1,105-acre Kansas Sky Energy Center solar project earns unanimous approval from Douglas County Commission

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

About 130 people — enough to fill both the main meeting room and a spillover space next door — attended the Douglas County Commission's special meeting to determine the fate of the 1,105-acre Kansas Sky Energy Center project on Saturday, April 13, 2024.

Story updated at 7:50 p.m. Saturday, April 13:

The 1,105-acre Kansas Sky Energy Center solar project no longer has much standing in the way of its construction on agricultural land in Grant Township after earning unanimous approval from the Douglas County Commission on Saturday evening.

Commissioners have approved a conditional use permit for the first industrial-scale solar energy project in Douglas County, which is slated to be located just north of Lawrence and west of Lawrence Regional Airport. The 159-megawatt facility capable of supplying electricity to approximately 30,000 Kansas homes annually is a joint venture from Kansas City energy firm Savion, a subsidiary of oil and energy giant Shell, and Evergy.

Despite commissioners’ approval, it’s a project they also described as “daunting” ahead of their vote Saturday, which took place nearly 10 hours into a meeting dedicated wholly to considering the conditional use permit for the project. The application would have failed had it not earned unanimous approval from commissioners, because of a successful protest petition filed in March by a group of people who own land near the project site.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Douglas County Commission Chair Karen Willey, left, asks a question during the County Commission’s special meeting on Saturday, April 13, 2024.

All three commissioners expressed concerns about the project, from county staff’s capacity to manage the project to outstanding plans that still must be completed for the project to move forward. But Commissioner Shannon Reid said she considered the group’s approval a “process, not a promise,” which she plans to watch closely.

“I totally appreciate and understand and even relate to why some people are skeptical that a yes vote today is not a promise that the project is happening and will be there, period, no matter what,” Reid said. “For whatever it’s worth to any of you, this is a process and not a promise to me, and I take that process seriously — and every step of the process I will scrutinize further.”

Commissioners also voiced appreciation for the amount of public participation on Saturday and earlier on as the project worked through the process. Commissioner Patrick Kelly, in particular, said that land use decisions like this one are often “messy” because of their polarizing nature. Kelly said he’s never seen a project with such “even differences of opinion” from the public.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Former Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman speaks during the County Commission’s special meeting on Saturday, April 13, 2024.

Opinions like those Kelly described took up a significant portion of the lengthy meeting. Commissioners heard more than three hours of public comments from 61 people on Saturday. Around 130 people attended the meeting in total, enough that county staff had to direct about half of that group to an adjacent spillover room at the Douglas County Public Works building on the eastern edge of Lawrence.

Of that group, 36 commenters — including former County Commissioner Nancy Thellman and prolific earthwork artist Stan Herd — said they were opposed to the project.

The common refrains from opponents were not new concerns. One of them was that it would be premature to approve the conditional use permit without seeing the final versions of key planning documents required by the county’s regulations for solar projects.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Douglas County Engineer Chad Voigt addresses the Douglas County Commission during the group’s special meeting on Saturday, April 13, 2024.

As the Journal-World has reported, many of those concerns relate to the stormwater management plan for the project, which has yet to be approved. Douglas County Engineer Chad Voigt rejected the project team’s preliminary plan, and a new plan wasn’t completed in time for Saturday’s meeting. Voigt told commissioners early on Saturday that there would be “a lot of work to do” if the application was approved.

Another incomplete plan has to do with agrivoltaics, the simultaneous use of land for solar energy generation and agriculture. Evergy, which will construct, own and operate the project, previously committed to partnering with conservation nonprofit The Nature Conservancy to help develop that plan.

Representatives with the company told commissioners Saturday that they’re considering establishing an advisory committee and engaging in community outreach, but were noncommittal when asked whether they’d have some members of that group be appointed by the County Commission.

One commenter who opposed the project, Jeff Southard, likened the issue to a sales tax measure for Truman Sports Complex in nearby Jackson County, Missouri, that failed resoundingly earlier this month. Southard said Kansas City voters rejected a plan that asked the community to grant approval for hundreds of millions in spending on the Chiefs and Royals’ stadiums, despite a lack of concrete plans.

Planner Mary Miller told commissioners that while the conditional use permit needed unanimous approval, any of the plans that must come back to the group for further review won’t. The requirements resulting from a successful protest petition only apply to public hearing items like this type of permit, Miller said.

The other 25 commenters on Saturday, meanwhile, said they were supportive of the project for various reasons. A few of them were direct neighbors to the project site, and others were with advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club. Some proponents of the project said concerns about climate change should outweigh any concerns about the project as a whole.

Others specifically said they hoped an active large-scale renewable energy project would lead to an earlier retirement for Evergy’s coal-fired Lawrence Energy Center power plant.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Prolific earthwork artist Stan Herd addresses the Douglas County Commission during the group’s special meeting on Saturday, April 13, 2024.


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