Planning commission splits on plan for massive solar farm north of Lawrence

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Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission members voted on a 4-4 tie to recommend denial of a permit for a massive solar farm north of Lawrence after a meeting that stretched hours into early Tuesday morning.

The permit will soon go to the Douglas County Commission for consideration.

City Planner Mary Miller outlined the project and said city staff recommended approving the permit. The motion included recognition of a series of conditions that the planning commissioners had discussed in order to ensure certain topics would be forwarded to the county commission. 

The Kansas Sky Energy Center, a 159-megawatt solar farm, would be built, owned and operated by Evergy with designs provided by Savion LLC, a division of Royal Dutch Shell based out of Kansas City. If approved, the solar facility, set to be located north of Lawrence, will begin construction in early 2025. The solar farm would comprise 237,300 solar modules, 43 inverter stations, and solar tracking systems.

Much of the multiple hours of deliberation centered around the tension between two competing environmental goals: the need for renewable energy and the need to preserve agricultural land. 

Commissioners Gary Rexroad, Prasanth Duvvur, David Cartaar and Sharon Ashworth voted in favor of the permit. Commissioners Charlie Thomas, Mike Kelso, Chelsi Hayden and Jane Eldredge voted against the permit. Commissioner Steve Munch recused himself from consideration for the solar farm permit at the beginning of the meeting and did not participate in discussion. 

Citing both environmental and economic concerns, Kelso said he didn’t think the project was compatible with the character of the neighborhood. 

Eldredge agreed that the location was not the right spot for the development.

“I don’t think we need it in this location,” Eldredge said. “And I think there’s still so many unanswered questions.”

Both Thomas and Hayden said they thought the process was too quick for such a massive development. Both expressed that they thought the application and the idea of solar energy were necessary but they said they still had major questions about the specific solar project. 

“The burden of proof is on the applicants,” Hayden said.” And when I look through these things, I just have a lot of unanswered questions that I really think have serious consequences that relate to the plans.”

Rexroad said that Savion and Evergy had produced a plan that not only followed but exceeded code requirements, and thus he supported it. He said he couldn’t find a reason to deny because the applicants had been willing to accept the conditions the board offered throughout the night. Carttar agreed.

“From my perspective, we’re not making a decision, we’re making a recommendation,” Carttar said. “And it’s based on the question of whether this application conforms to the code that we as a county created and approved and I think, frankly, it does.”

As the meeting reached its close, Ashworth went down the list of topics the board had discussed and assessed each one before reaching her conclusion to support the permit.

“We are up against a crisis now, a climate crisis,” Ashworth said. “And what’s going to impact wildlife and agriculture more than this individual facility is going to is climate change. And we do need to do something about that.”

Duvvur said the county was changing and its land usage needed to change with it, allowing renewable developments like the planned solar farm to be built on agricultural land. 

Matthew Gough, a lawyer representing Savion, spoke for the company on why the project should be approved by the commission. He argued that the project wasn’t entirely covering viable farm soil.

Matthew Gough

He said that agrovoltaics, the simultaneous use of land for both solar panels and agriculture, would help abate some concerns over the land being used.

He argued that the plan was firmly within the city and county’s regulations, which he said are some of the strictest around. He said this should give commissioners peace of mind that the plan would ensure the preservation of the land the solar panels will occupy.

Public comment

During the public comment period, nearly 50 people spoke, more than 30 of whom spoke against the permit. They argued less against solar energy in general, and more against the specific plot of land and Evergy’s operation of the solar farm.

Commenters argued that the land the solar farm was slated for is valuable land for agriculture, and that the solar project would interfere with its food production. 

One commenter, Steve Crane, who sits on the Douglas County Farm Bureau Board of Directors, called the land “very best farmland in the entire county.” 

Natalya Lowther shared photos and described how the land’s crops exceed expectations because of the quality of the land. She said that denying the permit was needed to preserve the quality soil. 

“I moved here from the Flint Hills of Kansas and I have spent every year since then fighting to preserve these soils because there is nothing like them anywhere,” Lowther said.

Many commentators expressed concern for agrovoltaics, worrying that the emerging system wouldn’t work or that Evergy would abandon it down the road.

