States Take Widely Varying Stands on Wind Power

Published February 1, 2005

Internal conflict among environmental advocates regarding the future of wind power is causing a split among state elected officials as well.

In a move applauded by the wind power industry, Pennsylvania’s legislature on November 20 passed a measure requiring state residents to purchase at least 18 percent of their power from renewable sources such as wind. But the industry suffered a setback just two days later, when Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) announced on November 22 a moratorium on the construction of wind turbines on Kansas prairie lands.

Pennsylvania Mandates “Renewable” Sources

Pennsylvania’s SB1030, signed by Gov. Edward Rendell (D) on November 30, requires 18 percent of the state’s electricity to be generated from “alternative energy sources” by 2020. The new standard requires at least 8 percent of the state’s energy to come from “Tier One” sources–solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass.

The remainder of the state’s 18-percent requirement can be generated from such “Tier Two” sources as waste coal, coal gasification, municipal solid waste, and hydropower.

The split between Tier One and Tier Two sources generated conflict among environmental activists. While they generally approved of the renewable power mandate, such groups as the Clean Air Council, Sierra Club of Pennsylvania, and Green Party opposed allowing the Tier Two sources to represent a majority of the renewable portfolio requirements.

Mandate Called Critical

Activists who supported the bill touted research by the Platts Analytics group concluding SB1030 will induce the state’s electricity providers to increase wind power generation nearly 30-fold, from 129 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity to 3,600 MW of wind capacity.

“We believe a portfolio standard is a critical policy tool for the Commonwealth,” said Kathleen A. McGinty, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, in testimony before the U.S. Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on Renewable Portfolio Standards.

“A portfolio standard that provides for Pennsylvania’s unique energy resources will ensure that our future generation mix encourages new employment, new fields of endeavor and a better environment,” McGinty said. “By encouraging advanced energy sources the Commonwealth will be serving notice that it is dedicated to cutting-edge technologies and innovations and is committed to shaping the nation’s energy future.”

Consumers have been unwilling to sign up voluntarily for renewable power. Since the PECO Energy company first offered renewable power to Pennsylvania residents in early 2004, only 9,000 customers (less than half of 1 percent of PECO customers) have chosen to pay the higher prices associated with wind power. PECO has nearly 2 million electric and natural gas customers in the state.

Kansas Governor Calls Halt

Concerned about potentially irreversible damage to one of the nation’s last remaining tallgrass prairies, Sebelius placed nearly 3 million acres of land off-limits to the wind power industry. The governor has left open the possibility that some wind turbines may be built outside of the acres she designated as off-limits.

“I renew my request for parties in the designated Flint Hills area to exercise restraint and patience as we continue to work to balance the conservation and economic development needs of the region,” said Sebelius, as quoted in the November 23 Greenwire.

Prairies are designated “tallgrass” if they have never been cultivated or farmed. Under such conditions, tallgrass prairies retain the ecological characteristics that existed prior to settlement by white Americans. The tallgrass prairie, according to the October 9 Kansas City Star, “once covered more than 140 million acres of the United States, from Indiana to Kansas and from Canada to Texas. But nearly all is gone.”

John Cosgrove, who has signed a contract allowing the wind industry to build turbines on his land near Flint Hills, argued that the tallgrass is already beyond protection.

“It is polluted with power lines, cell towers, water towers, railroad tracks, and railroad communication towers,” Cosgrove told the November 23 Kansas City Star. “We are in favor of protecting tallgrass prairie. What we would like to do is invite the governor so she can see it [his land] is not tallgrass prairie.”

According to Alan Pollom, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Kansas, only 4 percent of the nation’s tallgrass prairie remains undeveloped, with roughly two-thirds of the pristine tallgrass located in the Flint Hills of Kansas.

Neighbors Dislike Wind Farms

Scott Ritchie of Wichita-based Ritchie Exploration Inc. reported local residents resent the wind industry’s encroachment on the local environment. According to Ritchie, 70 to 80 percent of Flint Hills residents oppose the construction of wind turbines in the region.

“Kansas is presently promoting and enjoying tourism across these areas,” said Ritchie for an article that appeared in the July 2004 issue of AAPG Explorer, a publication of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. “People won’t come to ride the prairies under 35-story wind towers with rotating turbines and blinking lights on top.”

The wind power industry, Ritchie observed, currently requires direct payments from citizens in the form of tax subsidies to make development of wind farms such as those proposed for Flint Hills feasible. Said Ritchie, “The better case is, ‘Here’s this last bit of native prairie let’s don’t throw it away.'”

“Some have said it is the most contentious issue we are dealing with in the Capitol in terms of passion,” added Sebelius energy advisor Lee Allison, as reported by Greenwire.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment and Climate News.