Wind Energy – A Family’s Reckoning
By Kris Van Meteren, Owner, Van Meteren Farms LLC
Ad Astra Per Aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.” The Kansas motto captures perfectly the nature of our state in four short words.
When my great-great grandparents set their wagon box next to Chetopa Creek in 1869, they likely didn’t foresee the difficulties they would face, many weather-related, scratching out a prairie homestead. One hundred and fifty years later, I certainly didn’t anticipate yet another difficulty we would have to weather – this one man-made and government-subsidized.
I own our third-generation family farm in Neosho County, Kansas. About two years ago, developers came into the county, which is not zoned and has no building codes or restrictions, and announced a plan to build a massive wind turbine farm in the southern portion of the county. They promised the moon to local government officials and a handful of large landowners who, right off the bat, got dollar signs in their eyes and went all in (initially, at least).
However, as details began to emerge, what was being pitched as a major economic development boon to the county became a cause for alarm for a lot of folks in the county, particularly smaller landowners and homeowners in the footprint of the proposed wind farm.
Kansas is famous for its weather, which is often extreme. From cold fronts and sub-zero snaps to blistering heat and high humidity, to tornadoes, ice storms, torrential rains and droughts, Kansas has it all.
Then there’s one of Kansas’s most fickle features – the wind. During times one needs calm – like in early spring when fragile blossoms emerge in our farm’s orchards and we need to apply sensitive sprays – the wind seems to blow non-stop. But on triple-digit days when the air is thick with humidity, air conditioners run non-stop and the cicadas are deafening – the wind refuses to move and the air is suffocatingly still.
Yet the fickle nature of our wind didn’t seem to matter much to the developers of the Neosho Ridge Wind project. And that has created another aspera for my family and my community.
Many rural Kansans take a laissez-faire attitude toward building and zoning restrictions, allowing latitude to build whatever and wherever something is needed. That has worked for more than a century and a half because, in farm and ranch country, it has been voluntarily tempered by the Golden Rule: “Treat your neighbor like you want to be treated.”
But developers pounced on our county’s lack of building and zoning restrictions with little regard for what Neosho Ridge might mean to residents. With slick marketing materials, leasing agents promised “free” money and got enough buy-in to propose more than 130 turbines.
With massive federal subsidies at stake, developers then put on a full-court press to push the project through, despite public opposition. They flooded Facebook with targeted ads, ran full-page spreads in local small-town papers and even handed out trinkets at local elementary schools for kids to take home.
One of the biggest causes for alarm by those opposed to the project was the sheer size of the turbines being proposed. A 2017 U.S. Energy Information Administration report listed the average height of wind turbines as 280 feet. The turbines approved and constructed in Neosho County are 607 feet – twice as tall as the tallest building in Kansas, and 50 percent higher than a tall stack at nearby Chanute, which can be seen 25 miles away.
Developers and others claim such heights are necessary to capture wind currents aloft that simply don’t exist near the ground. While more favorable wind conditions may exist elsewhere, with billions in subsidies at stake to underwrite these projects, where they are erected lacks much relevance in the drive to build as many turbines as possible. That spurs developers to seek areas likely to provide weak political or regulatory resistance.
Neighbors and I pleaded with commissioners to block allowing the construction of these “skyscrapers”, many within just a few hundred feet of our farms and homes. We warned the community about how enormous, imposing and obtrusive they would be, but were drowned out by developers’ promises and the voices of a handful of landowners who would be the biggest beneficiaries of the project.
Ultimately, project managers’ promises of hundreds of thousands of “new” PILOT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) dollars prevailed. The plan that was approved is a cautionary tale for other communities. Fifteen percent of our county’s entire land mass has been consigned to Neosho Ridge. Developers can essentially commandeer and close vital county roads whenever needed, reshape or relocate established infrastructure and erect turbines shockingly close to farms, residences, roadways and towns.
When massive cranes finally erected the two turbines closest to our farmhouse, my heart sank and a lump welled up in my throat.
\Where my grandpa once stood admiring his soon-to-be-harvested crop of winter wheat now towers a massive, moving, blinking, roaring industrial machine, visible even above the tallest treetops. And right out our front window looms an identical steel and composite giant, waving its arms day and night, whumping, creating shadow flicker, reminding constantly of its presence.
Scientists, health agencies and residents alike decry the long-term health effects of living in the shadow of wind farms. Some note their harmful impact on wildlife and domestic animals. Still others warn about the safety of those living close to turbines which can catch fire, throw ice, topple over or fly apart, hurling debris over a large area. I shudder to think about what may happen if a tornado or even strong straight-line wind hits one of the turbines near our farmhouse and orchard.
But my two greatest concerns about the wind farm are how it is damaging the social fabric of our community, and how it is decimating the value of the farm passed from my grandpa to my dad and now to me.
Neighbor has been pitted against neighbor in what was a quiet, peaceful farming community. Relations even between relatives have been strained as the federal dollars injected into our community have changed the “Golden Rule” to “What’s in it for me?”
As far as the wind farm’s impact on property values, an appraiser familiar with improved properties located near wind turbines said it’s not a matter of if they will decline in value, it’s by how much.
But the impacts of such sweeping policy decisions are far from just financial. They are personal, and they cut deeply. A person’s net worth isn’t simply a dollar figure on a piece of paper. It represents the sum and substance of one’s life.
Not only does our farm represent the largest part of my life savings, it represents the work, care and attention of generations of my family. We’ve lived here for 152 years and owned this particular farm since 1931. We’ve poured our lives, hearts and souls into turning it into what it is – or was.
Expanding our orchard, improving customer access and offering field trips to local elementary students have all been stopped.
A dream of adding a wedding venue is now in doubt. It’s hard to envision exchanging vows in a beautiful orchard with massive industrial machines roaring overhead.
Plans to open an orchard-themed café, into which we had already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of work, were halted just short of completion. We just cannot justify plowing even more money, work, emotion and life energy into a property that now – due entirely to others’ decisions and not to anything we’ve done – is sinking in value.
A common narrative about wind energy is that it is the cheapest form of new generation available in many parts of the country. But is it really?
- Billions in taxpayer subsidies
- Long-term environmental costs and impacts
- Health implications for those living in proximity to the turbines
- Heightened safety concerns
- Harm to local communities and relationships
Add in the heavy toll levied on nearby property owners and “green energy” looks like a perverse transfer of wealth from taxpayers and “little people” to big developers.
And now, with a new administration in Washington DC, it appears that policies to expand so-called “green energy” projects like Neosho Ridge are on a fast track. Though they may look great on paper and be promoted for being carbon free and socially responsible, the reality is that they have serious environmental impacts. Plans to hasten the closure of traditional power plants with smaller footprints and better efficiency and replace them with “green” wind and solar generation mean that enormous amounts of land will be swallowed up and an unprecedented amount of materials will be used to build them. How can this be considered environmentally superior, or even acceptable?
Having experienced what such projects actually mean to those living with them causes me to cringe for others across rural America who will find themselves in a similar situation. While rural areas struggle to preserve their culture, population and way of life, those who promote and incentivize projects like Neosho Ridge only accelerate and exacerbate the emptying out of rural America.
Kris Van Meteren is the owner of Van Meteren Farms, LLC.