Wind turbine project advancing in Barry County
Landowners voice concern about property values, dangers
A major push to secure property to build approximately 100 wind turbines for energy production in Barry County appears to be close to completion.
The Chicago-based firm Invenergy, which calls itself North America’s largest independent renewable power generation company, has had representatives in the Monett area last week talking to property owners about land deals. Paul Sergent, a private contractor signing landowners to leases, has reportedly stated Invenergy has secured contracts to build on approximately 30,000 acres of land in Barry County and some in Lawrence County.
For the past year, Invenergy has been approaching landowners with a contract to buy use of property for wind turbine construction. Two invitation-only meetings have been held, one at the Monett City Park Casino and another at the Purdy school. Sergent and his predecessor, Chris Whinery, have been making personal phone calls and visits to landowners. Sergent and Demi Gastouniotis, senior analyst in project development for Invenergy, met with the Barry County Commission Thursday morning.
Without a public meeting and literature distributed by the company, many accounts surfaced about Invenergy’s project. According to Gastouniotis, the company has proposed a 200 megawatt project that will use less than 100 wind turbines between Cassville and Monett. This would be approximately the same size was Empire District Electric’s first wind farm in Beaumont, Kan., which used 100 2.5-megawatt wind turbines.
Gastouniotis said the company would consider an expanded project in the future, and is interested in signing leases with landowners beyond what the project may need initially. Invenergy presently envisions completing the project in 2021, requiring six to nine months for construction.
This would be Invenergy’s first project in Missouri. The company already has projects in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Gastouniotis said the turbines would have underground lines to transmit energy between towers. The project would likely need only one substation to connect to the general power grid, and possibly a second if expanded.
Gastouniotis said the project is still in development. Once analysts determine where to set the turbines and their size, depending on the wind profile, she expected to provide public disclosure. Two major companies manufacture wind turbines. Gastouniotis said analysts would determine the size of turbines needed and where to place them.
The company has placed two smaller test towers to measure the wind patterns. One is on the land of Phil Schad, east of Midway, and the other is on Ralph Schallert’s property, west of Purdy.
According to information shared by Whinery, the largest turbines used could be as large as 500 to 600 feet in height, as high as the St. Louis Arch. Those would require 20-foot anchors and concrete foundations 45 feet into the ground. Gastouniotis said geotechnical studies would determine how to anchor each turbine, depending on the soil profile. Several temporary concrete mills would likely be needed to produce enough concrete for continuous pours.
Invenergy has offered a 26-page lease detailing terms of the agreement, a 55-year arrangement with limited escape clauses. Invenergy can terminate the agreement “at any time and without cause.” Property owners can terminate the agreement after five years, provided no construction has begun. Landowners would have no ownership rights to the wind turbine itself. Fees would be renegotiated during the 25th year to update current market values for the second 25 years.
The lease includes a clause that bans property owners from discussing the contract with anyone but their personal attorney.
The contract acknowledges the wind turbines create some potentially disagreeable side effects, such as “flickering, noise or electromagnetic fields.” The lease specifies Invenergy will be liable “in no event” for property damage or personal injuries resulting from risks “known and unknown” associated with the normal day-to-day operation of electrical generating facilities. If a landowner seeks remuneration for such byproducts, the lease declares the signer waives the right to a jury trial.
Gastouniotis said she had not studied other contracts and did not know if such language was standard within the industry.
Empire District Electric’s new owner, Liberty Utilities, had a public hearing on a similar project in Joplin in January that would extend into Lawrence County. Four days of hearing were being held last week in Jefferson City for the utility to secure a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN).
Rhonda Rymer, a natural history biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, attended the Joplin hearing. She said approximately half of those who testified were strong proponents, some with wind turbines already on their property who spoke positively about their experience and said they had not been negatively affected by the sound.
Southwest Missouri, she noted, has had little experience with wind turbines. The first word of companies scouting the area surfaced approximately three years ago, she said. The Department of Conservation’s concerns have stemmed from activity in northwest Arkansas. A lawyer for the department filed written opinions from department experts in the Empire hearing over the impact on wildlife. Janet Haslerig from the natural resources science division, wrote the opinion on impact on eagles, which is part of the record of the hearing before the Public Service Commission.
Birds killed by wind turbines have become a major concern by opponents. Locally that concern has focused on eagles, known to nest in the Wheaton and Roaring River area in December and January.
“If they put 100 windmills between Monett and Cassville, there won’t be a dozen eagles left in Barry County,” said one Purdy businessman, who preferred to remain nameless, who was approached by Sergent.
Conservation organizations have expressed similar reservations elsewhere.
Jennifer Conner, area representative for the Sierra Club, said that organization is wrestling with the same issue on the state level.
“We have Kathryn Bulliner from Missouri Department of Conservation who will be presenting at our next state meeting in June,” Conner said. “She is the bat expert for the department and is studying wind turbine impacts on bats in northern Missouri. They are also studying effects to raptors (eagles, hawks) I believe in conjunction with U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.”
Conner thought a company erecting wind turbines should have to conduct an environmental impact study, but it was not clear who would enforce that.
Gastouniotis said Invenergy planned to conduct a variety of environmental studies before moving into construction, based on direction provided by hired environmental consultants.
Payment amounts questioned
The level of compensation received by landowners has also raised concerns.
According to several persons speaking to Invenergy representatives, the landowner will receive remuneration from electricity generation by the wind turbines of approximately $800 a month per turbine, based on a per megawatt payment table in the lease, rising in royalty amounts from 4-7 percent over the course of 25 years.
