The Friends of Maxwell, an organization made up of people who support the 2,800-acre Maxwell Wildlife Refuge in McPherson County, are not opposed to wind energy and its value to the environment as well as the economy of Kansas.
But when an energy company proposes building gigantic turbines within eight miles of the refuge’s idyllic site, members become concerned.
That’s the situation with the $400 million, 300-megawatt Diamond Vista Wind Farm, under construction in Dickinson and Marion counties.
Developers say Diamond Vista and other wind farms bring economic growth to the state in addition to boosting the supply of renewable energy, and the developers do what they can to protect the environment.
The wind farm, developed by Kansas-based Tradewind Energy, was acquired and will be operated by Tradewind’s longtime partner Enel Green Power.
Enel Green Power, the largest wind-energy producer in the state, owns and operates six Kansas wind farms, generating nearly 4,000 megawatt hours a year.
Diamond Vista will consist of 95 turbines spread over 61,000 acres. Those turbines are expected to generate about 1,300 gigawatt-hours of energy annually. Enel has signed lease agreements with about 200 landowners.
Construction is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Betty Schmidt, director and board president of the Friends of Maxwell, said her group is concerned because some of the Diamond Vista turbines will be within eight miles of the refuge, and more will be able to be seen from the refuge.
“The first mapping of the wind farm had the project within three miles of the refuge. That same design said there would be 150 turbines and 13 of them in McPherson County,” she said.
She said the friends group encouraged people to write to local elected officials in opposition. Plans have changed, and now none of the turbines will be within McPherson County.
“I hope that they (the letters) have made an impact on reducing the number of turbines and pushing back of their location as originally planned by the Diamond Vista wind farm project,” she said.
Maxwell is home to 200 bison and 100 North American Rocky Mountain elk as well as many other species of wildlife, including more than 180 species of birds, Schmidt said.
In the 1940s the Maxwell brothers, sons of early McPherson County pioneer Henry Maxwell, donated the property to the Kansas Forestry, Fish and Game Commission, now known as the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
The commission was tasked with managing the refuge in order to preserve a piece of Kansas prairie so that future generations could experience what a natural Kansas landscape was like prior to colonization.
“The whole premise of wind turbine development runs entirely counter to that purpose,” Schmidt said. “Wind farms all over the world have been shown to cause bird mortality. A number of prairie chickens call Maxwell their home and would be disturbed and abandon the area for other, often lower-quality habitat.”
Schmidt said it’s not only about the ecological and historical importance of the refuge, but also its role in the economy and tourism industry of McPherson County and Kansas.
“Within the past 25 years that the Friends of Maxwell has operated prairie tours, thousands of visitors have used this area each year, including people from 35 countries and all 50 states,” she said.
More on horizon?
The Diamond Vista turbines might not be the only ones on Maxwell’s horizon.
Rebecca Rivera, a spokeswoman with NextEra Energy, said her company is in the early stages of speaking with landowners about hosting one of 100 planned turbines for a McPherson County wind energy project.
Each turbine would require an acre of land, she said.
Rivera said that in 2016, NextEra hosted an open house at the McPherson Museum.
“When we hosted the open house, there was much interest in the project from the community and landowners,” she said. “We have already signed landowners for the project and some others have reached out to us expressing interest.”
Schmidt said Friends of Maxwell will continue its efforts to preserve the refuge.
“With the anticipation of NextEra Energy, now in the process of contacting landowners within two miles of Maxwell’s southern and western boundaries, The Friends of Maxwell along with other supporting groups plan to continue to monitor NextEra Energy’s activity and push on with letters of request for setbacks of the turbines,” she said.
Worked with state
Johnna Guinty, vice president of marketing for Tradewind Energy, Inc., the Kansas-based developer of the Diamond Vista wind farm, said his company worked closely with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and managers of Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.
“In the early planning and consultation stages for Diamond Vista, Tradewind Energy conducted studies of the area and identified the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge as an important environmental factor near the site,” he said. “For over two years during the development of the project, Tradewind worked proactively with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism’s designated wind review staff to discuss the potential local concerns. In the final project design, Tradewind Energy accommodated KDWPT’s recommended three-mile setback.”
Guinty said the closest Diamond Vista turbine is about seven miles from the refuge.
Conor Branch, director of business development for Enel Green Power North America, said Enel is committed to being a good community partner.
“Through our Bird and Bat Conservation strategies, we aim to harmonize our wind farms with the surrounding environment, using the latest technologies to minimize impacts where possible,” Branch said.
Additionally, Enel Green Power commits itself to the long-term sustainability of the communities in which it operates.
Enel provided $8.5 million to the Kansas Land Trust and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to conserve more than 16,000 acres of tallgrass prairie habitat, as well as $300,000 to local education and scholarship programs. It partnered with Cloud County Community College on wind technician training and the Lawrence Arts Center for summer arts programming.
Enel Green also participates in community cleanup projects.
With its six projects in the state, including Diamond Vista, Enel Green Power has created nearly 70 full-time jobs.
Branch said through the Diamond Vista wind project, Enel will create 450 jobs during construction and 10 to 12 full-time jobs once the wind farm is operational.
“The continued development of renewables in Kansas is important, because it brings an industry that is seeing enormous growth into the state, boosting local economies by driving job growth and new economic development,” Branch said. “During the construction, employees are staying locally and buying locally, driving a ripple effect of economic growth.”
5 farms operational
Enel currently operates five wind farms in Kansas: Smoky Hills I and II in Ellsworth and Lincoln counties; Caney River in Elk County; Buffalo Dunes in Finney, Grant and Haskell counties; and Cimarron Bend in Clark County.
“Combined, the Enel Green Power wind farms that are currently in operation in the state have a managed capacity around 1,400 megawatts of renewable energy,” Branch said. “To put that number into prospective, our Kansas plants can produce enough energy to power more than 500,000 U.S households.”
While those wind farms don’t directly provide energy to the residents of Kansas, they sell energy to a number of utility companies that serve Kansas communities, Branch said.
Tri-County Electric Cooperative, one of the three businesses that have an agreement to buy power from Diamond Vista, serves customers in southwest Kansas. City Utilities of Springfield, Mo. and Kohler, of Kohler, Wis., also have agreements to buy power.
Kohler will use its purchased power to supply 100 percent of the annual electricity needs for its U.S. and Canada operations, including 85 manufacturing facilities, offices and warehouses.
The Diamond Vista wind farm also will reduce Kohler’s global greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25 percent, Branch said.