Kansas senator’s plea to speed conversion to new wind turbine lighting may threaten reform bill
TOPEKA — Rancher Lisa Moser can see from her porch the blinking aviation warning lights atop turbines on three wind farms ranging from four to 30 miles away.
Hundreds of red lights pulsing dusk to dawn according to rhythms created by each of the wind farms — all constructed since 2016 — transformed the landscape where her family has raised livestock for decades. More turbines are in the pipeline, she said, because Republic, Marshall, Washington and Jewell counties in the upper tier of Kansas are a hotbed of wind development.
Moser, a Republican who serves those four counties in the Kansas House, said the 2023 Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly ought to begin transitioning Kansas to a less-jarring approach to turbine lighting that didn’t jeopardize public safety. An important step in that direction would be adoption of Senate Bill 49, which was approved by the Kansas Senate on a vote of 39-1 in February.
“We see the towers all day,” Moser said. “To restore the night sky with the moon and the stars undisturbed in their beauty would be a momentous gesture of goodwill by the wind companies and would benefit thousands of Kansans.”
She said amending the Senate bill could “very well” fracture results of negotiations among members of the Kansas Senate as well as the Kansas Livestock Association and Advanced Power Alliance, an association representing the wind industry. Lighting changes would have to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Kansas has 44 operational wind farms. Wind power has become the largest source of electricity in the state. As a state, Kansas has the second-highest potential in terms of wind power in the United States.
The House Energy, Utility and Telecommunications Committee conducted a public hearing Thursday on the bill, but took no immediate action.
Under the Senate bill, the state would require installation of light-mitigating technology on new wind turbines constructed after July 1, 2023. The next-generation lighting equipment would replace the all-night flickering lights with a radar system that switched lights on whenever aircraft was detected.
“There was a strong consensus to do something with future, new construction with the positive backing of the wind industry,” said Sen. Elaine Bowers, R-Concordia. “The balance was agreed upon. It is a compromise.”
The Senate bill included provisions implementing light standards for existing wind farms on Jan. 1, 2026. The trigger would be renewal of contracts by commercial wind companies selling electricity generated by their turbines. Wind energy companies would have to apply for FAA approval of new lights within six months of signing updated contracts and would be given two years to install the lighting.
County governments would be granted the right to negotiate with wind farm owners on issuance of bonds to pay all or part of the cost of advanced lighting systems.
“What’s the worst that could happen if this bill wouldn’t pass? It stays the same,” Bowers said. “If we don’t pass this, then the lights stay on.”
Sen. Virgil Peck, a Havana Republican who voted for the bill, said he would like the Senate bill amended by the House to require existing wind farms to begin transitioning to radar-controlled lighting one year earlier on Jan. 1, 2025.
“If you could do that, you would be the heroes of so many Kansans in rural areas,” Peck said. “Imagine the constant strobe effect if you live in a rural area.”
Rep. Cindy Neighbor, D-Shawnee, said deployment of replacement lights on thousands of wind turbines already in operation could be complicated by development of alternative lighting systems, availability of manufacturing capacity and workforce shortages.
“I personal don’t have any heartburn with asking them to be good neighbors — better neighbors than they have been,” Peck said.
Josh Svaty, who lobbies on behalf of the Advanced Power Alliance, said the cost of swapping out aviation safety lighting on existing turbines statewide could reach $100 million. Adoption of a more abrupt schedule for replacing lights could create an “artificial market” of rising demand certain to surge prices of equipment, he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified a supporter of the bill. Advocates include the Kansas Livestock Association.