Tale of two Kansas counties
Wind energy in Reno and Harvey counties

J.S. and S.E.W. Aber


Reno and Harvey counties are located next to each other in south-central Kansas. Principal cities are Hutchinson in Reno County and Newton in Harvey County. The region is mostly the Arkansas River Lowlands and eastern margin of the High Plains and western edge of the Flint Hills. This is a broad and relatively flat terrain underlain by unconsolidated sand and gravel of the High Plains Aquifer. The portion in Harvey County is known as the Equus Beds Aquifer because of fossil horse teeth found in the sediment there.

Landscape regions of Kansas showing county boundaries marked in maroon. Reno County (RN) and Harvey County (HV). Adapted from Aber and Aber (2009).

The wide, open, largely treeless, agricultural landscape is attractive for development of wind farms in the mostly rural environment. The wind-energy potential is rated as fair with average wind speed at 50 m (160-foot) height of 15-17 mph--see wind speed. Many other wind farms in central and eastern Kansas operate under similar conditions. The following discussion is based mainly on news articles published in Harvey County Now and other sources.

Reno County

NextEra Energy, a wind-farm development company, became interested in Reno County in the late 2010s in order to take advantage of federal tax credits that would expire in 2020. This set off public opposition based on many perceived environmental and health factors. Citizens were concerned about the conversion of rural aesthetic values for industrial development.

The wind farm was blocked by a grass-roots initiative in 2019. Those opposed to the wind farm had forced a protest petition that required unanimous approval by the Reno County Commission. When one commissioner voted no, the project was halted; the first wind farm to be rejected in Kansas during the previous decade.

NextEra Energy appealed this decision through a number of legal moves. Eventually the Kansas Court of Appeals upheld the protest petition and vote of the county commission to halt the wind farm. In the meantime, the Reno County Planning Commission had continued to review issues for a potential wind farm near Pretty Prairie in southern Reno County.

In a surprising move, the Reno County Commission approved wind-turbine zoning regulations in January 2022 that had been sent forward from the planning commission in December 2020. The key provision is a 2000-foot setback from homes. Additional provisions deal with setbacks for roads, property lines, airports, and wildlife refuges. Shadow flicker and noise are also addressed in the approved regulations. The zoning requirements adopted by the Reno County Commission are much like those that NextEra Energy had agreed to follow.

Harvey County

As the drama in Reno County continued to play out, NextEra Energy began to explore the possibility for a wind farm in western Harvey County in the region between Halstead, Moundridge, and Burrton. Once again, public opposition came forward voicing many of the same objections heard in Reno County. The Harvey County Planning Commission held meetings with NextEra Energy and the public to consider these issues during 2022, and more than 200 people came to some of these meetings.

The main point of contention was the requirement for turbine setback from property boundaries. Options discussed were setbacks of 2000, 1500, and 1000 feet. Another issue was potential disturbance or contamination of the Equus Beds Aquifer. In September 2022, the planning commission unanimously approved regulations that included a 1500-foot setback, noise level of 45 decibels measured at the edge of the property, and several other requirements. The matter then moved to the Harvey County Commission for further consideration.

Fields irrigated by a circular center-pivot system in the Equus Beds Aquifer near Halstead in western Harvey County. The watertable is quite shallow, typically 30 feet deep or less. Autumn kite aerial photograph.

The county commission held a public meeting and accepted comments. In October 2022, the county commission revised the regulations and approved setbacks of 1000 feet from property boundaries and 2000 feet from homes. Other provisions include protection of the Equus Beds Aquifer and financial obligations by NextEra Energy to pay for road maintenance.

NextEra Energy moved quickly to obtain conditional-use permits to erect four weather towers that stand 197 feet tall. These towers would monitor wind and weather conditions as a first phase to evaluate further development of a wind farm. Such towers are routine components of all wind farms. The Harvey County Planning Commission is considering this request as of January 2023.

Public opposition continued, nonetheless, and the county commission agreed in February 2023 to a six-month moratorium on wind turbines and to put the issue of wind energy to a public vote. On August 1, the county commission voted to extend the moratorium until December 2023. So at this time, the future of wind energy in Harvey County remains in limbo.

Text and images © J.S. and S.W. Aber.
All rights reserved.

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Last update: August 2023.