Other commenters were concerned about the company set to build, own and operate the farm: Evergy Inc. 

“Public companies care only only about their earnings per share, their bottom lines — not communities, not the environment, not food security, not water safety,” Lawrence resident Paulette Schwerdt said. 

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. 

“We’re kind of a soft target for this kind of a solar project,” Schwerdt said. “Why would that be? Because we very much want green energy, but we have very little experience with it.”

Around 10 people defended the project, arguing that the need for solar energy was the most crucial part of the decision.

Many voiced concern for climate change’s effect on the future and the need for renewable energy sources to help aid the crisis. They said that the need to create large-scale solar energy like the project would help set up future generations with a more livable environment. 

“There’s an awful lot of people who are going to be affected by the decision you’re making now that are not here, and can’t be here,” said Lawrence resident Kevin Nelson. “And I would urge you to continue to think about them, the next generation, because we, as the older generation, are handing them a globe in crisis.”

Sam Gleeson, a Free State High School teacher, said approving the plan would set a good example for students, many of whom are worried about the threat climate change poses to the future.

Many commenters in favor of the project recognized that it could affect the surrounding communities and environment, but they argued that the need to shift away from polluting fossil fuels was pivotal. 

“We don’t know how solar farms will age over time, nor their total impact on the lands and communities,” said commenter Carol Schmitt, who has lived adjacent to the solar farm for more than 30 years. “But we know the impact on our human health and the health of the planet from the decades of fossil fuels being used to supply our energy.”

Zach Pistora, a lobbyist for the environmental group Sierra Club, said that he thought staff had done a good job to ensure that the project would not affect the area’s environment. 

“I think the developers have done a responsible job and extensive planning and consultation to make sure they were doing right by the local ecosystem,” Pistora said. “They have to, they want to buy in, they want a successful project to keep doing business in Kansas.”

Commission discussion

After public comment, commissioners asked questions to representatives from Savion regarding a multitude of issues brought up by public commenters. 

Many commissioners expressed concern over the solar panel piles, the metal rods that support the panels, and the possible contamination that they could cause.

Mike Benjamin, a geologist at Burns & McDonnell, said there was potential for zinc to corrode and end up in the soil, but he said it rarely ends up in groundwater, instead staying local to the soil. 

Hayden said people during public comment had explained how the area soil was corrosive, making the concern for zinc pollution higher in this specific case. 

“There’s no research about the leaching of what this might do in our particular soil in this situation, or something similar to it,” she said. 

Savion’s representatives emphasized that soil testing was a part of the regulations and that the methods they were proposing were well tested and had been used on many solar panel piles.  

Ashworth expressed specific concern over the piles’ removal process. Benjamin Gaskill, an engineer with Savion, said that the piles were driven between 8 to 12 feet into the ground and then fully removed at the end of their useful life without leaving anything behind.   

Hayden said the complete removal of the piles was inconsistent with the document the commission had reviewed and expressed desire for the document to be clarified to confirm that the piles would be removed. 

After discussion of piles, Ashworth transitioned the conversation to a different topic of choice during public comment: agrovoltaics, the system where solar panels and agriculture share space. 

Planning Commissioner Chelsi Hayden, left, and Jason Humphrey, an Evergy representative

Jason Humphrey, an Evergy representative, said that the agrovoltaics industry was young, but that they were continuing to learn about the potential for it.  

“We want this to work,” Humphrey said. “We do plan to be a rather large solar owner operator in the state of Kansas, and there’s no better place for us to learn about this because what we plant is likely to grow in this area.”

Kelso said it was “insulting” that agrovoltaics was being labeled as such a big part of the project when it will only be implemented in a small portion of the massive solar farm. 

Representatives from Savion and Evergy defended the idea as a cutting-edge system that could prove especially effective in the soil for this project. 

“The potential you have here to do something amazing, I’m jealous of it,” said Sarah Moser, with Savion. 

Hayden said that despite the emerging agrovaltaics idea being exciting, there was a lack of firm commitment to it in the proposed plan, echoing concerns made by public commenters. 

Commissioners also discussed impacts on area traffic, possible herbicide use, stormwater, wildlife corridors where animals can pass through the farm, noise thresholds and more.

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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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