Residents describe biggest wind farm

? From miles away on U.S. Highway 400, the 100 wind turbines of Butler County spring out of the fields like giant flowers that have lost their petals.

A closer view reveals how the 389-foot turbines dwarf nearby oil drills, water tanks and trees. Lounging cows are mere black, red and white dots underneath the turning blades.

And in the shadows of the towers – beneath the hum of the wind, the chirps of birds and the buzz of the motors – a subtle “whoop, whoop, whoop” sound comes from the turbines as they spin.

This is Kansas’ largest wind farm.

The Elk River Wind Project started operating in December 2005. The towers are just a few miles from the cluster of homes, a historic 1885 water tower and a bed-and-breakfast that make up the town of Beaumont. The electricity from the turbines goes to a Joplin, Mo.-based company and is estimated to supply power for about 42,000 households a year.

About a mile from the first turbine, at the bottom of the hill, is C.M. and Patricia Squier’s ranch. The Squiers – both past age 80 – say they can’t hear the turbines. They laugh when asked if they have noticed any health problems since the turbines started spinning.

“They are kind of fascinating when you watch them,” Patricia Squier said.

C.M. Squier, whose grandfather once owned much of the land that now houses the wind farm, said income from the turbines has saved a lot of ranches. Land owners can receive several thousand dollars a year for having the turbines on their property.

“I only wish I had some,” C.M. Squier said.

The turbines have brought more visitors down the stretch of gravel road. The barbed wire fence lining the road has signs encouraging people to stop and gaze at the wind farm, but warns them not to trespass.

Linda Pechin, assistant manager of the Beaumont Hotel, said business has increased since the turbines went up. Restaurant patrons request to dine near windows facing the turbines; a stack of fact sheets about the towers sits in the corner of the cafe.

But her husband, Scott Pechin, is quick to point out that the new tourist attraction hasn’t done all that much for the rest of the community. He said if there was a next time around in the government approval process, he would argue for more benefits to Beaumont.

Particularly vexing, he said, is when the town’s power goes out – as it often does during thunderstorms – and the turbines keep spinning, continuing to ship the power out of state.

“Each (turbine has) enough power for 300 to 500 houses,” Scott Pechin said. “We get to look at them in the dark.”