrass prairie,” said Ron Klataske, director of Audubon of Kansas.

“They are going to destroy an intact prairie that is twice as large as Prairie State Park in Missouri,” he said. “A Missouri company would never think of planting 50 or 100 towers in that park, destroying the integrity of that area. It’s as if the prairies in Kansas have no value.”

Klataske also said the wind farm will pay no property taxes to the school district, the county or the state. Westar Energy, a Topeka-based utility, convinced the Legislature 15 to 20 years ago not to tax renewable energy so it could build two wind turbines as an experiment, he said. He said such projects also will receive more than $100 million in federal tax exemptions in the next 10 years.

“These projects are primarily built for tax credits,” he said “There are now scores of proposals to build industrial-scale projects using this exemption.”

Will Johnson, Butler County administrator, said even the county commission was split on the project, with some believing it could create jobs and make money for landowners, but others disagreeing with the state tax exemptions.

The county is getting nothing from the project other than the repair of the roads that the trucks are ruining as the project advances.

John Hueston, manager of the project for PPM, said the wind farm should be complete by November or December.

“It’ll take a year or two to get the numbers out of it in terms of production,” he said. “We could recover the costs in seven to 10 years.”

Hueston said the wind-power industry was gathering momentum in the U.S. and Kansas should profit from it because it has favorable conditions for wind-to-energy conditions.

Pilots from Wichita, which is 45 miles west of Beaumont, fly in and taxi their planes on the town streets to park next to the Beaumont Hotel.

“Last weekend, we had 60 aircraft here and about 100 looky-looks,” said Jenny Rodrigues, manager of the hotel. “The wind farm, we hope, could become a tourist attraction for us.”

She said about 85 percent of the local residents support the project because it benefits property owners and its renewable energy. The 15 percent who oppose it are mostly not from the area, she said.

“Some people question why they should build a wind farm in this state to sell electricity to another state – let Missouri build their own wind farms,” she said.