Turning wind power into a symbol of culture war will hurt Kansas’ economy

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Conservative politicians across America are promoting state-level legislation aimed at preventing the construction of new wind farms in their states.

In Kansas, a conservative lawmaker in urban Johnson County has proposed three bills that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for Kansas’ wind industry to expand.

The Kansas Counties Association called one of these proposals an “assault on local control.” This legislation imposes an unfunded mandate on Kansas counties, requiring them to change zoning policies and expand regulation of building projects.

This zoning change would also restrict the property rights of landowners in Kansas, who would no longer have the freedom to contract their land for wind development without the approval of their neighbors and possibly voters in an election.

This kind of “big government conservatism” that sacrifices local control and property rights is fine with conservative ideological activists, but it poses economic risks for Kansas.

Brian Grimmett of KMUW in Wichita recently documented some key facts about wind power in Kansas, compiling data from the United States Geological Survey’s Wind Turbine Database, the 2021 Onshore Wind Market Report, and impacts Annual Kansas Wind Energy Economics 2020 Report.

Kansas ranks second nationally in the proportion of power generated in the state that comes from wind – more than 40% of all electricity generated in Kansas in 2020.

Wind turbines in Kansas can create more than 7,000 megawatts, “the 4th highest in the nation and enough to power about 1.6 million homes,” according to Grimmett’s report.

Kansas has about 3,500 turbines, which generate about $48 million annually in lease payments to Kansas landowners and nearly $660 million in lifetime payments to local governments for existing projects. Those dollars are primarily going to rural Kansas counties, many of which are struggling economically.

Over the past two decades, wind farms in Kansas have generated approximately 8,600 construction jobs and 560 maintenance and ongoing operations jobs. According to the US Department of Energy, these projects have also indirectly generated nearly 13,000 jobs, ranging from component manufacturing to the service industry.

Since Kansas has such immense capacity to develop wind power, how does the anti-wind policy make sense? Let’s ignore the conspiracy theorists who claim wind turbines cause cancer, and focus on the three main flavors of anti-wind politics.

Fossil fuel producers see wind as a competitor threatening profits and the roughly $21 billion they receive each year in direct government subsidies, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Rather than seeking coexistence with the wind, fossil fuel interests are pumping huge sums of money into politics to oppose it.

Many conservative activists bring together various anti-wind arguments, but also view the wind as identity politics. For them, the wind is a liberal symbol – something to be conquered for cultural victory rather than economically exploited.

Some individual wind projects also have local opponents representing the unique backyard politics of their communities.

Whatever the flavor of the opposition, you don’t have to be an environmentalist to see that the wind means jobs and dollars for Kansas. If the conservatives in Topeka succeed in crushing the wind industry in Kansas, that economic impact will hit our rural counties the hardest.

The political industry makes money on division and turns issues that could generate broad consensus – like the wind – into hyper-dividing fault lines that fuel media clicks, donations and attention.

It is good for politics to turn the wind into yet another culture war symbol, but this politicization will cost Kansas’ economy.

Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

James V. Hayes