Douglas County leaders approve first project under new regulations for solar facilities, calling it ‘an example of what community solar’ can look like

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center CEO Patrick Schmitz listens as Douglas County Commissioner Patrick Kelly reads a proclamation declaring the month of May as Mental Health Month during the Wednesday, May 17, 2023 Douglas County Commission meeting.

Douglas County leaders have approved the first solar facility in the county since new regulations for such projects were implemented last year — the roughly 12-acre “Stull Solar Farm” just south of Lecompton.

At Wednesday’s Douglas County Commission meeting, commissioners approved a conditional use permit for the project. It’s a collaboration between Evergy and FreeState Electric Cooperative, a rural electric cooperative that serves nine counties in eastern Kansas including Douglas County. As the Journal-World reported, Evergy is set to develop and operate the project with the intent that FreeState would eventually purchase the facility, which will be located on about 12.6 acres of a 117-acre parcel.

“… I’m excited this is our first project application that we’re seeing,” Commissioner Shannon Reid said during Wednesday’s meeting. “It is an example of what community solar on a smaller scale can look like and how to really maximize that, so it was a really fun project application to read.”

Jill Taggart, the finance manager for FreeState, told commissioners that the energy generated at Stull Solar Farm will be used by the roughly 1,300 customers served by FreeState meters locally.

Commissioners spent an ample amount of time discussing agrivoltaics — the simultaneous use of land for solar energy generation and agriculture. In this case, Evergy plans to work with the Kansas Biological Survey to develop a vegetation plan and seed mix for the site so it can also be used as a pollinator habitat. Previous plans called for allowing grazing on the project site, but representatives at Wednesday’s meeting said that’s no longer being pursued for the time being.

Although the plan ultimately won unanimous approval, all three commissioners seemed to agree that it didn’t go far enough as far as agrivoltaics are concerned — and they’ve all got much higher aspirations concerning any future projects, especially those planning on operating at a larger scale.

“As we get more and more projects before us, I’m going to have higher and higher expectations for agrivoltaics,” Commissioner Patrick Kelly said. “I’m fine with what you’ve got here, but I’m going to want to see more.”

Commissioners also heard from a few public commenters, some of whom voiced support for the project. Others, though, said that while they weren’t against this particular project, they were opposed to any larger-scale renewable energy projects that may manifest in the future. That’s been a common refrain from a group of commenters at recent county meetings where renewable energy is a topic, as two such solar projects are currently in the works in Douglas County — one also involving Evergy and the other being floated by Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources.

All three commissioners pushed back against a notion one commenter implied — that any energy produced in Douglas County should only be used locally. Kelly said although he understands folks may see that as a way of ensuring a project has more local control, operating under that logic would discourage companies from doing business in Douglas County and could make the county come across as “isolationist.”

In other business, commissioners:

• Read a proclamation declaring the month of May as Mental Health Month in Douglas County.

• Approved a request to redirect $121,500 from the county’s psychiatry supplemental fund to support the addition of a new child psychiatrist at Heartland Community Health Center.

Since 2018, the fund has been used to support and sustain psychiatry providers throughout the county’s behavioral health care system. Representatives with Heartland told commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting that the psychiatrist hire is already lined up and the funding is intended to help support bringing them on board. The agency is set to ask for another $121,500 to support the position via a supplemental request during the county’s upcoming 2024 budget process.

• During a work session, heard an update about the progress of preliminary design work for the county’s facilities master plan review and the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center remodel project.


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