Permit application materials shed light on 1,100-acre solar energy facility proposed for land north of Lawrence
photo by: Savion/Kansas Sky Energy
A solar energy facility that’s proposed for 1,100 acres just north of Lawrence is officially the first large-scale project to have filed permit application materials with Douglas County planning staff.
As the Journal-World has reported, the Kansas Sky Energy Center project — a collaboration between Kansas City energy company Savion and Evergy — as of late October had filed paperwork with county officials, a significant step that large-scale renewable energy projects developing in other areas of Douglas County have yet to take. That conditional use permit application paperwork is now posted on the project’s website for anyone to read. Some of those documents are dated in mid-August and have been updated as recently as Nov. 17.
Along with laying out the major details of the project, the application includes supplementary materials like impact studies, site management plans and more. Below are some of the highlights of the application, and a review of what steps will happen from here.
The Journal-World has reported before that the project would be located on approximately 1,105 acres and generate 159 MW of solar energy. The application says approximately 604 acres will make up the “site area,” the footprint of the solar facility excluding the fence around it. The fenced area will encompass approximately 734 acres of the total project area.
Savion has been handling the project development and application process, and Evergy will build, own and operate it if the permit is approved. The application says that once it’s operational, the facility will be capable of supplying electricity to approximately 30,000 Kansas homes annually.
Project plans call for an unstaffed facility, with occasional visits for operations and maintenance, on a 25-year permit term. The application materials say that pending regulatory approval, construction of the project is slated to begin in 2024 and be completed in 2025.
As for where this project would be, it’s near the Midland Junction area a couple miles north of Interstate 70 and the North Lawrence interchange on the Kansas Turnpike. Its boundaries run up to Lawrence Regional Airport to the west, for further reference. Per the application, it’s also located entirely on parcels privately owned by four landowners who have chosen to enter into long-term leases or purchase options with the applicants. Savion has been leasing land and undertaking other prep work for the project since 2021, as the Journal-World has previously reported.
The application says this is an area with “several unique qualities” making it an ideal location for the project, including that it will require only a minimal amount of site grading and is located far enough away from nearby residences to meet or exceed minimum setback requirements.
“The project proposes to interconnect to the transmission grid located at the Midland Junction substation (2024 E. 1400 Road),” the application reads. “Consequently, the project area has convenient access to the electrical grid, minimizing the need for new overhead transmission lines.”
Though this is the first large-scale solar energy project to begin the application process, it wouldn’t be the first solar facility to have been approved under the county’s new regulations for such projects. That would be the roughly 12-acre Stull Solar Farm located just south of Lecompton, a project also involving Evergy.
The application argues that the facility will have a “long-term beneficial effect on the natural environment,” through actions like a post-construction re-vegetation treatment with native and naturalized seed mixes and a proposed agrivoltaics plan.
That plan, for example, promises that the project will include agrivoltaic uses, which refers to the simultaneous use of land for solar energy generation and agriculture. Areas inside the project fence will be selected for agrivoltaic research falling into one of five categories, like livestock grazing and the planing of specialty crops such as sunflowers or lavender. “Ecosystem services” is another category, involving the creation or restoration of wildlife habitat through the use of vegetative cover containing native grasses and other plant life that would re-establish the native prairie ecosystem in the area. The two other areas would involve more plantings of the perennial or apiary varieties, the latter of which are the preferred habitat for pollinators and would include beehives or boxes on site.
Concerned neighbors have already told the Journal-World that this project in particular is a concern because it would cover some of the most productive farmland in the county with solar panels. In fact, more than half of the project area — approximately 595 areas — is prime farmland, the type of land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for agricultural production. According to the application, the vegetation management and agrivoltaic treatments are intended to “preserve and enhance” those soils so they’re suitable for agricultural use once the project is decommissioned.
After a project applicant and county planning staff have finalized the specifics of a conditional use permit application, the next step is for it to go to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission for consideration. That was originally supposed to happen when the Planning Commission met on Monday, Nov. 13, but the application was deferred until a future meeting.
That means the next chance for the Planning Commission to consider the application will be a few weeks from now at its Monday, Dec. 18, meeting; the agenda for that meeting likely won’t be released until the week prior. But that body isn’t the only step in the process. The Planning Commission only votes on what recommendation to provide to the Douglas County Commission for final approval. The County Commission, meanwhile, meets two days later on Wednesday, Dec. 20, but that may be too early for the application to appear on the agenda if the Planning Commission reaches a consensus to recommend approval.
Whatever the case, both meetings are likely to draw a crowd. Neighbors to the project like Ted Boyle, the president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, have already told the Journal-World that whenever the Planning Commission does take up the permit application, there will be significant opposition.
That isn’t new when it comes to commercial-scale renewable energy projects that are working toward development in Douglas County. For example, the last time the Planning Commission took up business related to wind energy project regulations, dozens of community members packed Lawrence City Hall and gave hours of public comment.