By DUANE SCHRAG
Special to The Messenger
Of the 88 turbines planned for the Pretty Prairie Wind Farm in Reno County, nearly a fourth of them are within three miles of the Cheney Reservoir protected area – despite state guidelines that recommend no turbines be built in that zone.
Information about placement of turbines in the wildlife buffer zone emerged Thursday during the first phase of a public hearing prompted by an application from Florida-based NextEra Energy to build a 220 megawatt wind farm in southeast Reno County. The hearing, at the Atrium Hotel and Convention Center in Hutchinson, lasted nearly eight hours.
The Reno Planning Commission will resume the hearing at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the hotel, 1400 N. Lorraine.
During the developer’s presentation on Thursday, NextEra representatives said they worked closely with state officials to address problems the wind farm may pose to wildlife. Spencer Jenkins, the lead spokesman for NextEra, said the company was surprised by a letter dated April 2, from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, that raised several concerns about the project.
The letter said that nine turbines are to be built within the three-mile buffer zone.
However, a KDWPT map of the Cheney wildlife area shows 20 of the turbines are within three miles of the KDWPT-managed area around Cheney Reservoir. Some are less than two miles from the boundary.
A planning commissioner asked why the turbines are being placed within the buffer in spite of KDWPT recommendations.
“The buffer is recommended. It is not a rule or regulation. It is purely a recommendation,” Jenkins said. “The Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism was aware well in advance of where our turbine locations were, and I can say we would not have placed those turbine locations there if anything had come up in previous conversations that would indicate that that two-mile buffer we have put in was not adequate.”
In Kingman County, a NextEra wind farm is located south of the Byron Walker Wildlife Area; the closest turbine is three miles from the protected area.
Also in the letter, KDWPT noted that in a letter last year it had recommended a habitat assessment using methodology created by the Watershed Institute to determine areas with a higher potential to attract cranes. KDWPT pointed out the project site is within the migratory corridor for the federally- and state-listed Whooping Crane (Grus Americana) and the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane.
KDWPT wrote that, in a follow-up telephone call last month, it learned that the assessment still had not been done.
NextEra declined to provide any comment on the matter for this story.
“We will be addressing this issue at the hearing on Tuesday,” spokesman Conlan Kennedy said in an email.
The hearing drew several hundred people. NextEra was given an hour to explain its application, and then answer questions from the commission. County staff followed with their recommendation, which was in favor of issuing a conditional use permit.
Deciding the conditions to impose, should the permit be issued, remains a major task. Among those conditions:
– how to ensure roads and bridges are returned to their pre-project condition;
– compensation the county will seek on behalf of local governments to offset a state-mandated 10-year property tax exemption worth an estimated $56 million;
– how to structure a contract that ensures NextEra (or its successor) will take down wind turbines after they are no longer used.
Most of those who testified opposed the project. A recurring theme was that this project was unlike others in the state because the turbines will be placed in a more densely populated area.
According to block-level information from the 2010 Census, there is slightly fewer than one person for each turbine in the Kingman County wind farm. In Pratt County, there are even fewer people — one person for every two turbines in the wind farm west of Pratt, and one person for every three turbines in the wind farm east of Pratt.
In the proposed Reno County wind farm, there are more than three people for every turbine. The ratio of people to turbines in the Reno County project is more than three times higher than in Kingman County, and more than seven times higher than in Pratt County, according to the census data.
There simply are more people living closer together in southeast Reno County than in the areas where the other wind farms have been placed. The concentration of people in the footprint of the Kingman and Pratt County wind farms ranges from 1.0 to 1.7 people per square mile; in the Reno County footprint it is 5.5 people per square mile.
During NextEra’s testimony, the wind developer said there are about 3.5 households per section in the Reno County footprint, compared to 2 to 3 household per section in the Kingman and Pratt county projects.
The 2010 Census shows a much greater disparity. It shows 2.3 houses per section in the Reno County project area, 0.8 houses per section in the Kingman County project area (roughly one-third the density), and 0.6 houses per section in the Pratt County project area (roughly one-fourth the density).
Several questions were asked about the timetable for building the wind farm. A federal Production Tax Credit, now worth about $14.25 per megawatt hour, is available for 10 years but only if construction begins before 2020. For this project, the tax credit could be worth $12.4 million per year.
Jenkins told the commission that NextEra aims to have the wind farm completed and generating power before the end of 2019, and needs to start construction by July to meet that deadline.
“We do what is necessary to meet our deadlines,” he said.
Commissioners pressed NextEra about the reporting of data on the number of birds and bats killed by turbines, specifically what access the public might have to that information. Company representatives described the internal process for logging that information, but were not aware of any way the public might see it. They did say they report deaths of threatened or endangered species to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
NextEra monitors the progress of migrating whooping cranes, and will turn off turbines when they approach a wind farm.
Included in NextEra’s application for a permit to build the wind farm was a study of sound levels from the turbines that nearby residents should expect. The study modeled sound levels at 475 locations, about half of them within 2000 ft. of the turbines.
The study reported annual average sound levels; it did not provide data on peak levels. The annual average level at homes within 2000 ft. of turbines ranged from 27 dBA to 44 dBA.
On the dBA scale, each increment of 3 dB is a doubling of sound intensity. However, for most humans it takes an interval of 10 dB to appear twice as loud.
The Centers for Disease Control lists normal breathing as 10 dB, a soft whisper as 30 dB, a refrigerator hum as 40 dB, and an air conditioner as 60 dB.