Planning Commission to consider permit for massive solar farm north of Lawrence

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Planning commissioners on Monday will consider whether to recommend approval of a permit for an approximately 604-acre commercial solar farm across three parcels of land north of Lawrence.

Local utility provider Evergy would build, own and operate the proposed project, dubbed the Kansas Sky Energy Center. Savion LLC, a renewable energy company headquartered in Kansas City, would provide the design. 

Savion is a division of oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. The 159-megawatt solar farm would be located on parcels that constitute 1,105 acres north of Lawrence, west of the airport and south of Midland Junction. 

If the conditional use permit gets initial approval from the planning commission, as city staff members recommend, it will go to the Douglas County Commission for final approval. View the full staff report on the facility and staff members’ recommended conditions for approval at this link.

If approved, construction on the proposed solar farm is estimated to start in early 2025 and the facility would be complete and operational by mid-2026, later than a company official originally estimated at an April public meeting.

At that meeting, Savion representatives estimated the proposed solar facility would generate $110 million in tax revenue for Douglas County over a 25-year operating lifespan. It would only require two to five full-time employees to operate after initial construction by an estimated 175 temporary workers. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Savion plans on display during an April 2023 public meeting

The project will include 237,300 solar modules and 43 inverter stations, devices that take the direct current electricity generated by solar panels and convert it into alternating current electricity that is compatible with the electrical grid.

The proposal includes solar tracking systems, which allow the solar panels to move on an axis and follow the motion of the sun across the sky throughout the day to maximize solar energy production.

The energy generated from the proposed facility will be transmitted to the nearby Midland Junction substation.

The exact location of the site may still change as further engineering work is done, but if the site area were to increase it would require a new permit. 

Some community members have concerns about the location of the site, which is on prime farming soil. City staff members’ report indicates that they do not share those concerns.

“Environmentally sensitive lands on the property include prime farmland and Class 1 and 2 soils. These would be included in the facility, but the area would receive only minimal grading (0.2% of the total site area) and a cover crop of native/pollinator plants or nitrogen fixing plants would help to minimize erosion and maintain the health/quality of the soil,” staff members wrote in the memo to the planning commission. “… The facility is being designed to facilitate agrivoltaic uses and to maintain or improve the health of the soil so that, while being used as a solar energy facility, it would also function as agricultural land and would serve as a land bank.”

Planning commissioners as of Friday afternoon had received 49 pages of public comments about the project, including letters from dozens of people in favor of the project and four letters in opposition. 

Evergy has a coal-fired power plant located south of the river near the proposed solar farm site. Originally, Evergy had stated plans to close the plant by the end of 2023 and replace its generation capacity with solar power. However, the company reversed this decision and announced that the plant would be converted to run on natural gas for occasional operation rather than fully retiring the facility. The switch-up has prompted resistance from climate activists, including a September rally in Lawrence calling for the closure of the plant. 

In June, the Douglas County Commission approved business permits for NextEra to perform “utility-scale solar-related testing activity,” including boring, pile load testing and electrical resistivity testing. The testing area is southeast of Eudora, but commissioners said their approval of the permits did not necessarily indicate that they would eventually vote to approve a solar farm there in the future.

The planning commission on Monday will also consider a text amendment to the county’s zoning and land use regulations. 

The text amendment requested additional plans for groundwater contamination testing, specifically due to concern about potential groundwater contamination caused by zinc released from eroded metal supports for solar panels.

City staff members are recommending a denial of the text amendment because their review found no evidence that zinc from the metal piers posed a risk of groundwater pollution. Currently, regulations require testing of groundwater and soil for possible contamination, according to the planning commission report. 

The applicant for the project and city staff agreed that the solar farm would be compatible with the land that was zoned for agricultural and rural use and wouldn’t disturb the area due to the passive nature of the facility. They also agreed that the site would not pose any negative environmental impacts to area wildlife or water.

See the full meeting agenda at this link

The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18 at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. Meetings are open to the public and livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel,

People may send written public comments to the commission until 10 a.m. the day of the meeting via email to People may also give public comment in person during the meeting or via Zoom; register for the Zoom meeting at this link

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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