Douglas County leaders have big goals as they create local plan to combat climate change
photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World
In Douglas County’s efforts to combat climate change, some local numbers are starting to come into focus.
According to data collected during 2021 through a county initiative, roughly 1.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — a gas that contributes to global warming — was emitted into the atmosphere in Douglas County. Douglas County’s goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, and to be at “net zero” carbon by 2050.
To meet that 2030 goal, Douglas County residents, visitors, businesses and others need to figure out in the next six years how to eliminate about 700,000 metric tons from the county’s annual emissions. For some perspective, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates an average gasoline-powered vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
That means a 700,000-metric-ton reduction would be the equivalent of removing about 150,000 vehicles from the roads of Douglas County, which is not likely. But there are a multitude of ways beyond vehicles to reduce or offset carbon dioxide emissions, and county officials are studying how renewable energy could play a major role in local efforts.
Douglas County commissioners recently were updated on a host of numbers and data as staff members and others work to create a “climate action and adaptation plan” for the county. The need for a plan was identified in Plan 2040, the joint city-county comprehensive plan, which specifically calls for Douglas County to adopt a climate change adaptation and mitigation plan.
Jamie Hofling, the county’s sustainability impact analyst, told commissioners about the central tenets of the plan, which place a heavy emphasis on energy efficiency through utilizing renewable energy resources.
“We want to reduce overall energy consumption,” Hofling said, “while at the same time switching to more renewable sources.”
Kim Criner Ritchie, the county’s sustainability manager, told commissioners that “one theme has continued to emerge” during the ongoing public outreach phase: how the plan ties in with large-scale renewable energy projects. But public input, according to the sustainability team’s draft plan, described residents as “distressed” over the potential impacts of utility-scale renewable energy.
Locally, residents have expressed both support and opposition for a large-scale renewable energy project that’s in the developmental phase. The West Gardner Solar project would take up 1,000 acres of southeastern Douglas County and part of southwestern Johnson County. Another project in southwestern Douglas County might be a potentially large wind farm.
But Criner Ritchie said that “You’re going to find that this plan doesn’t mandate, ban, or prescribe any one energy source or project.
“What it does support is decarbonization,” she said.
photo by: Douglas County government screen shot
While some residents have spoken out against large-scale renewable energy projects, smaller projects haven’t been facing the same blowback. The county’s latest numbers suggest smaller projects could have a positive impact on reducing emissions.
Rooftop solar panels for both residential and commercial properties could potentially increase energy efficiency by 20%, while also resulting in an emissions reduction of 30% or more by 2030, according to the county’s latest numbers.
County commissioners expressed interest in learning more about how those smaller projects could be used in Douglas County. Commissioner Shannon Reid asked Criner Ritchie and Hofling if they were aware of ways to incentivize small-scale renewables for commercial properties. According to the Energy Information Administration, “small-scale solar — also called distributed solar or rooftop solar — refers to solar-power systems with 1 megawatt of capacity or less.”
photo by: Douglas County government screen shot
“I really hope for explicit policy recommendations in the future for us to consider implementing,” Reid said, specifically mentioning the use of rooftop panels for commercial businesses.
Commission Chair Patrick Kelly also said he would “like to see us consider policy around some of those public incentives involving rooftop solar,” and that the county would have to collaborate with the city “because many of these things begin at the city level.”
Criner Ritchie added that she has “pinpointed” incentives that would address the solar equity gap, telling commissioners of a federal program that provides solar rooftop panels for low-income households “to help save on bills and decarbonize our local supply.”
“We did not apply for it directly, but it will be distributed at the state level,” she said. Reid added that she would like to see a focus on “low-income folks, because they tend to have the highest energy bills.”
While rooftops — for solar panels — are likely to be one focus, what the county puts on its roads is expected to be another. One of the plan’s primary objectives is a transition to low-carbon modes of transportation, while also reducing the total number of miles traveled by commuters in the region.
The inventory study identified the transportation sector as the second-largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. The plan mentions the idea of a regional transportation network, which would seek to “build capacity to support regional transportation initiatives, such as expanding demand-based intercity and commuter transit options,” according to the report.
Kelly said that he liked the idea, but was “trying to imagine how it worked.”
“Do you have other communities with our level of density that you’ve looked at that would have something like that?” Kelly asked.
Another part of the plan has less to do with new technology and more to do with how the county responds to and lives with nature.
The plan’s section on “living systems” includes areas such as water quality, soil health, the agricultural sector and biodiversity. During the data collection phase, Criner Ritchie said that the sustainability team heard much concern over the “loss of biodiversity and what that was looking like right here in Douglas County.”
“We also heard that a lot of landscape provides very valuable ecosystem services to us,” she said. “So a lot of ‘living systems’ is looking at the coexistence between our human systems and the natural environment.”
The report notes that ecosystem services for flood control, water filtration, air quality and carbon sequestration “will be critical to our ability to adapt to a changing climate.” Criner Ritchie said that the county’s existing overall tree coverage has the ability to sequester, or remove, “10% of our overall (carbon) emissions.”
“Maintaining (our tree coverage) is very important,” she said. “This is not a factor that we can take for granted and assume that it’s going to continue.”
Protecting trees can be a prime strategy for capturing carbon emissions, but the plan also looks beyond trees.
“There is a lot of interest in increasing our tree canopy,” Hofling said. “But also vegetation in general, knowing we have prairies here.”
Commissioner Karen Willey said she is interested in learning more about the county’s capacity for “regenerative agriculture to sequester carbon in our soils.” Regenerative agriculture is broadly described as practices that put an emphasis on improving soil quality, and can include no-till crop production, year-round plantings, diversifying crop plantings, more precise applications of fertilizers and chemicals and promoting livestock grazing on farm fields, among other practices.
“(That’s) where it should have been in the first place,” Willey said. “But we’ve lost a lot of it due to some of our agricultural practices.”
The county’s sustainability team anticipates that the plan will be considered for adoption by the County Commission in early 2024. Douglas County residents will have an opportunity to learn more about the plan in the next two weeks. Come-and-go open houses about the plan are scheduled for this Monday at the Eudora School District Office, 1310 Winchester Road, and Dec. 12 at the Lecompton Community Building, 333 Elmore St.; both will run from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
For more information, visit: dgcoks.org/caap.