KU’s NSF C-CHANGE IGERT Program Hosts Symposium on Wind Energy in the Kansas Flint Hills


By Nick Mott
Winter 2011

A light gust of wind pushed scuttling leaves across the Spooner Hall lawn on November 5th. The weather was fitting. Inside, KU’s C-CHANGE NSF IGERT program hosted a symposium entitled, “Preservation and Innovation: Climate Change, Agriculture and Wind Energy in the Kansas Flint Hills.”

Adam Sundberg, a PhD candidate in history, organized the event. The symposium brought in speakers from across a wide spectrum of perspectives, allowing audience members to make their own, informed decisions on the controversial topic of wind energy in the Flint Hills. EPA official Lawrence Gonzalez, Kelly Kindscher of the Kansas Biological Survey, Mark Lawlor of Clean Line Energy, Larry Patton of Protect the Flint Hills, Robert W. Righter, a professor of the American West and Environmental History at Southern Methodist University, and A. Scott Ritchie of Ritchie Exploration, Inc. all presented at the symposium.

Sundberg hoped to engage the audience with an issue dear to the heart of Kansans. According to former Governor Mark Parkinson, the vast potential for wind power in Kansas makes it “a battleground for the whole nation” when it comes to wind energy.

Kelly Kindscher

Kelly Kindscher discusses the ecological sensitivity and aesthetic beauty of the Kansas Flint Hills.

By advertising at venues outside of Lawrence, like Emporia State University, Sundberg hoped to reach far beyond the Lawrence community. He was surprised to see the event advertised on Protect the Flint Hills websites and environmentalist blogs. The event was the first symposium that IGERT has hosted, and the turnout surpassed expectations, Sundberg said.

For Sundberg, the issue is complex and personal. In 1997, he moved to Emporia, a Kansas town that proclaims itself to be the “Front Porch to the Flint Hills.”

“Kansas is a gem,” Sundberg said. “Every time friends came from out of state or out of the country, they wanted to see what vastness is, what Kansas nature is. I would take them to the Flint Hills. It’s gorgeous and it’s one of the reasons I love Kansas.”

But as debates about wind energy development in the Flint Hills surged on, Sundberg took note of an interesting dilemma. As an environmentalist, Sundberg observed, one can be either for or against it. On the one hand, alternative energy is a key issue for environmentalists. Kansas, after all, houses one of the highest amounts of wind energy potential in the nation. On the other hand, however, lies the issue of conservation. Wind energy development in the Flint Hills means inviting industry in, Sundberg said. “It means saying, ‘Let’s develop this, let’s make some profit, build up Kansas.’ But we’re doing it at the expense of what?”

Those devoted to keeping wind energy out of the Flint Hills proclaim that the land constitutes a part of the only pristine tallgrass prairie left in the nation. Wind energy development means endangering the local culture and communities, land rights, and the last remaining home of the endangered prairie chicken. Many that live in the area also worry that extensive wind energy development could endanger the aesthetic appeal of the Flint Hills, as massive white columns may obstruct the picturesque view of rolling prairie hills.

“I didn’t know the answer either,” Sundberg said. “I wanted those who were experts to speak their piece.”

Overall, Sundberg said that the event was a success. He hopes that the KU IGERT program can bring in more issues dear to the heart of Kansans.

“If there was a consensus, it was that the Flint Hills are a gem.”