The quoted $800 amount approximates the fair market value of electricity, said Dennis Pyle, Monett city administrator, who dealt with various electricity producers as the city signed contracts for power over the next five years from marketplace sources.
A Purdy businessman who declined to sign a lease expressed reservations stemming back to the experience of a cousin who lives near Wichita, Kan., who agreed to have two wind turbines built on her property. Paid quarterly, she receives approximately $300 a month.
Gastouniotis said she could not assess the cousin’s experience, not knowing the firm she signed with or the rates of reimbursement in the contract. Invenergy specifies its reimbursement rates in the lease.
In addition, the lease offered compensation of $50 per rod, or 33 cents per foot, for right-of-way access for running the underground cables for transmission of electricity from the towers, or overhead transmission lines or towers. Provisions are included for some crop compensation. Property owners would also receive a development fee of $4 per acre over the first five years, but no annual payment would run less than $1,000, which implied Invenergy wanted to sign large landowners. The leases would provide authorization for Invenergy to erect buildings on the property under contract as needed.
The lack of a public hearing or meeting by Invenergy raised concerns over a lack of government oversight.
According to the Office of the Ombudsman for Property Rights in Missouri, Invenergy is classified as an owner-operator-developer by the Missouri Public Service Commission. As a private company, Invenergy is not required to make such disclosures or to seek a CPCN from the Public Service Commission. As a private company, Invenergy would not be able to use eminent domain to secure land and would rely on individual contracts for land access.
Gastouniotis said regulations may apply to utilities buying power from Invenergy.
The number of landowners that have signed with Invenergy has not been disclosed. Gastouniotis dismissed earlier reports that the company had “nearly all” the leases needed to proceed. She invited interested parties to contact either herself at 312-582-1061 or Sergent at 330-324-9052. Sergent said he is in Barry County every other week and stays at a Monett motel.
As a matter of public policy, Barry County Presiding Commissioner Gary Youngblood expressed concern about what would happen to rural county roads forced to bear traffic from heavy equipment and trucks hauling construction materials for wind turbines. He noted the lease has a provision for repairing private roads, but had no guarantees for restoring public roads.
Lawrence and Dade counties, Youngblood said, had come to agreements with providers like Liberty Utilities for preserving its roads in such construction projects. He planned to pursue similar arrangements for Barry County, should the project advance. However, Youngblood said Travis Elliott, an attorney with the Missouri Association of Counties, warned Invenergy could not be forced to fix public roads.
Gastouniotis said when she and Sergent met with commissioners, she provided assurances that Invenergy planned to work with county leaders to leave county roads in better shape after construction than they were before. The company had templates and examples of agreements with other communities over roads. When the time comes for further discussions, she planned to present those to the county commissioners as a starting point for discussion.
Several property owners who met recently voiced concern about a reduction in property values. The turbines, they felt, would change the landscape of Barry County. One landowner, a pilot, expressed concern over high turbines creating hazards for pilots using the three private airports in the immediate area, even if the turbines did not interfere with air traffic at the Monett or Cassville airports.
Invenergy has promoted its projects as having positive economic impacts and offered support to communities. Testimonials from landowners focused on payments raising funds to pay off property tax debts such as schools faster and providing income to individuals that enabled rural residents to sustain their farms.
Pyle said 15 percent of the City of Monett’s future electricity purchase contracts rely on wind generated power. He noted wind is the least expensive source of electricity, but like solar, is not consistently reliable. While the city has locked in its contracts for purchasing electricity for the next five years, Pyle said if Invenergy completed its project, the city would entertain a proposal for services from the firm after that.
Supporters back clean energy
Gary Schad, northern commissioner of Barry County, has a signed property contract with Invenergy. This is the second time Schad has signed with a wind power company. This first proposal, signed around six years ago, was terminated after not moving forward.
Schad said he and some of his neighbors were prospected by Invenergy. He said he would not hide his agreement from the public.
“The way I see it — and this is just my opinion as a landowner — the last administration in Washington really pushed for green energy,” Schad said. “I’m on the fence on this deal. I know we’ve got more than 300 years of coal sitting and in U.S. I feel terrible that we’re shipping it to other countries. But I get it. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If that’s the way the world wants to roll, I’ll sacrifice my land and see what we can do better.
“A lot of stuff opponents don’t realize is that they can’t put a windmill within so many thousand feet of a house or roadway. There’s a lot of myth out there. I’m sure they’re not going to put a windmill right behind my house. I don’t think the public understands those rules. They can’t just put them anywhere they want. There’s nothing that says they’re going to put them right up to the south side of Monett, and they have to be so far from airports.”
Schad said he told Sergent he did not like the change to the landscape that comes with wind turbines. However, he felt the tax benefits would outweigh the visual concerns.
“Here’s why I’m a big proponent of it — property tax value of having windmills out there,” Schad said. “If it’s in your school district or your road district, they have to pay property taxes into schools, etc. It’s a huge opportunity for Barry County and a good way to generate revenue for schools and the county. It sounds like a win-win situation. It makes it look like we’re doing a good job.”
Gastouniotis acknowledged the lack of public announcements partly stemmed from competition concerns. The company was nonetheless leaving a public record of its activity by recording its signed leases with the county.
To date the leases have not been recorded at the county courthouse in Cassville.
“I’m open to having open houses and meetings on the project,” Gastouniotis said. “We’ll have more to share as time goes on. At this early stage in the process, we don’t have much detail to share. We appreciate those who have met with us one-on-one.”
According to the company’s website, Invenergy has developed 144 projects across four continents. Around 60 percent of those are wind projects. Sergent encouraged anyone interested in knowing more to go to the company’s website and view testimonial video from people in towns where projects operate.