Kansas Solar Energy Lags, but Sprawling Johnson County Solar Farm Could Help Change That

A massive solar farm stretching from west of Gardner possibly into Douglas County will, if it comes to fruition, become the biggest in Kansas, a state that has lagged behind in solar energy development.

Billy Wilkins, project director for the West Gardner Solar Project, said Tuesday that his company, NextEra Energy, has already gotten signatures from landowners for 2,000 acres of the proposed 3,500-acre, $320 million project.

The ground-mounted solar array would not necessarily run contiguously, however. Wilkins said the project would provide setbacks and would likely exclude land that is used for recreation or environmental purposes.

Kansas lags behind in solar

Wilkins and development lawyer John Petersen discussed the project with the county planning commission, which is beginning to consider development rules for solar utility projects.

County codes do not currently make any mention of the fast-growing solar industry, so officials are working with the consultants from Virginia-based Berkley Group, to find out what has worked elsewhere.

While solar energy has taken off in other states, Kansas is part of an area stretching from North Dakota to Oklahoma where development has lagged, said Denise Nelson, environmental engineer with the Berkley Group.

Kansas has no statewide energy plan for solar, Nelson said.

According to figures from the Solar Energy Industries Association, Kansas was 45th in the country last year in solar energy, with less than 0.2% of its energy coming from solar.

Statewide, there are enough solar panels installed to generate 82 megawatts of power. But they are spread over 1,104 sites, indicating that the majority are small scale.

The recently opened Johnson Corner solar project, in Stanton County on the state’s western border, is currently billed as the largest in the state. It generates about 20 megawatts.

The proposed West Gardner project would potentially generate 500 megawatts, according to its website. NextEra also said it hopes to have the West Gardner facility on line by the end of 2023.

Unanswered questions

Since the plan is still in formative stages, no exact boundaries have been set.

The NextEra web page estimates the project will generate up to 250 construction jobs and $10 million in tax revenue over 20 years. The array would be made up of photovoltaic panels mounted in the ground.

No details were available on where the electricity might be sold or to whom.

Petersen and Wilkins said NextEra is interested in Johnson County because of the amount of sunshine, the business climate and proximity to the West Gardner substation to deliver the power.

The county planning commission and NextEra’s first point of disagreement may be about a proposed limit on the size of solar acreage.

The consultant and planning staff recommended a limit of 1,000 acres, but Petersen, the lawyer representing NextEra, said competitive projects will need to have some size to them.

“Size does not mean it can’t fit well within a community,” he said. “To artificially cap a project at 1,000 (acres), we’re not going to get the state-of-the-art, utility-grade type facility that we hope Johnson County wants to contribute to this overall effort.”

Wilkins said the trend now is for larger solar farms, as the cost of building them has come down.

Planners also are considering other setbacks and screening, including that the projects be more than a mile from cities and airports.

Long-term planning needed

There are a lot of new issues to consider in regulating solar developments, Nelson, the consultant, said.

Since they can be operational for as long as 40 years, planning officials need to make sure there’s a plan for paying for the removal of the equipment and perhaps return to farmland when they are retired.

Planners in other places have also required extensive screening and wildlife corridors through the arrays, Nelson said.

Other aspects of solar farms also will need some development standards, including substations, connecting lines and battery storage facilities. But those were not addressed at Tuesday’s meeting.

Planning commissioners mostly asked questions about the issues they will face but did not express an opinion about the West Gardner project.

However, Commissioner James Neese questioned whether solar facilities might tie up too much land that is too near population centers that are growing.

No action was taken, but the commission will keep working with the consultant and NextEra towards a possible June public hearing.


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