Conservative politicians across America are promoting state-level legislation aimed at preventing new wind farms from being built in their states.
In Kansas, a conservative legislator from urban Johnson County has proposed three bills that would make it difficult to impossible to expand the Kansas wind industry.
The Kansas Association of Counties labeled one of those proposals an “assault on local control.” That legislation places an unfunded mandate on Kansas counties, forcing them to change zoning policies and expand regulation of building projects.
That zoning change would also restrict property rights of Kansas landowners, 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 plays well with ideological conservative activists, but it poses economic risks for Kansas.
Brian Grimmett at KMUW in Wichita recently documented some essential facts about wind energy in Kansas, compiling data from the United States Geological Survey Wind Turbine Database, the 2021 Land-Based Wind Market Report, and the Annual Economic Impacts of Kansas Wind Energy 2020 report.
Kansas ranks second nationally for the proportion of energy produced in the state coming from wind—over 40 percent of all electricity produced in Kansas in 2020.
Kansas wind turbines can create over 7,000 megawatts, “the 4th highest in the country and enough to power about 1.6 million homes,” per Grimmett’s report.
Kansas has about 3,500 turbines, which generate about $48 million annually in lease payments to Kansas landowners and almost $660 million in lifetime payments to local governments for existing projects. These dollars flow primarily to Kansas’s rural counties, many of which are struggling economically.
In the last two decades, Kansas wind farms have generated about 8,600 construction jobs and 560 jobs related to on-going maintenance and operation. Per the U.S. Department of Energy, those projects have also indirectly generated almost 13,000 jobs, ranging from component manufacturing to the service industry.
Since Kansas has such immense capacity to develop wind, how does anti-wind politics make sense? Let’s ignore the conspiracy theorists who claim that 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 annually in direct government subsidies, per the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Rather than seeking coexistence with wind, fossil fuel interests pump huge money into politics to oppose it.
Many conservative activists muster various anti-wind arguments, but also see wind as identity politics. For them, wind is a liberal symbol—something to defeat for a cultural win rather than economically exploit.
Some individual wind projects also have local opponents representing the unique backyard politics of their communities.
Whatever the flavor of opposition, you don’t have to be an environmentalist to see that wind means jobs and dollars for Kansas. If Topeka conservatives successfully squash the Kansas wind industry, that economic impact will hit our rural counties hardest.
The politics industry makes money on divisiveness and turning issues that could generate large consensus—like wind—into hyper-divisive fault lines that feed media clicks, donations, and attention. It’s profitable for politics to turn wind into just another culture war symbol, but that politicization will cost the Kansas economy.
— Patrick R. Miller is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas.
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