Douglas County Commission approves NextEra permits related to solar farm

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Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday approved a request for permits from NextEra Energy Resources in connection with the West Gardner Solar project.

The company was seeking four temporary business use permits that would allow “utility-scale solar-related testing activity,” including boring, pile load testing and electrical resistivity testing.

Dozens of people spanning roughly two and a half hours spoke to the commission, both in favor of and against the company’s request.

Ultimately, the company would like to build “Photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays capable of generating up to 320 megawatts (MW) of clean, renewable energy and 128 megawatts (MW) of battery energy storage,” according to the project website. However, commissioners made clear that their approval of the permits did not necessarily indicate that they would eventually vote to approve a solar farm in the future.

“We heard someone say it’s a ‘foot in the door,’ it’s the ‘first step’ to something — for me, it’s not,” Commission Chair Patrick Kelly said of the proposal. “For me, what I have to do is look at the very specific application that we have in front of us and think about how that impacts landowners in that area.”

Commissioner Shannon Reid said if and when the hypothetical West Gardner solar project application comes to the commission — after going through a full process with staff and the Planning Commission, all of which would be a public process — there will be ample opportunities to “dig into the nuances of those applications, and the concerns within each individual application.”

Reid said it’s also not appropriate for the commission to be asked to “greenstamp” every renewable energy project that comes before them. They have to consider each application, she said, and she takes that seriously. She said she hopes all the people who came out to speak Wednesday would stay engaged with the process and pay attention to the details of the plans that are in front of the commission in the future.

Commissioner Karen Willey said there are a lot of things that the commissioners will get to discuss when or if they receive a conditional use permit that are different from what they were able to discuss Wednesday.

She said these conversations were difficult for her because she’s conflicted — she wants to decarbonize our energy system, but she’s also a “soil health nerd” who spends a lot of her time caring about and learning about how to protect soils. But she wants to see people work together as a community — things are more nuanced than simply a “carte blanche” approach to renewable energy, she said.

Commissioners voted 3-0 to approve the permits.

This map shows the approximate location where the testing will occur:

Map shows the approximate location of testing for which NextEra Energy Resources seeks permits. (Douglas County Commission agenda materials)
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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