Kansas Public Radio brings Harvest the Wind to the Sunflower State

Veteran Kansas radio journalist Richard Baker brought Harvest the Wind to Sunflower State listeners via his weekly public affairs program, "Perspective."  For a podcast of this show, posted yesterday, click on "The Promise of Wind Energy" on the K-State Researach and Extension's "Perspective" website.

Baker is an adjunct instructor at Kansas State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.  The university is located in Manhattan, Kansas, just a few miles from the Konza Prairie Biological Station, where Konza director John Briggs guided me through much of the Station's 8,400-acre expanse of Flint Hills tallgrass prairie in the summer of 2010.  Roughly 100 researchers - graduates and undergraduates - are involved in long-term ecological research projects at Konza, looking at a range of factors affecting prairie health.  One focus is ranchers' widespread practice of burning about 1.5 million acres of tallgrass prairie every spring - a means of stimulating the growth of new grasses that are rich in nutrients for grazing cattle.  Some level of prairie burning is needed to fend off the growth of forests, but the current pattern of annual burns far exceeds that need.  Not surprisingly, springtime burning devastates the breeding and nesting grounds for grassland fowl such as the iconic prairie chicken.  As Briggs told me, "If you throw a football into a field and it lands and you can't see it, that's enough cover for prairie chickens."  After the spring burn, a billiard ball wouldn't pass this test.

Ironically, the ranchers who burn their grasslands every spring are among the stalwarts in a campaign to keep all wind farm development out of the Flint Hills.  Their objections to wind farms focus primarily on the visual presence of wind turbines on the predominantly horizontal prairie grasslands.  Their efforts have won a declaration by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback that places nearly 11,000 square miles of Flint Hills in a "Tallgrass Heartland" that is off-bounds to wind developers.  The only wind farm to have been built in the Flint Hills is the Elk River Wind Farm, which was authorized in 2005, when a less sweeping "Heart of the Flint Hills" designation allowed it to go forward.

In our radio interview, Richard Baker and I discussed the widely divergent wind power dynamics in Kansas, where many local communities have welcomed wind farms into their midst.  This year the Sunflower state is leading the nation in new wind farm installations, with 1,188 megawatts of new wind power capacity expected to come on-line by the end of 2012.