Wind energy project moves forward with OK from county commissioners

A proposal to build the first wind farm in Marion County won approval from the commissioners at their Jan. 18 meeting.

The commissioners agreed to sign off on four agreements with Windborne Energy Inc., based in Florence, to include decommissioning, infrastructure and public safety, payment in lieu of taxes and public road right-of-way.

The site is bounded on the east by U.S. Highway 77, on the west by Quail Creek Road, on the north by 140th and 60th Road on the south. It is leased from local landowners with the potential to place 79 wind generators on it, said Rex Savage, one of the Windborne Energy partners.

Commission Chair Roger Fleming said the commissioners? decision will benefit the entire county.

?We can?t always see what that benefit is, and so sometimes we have to go into things with some faith.,? he said. Faith in (Savage) and faith in our judgement (as commissioners).?

Even with commission approval, Savage said there are still more challenges ahead.

The project, he said, is dependent on the availability of power lines to transport the electricity to urban areas and the spacing between the wind turbines must be analyzed before finalizing turbine locations.

Savage said Windborne Energy anticipates beginning Phase I construction in 2012, but the number of turbines is contingent on the engineers? final report.

Projects after 2012 will include construction and operation of more wind turbines and other infrastructure, he said.

Conditional-use permits

After securing the conditional-use permit giving Windborne Energy authorization to begin a wind generation project, Savage said the company will need to look at raising development funds for the construction phase.

The wind project will cost many millions of dollars and Savage said he and his partner will start looking for financiers to help in the next phase.

Two possible options could be a major energy company entering into a joint venture with Windborne or buying the Florence-based company outright, he said.

One of the benefits a larger company would have in partnering or buying out Windborne is that it?s already a pre-zoned package, Savage said.

As part of the Marion County Planning and Zoning process, Savage said composite photos were used to show the wind turbine in relationship to the land.

Savage said he likes the Flint Hills and the company purposely stayed west of Kansas Highway 77 to avoid controversy.

Right-of-way permits

Once construction begins, Marion County Attorney Susan Robson included the agreement for public road right-of-way to cover installation, operation, maintenance, upgrading and/or removal of electric power transmission, distribution and communications facilities along county right-of-ways.

The project will require heavy-duty equipment, tractor trailers, cement trucks, cranes in the building phase and the commissioners said they wanted to be sure the agreements covered all aspects of the project.

The right-of-way agreement includes plans, materials and methods to perform the work, traffic obstructions from the project, replacing damaged trees or shrubs, restoring ditches, slopes and enbankments within reasonable limits, road improvements, securing a bond, agreeing to liability risks and other protection.

More agreements

Maintenance on Marion County roads during construction and operation of the project was included in the infrastructure and public safety agreement, outlined by Robson.

Windborne?s obligations in the agreement involve load paths and restrictions on bridges and respective roads, emergency conditions and repairs, transportation route consultation, securing a bond and more.

A few changes were made to the agreement of payment in lieu of taxes, which compensates the county for some or all of the tax revenue that it loses because of the change in usage of the property.

Robson requested the agreement be put in general language just so it doesn?t interfere with state funding.

?We can call it a contribution rather than a PILOT payment,? Savage said. ?Whatever we need to do to make (the agreement) acceptable.?

Robson said in the original agreement it wasn?t called a PILOT payment.

The agreement stated Windborne would distribute funds based on percentages. It included Marion County Road and Bridge Department, EMS, Florence Fire Department, Marion County Fire District No. 4, Marion City Fire Department, St. Luke Hospital, Operations Management Office in both Florence and Peabody, Marion County general fund, USD 408-Marion/Florence and USD 398-Peabody-Burns.

The agreement stated the proration would be determined by location of the turbines and in whose district they fall.

Decommissioning

Commissioner Dan Holub and Fleming both had questions about the decommissioning.

?How long does the decommissioning agreement stand in effect,? Fleming said. ?What happens 30 years down the road and this isn?t working anymore.?

According to the agreement, Savage said the bond has to be maintained through the life of the project.

?What do we do with (wind turbines) if and when they have served their purpose?? he asked

One estimate Fleming said he heard was $70,000 per turbine for decommissioning.

?If they try to take out all the concrete, I could see that being a viable number,? Savage said. ?It doesn?t make good sense to take the concrete out, but we do want to get top soil over it to get vegetation back on it.?.

Robson said she heard the salvage value is $30,000 to $40,000, f not jack hammering all the concrete.

?I want to make sure we preserve the county and landowners and we are covered whenever these would be decommissioned, Fleming said. ?That was my only real concern about the process.?

Holub said the only thing confusing to him was the decommissioning part, but Robson said Windborne included decommission in the lease with the actual landowners.

?It?s in the lease,? she said, ?but not termed decommission.?

Savage added that if something was missed in any of the four agreements, it would have been an accident.

Another part of the decommissioning agreement allows Savage to post bond or a letter of credit.

The amount would be $30,000 to $1 million, whichever is the greater, Robson said.

In addition, Windborne will post a $2 million bond for right-of-ways and infrastructure and public safety agreements.

Setbacks

More than 10 years ago, Savage said he and others started researching the possibility of constructing a wind farm in Marion County.

At times, he said, it was even disheartening after reviewing the problems experienced by Beaumont, the state?s largest wind farm, and other companies wanting to get projects started.

?Well over 90 percent of (wind power) projects die in the leasing and zoning phase,? he said.

To avoid many of those pitfalls, Savage said he investigated wind farms from the landowners perspective and quality of the wind source.

?The real problem is companies going to counties unprepared,? he said.

?Many landowners don?t want wind farms, but by and large, people (in Marion County) were supportive.?

Some concerns in other areas included noise, real estate values, emergency response and quality of life issues, but a majority of Marion County landowners in that area think wind farms are a means to alleviate the tax burden and promote renewable energy.

In addition, wind energy can help the economy by bringing in new jobs, new business opportunities and new investments

From an economic development standpoint, investment dollars would remain local.

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