At 8 million square feet, solar project would be same size as 4,000 homes; worries of flooding grow in Kaw Valley

photo by: Adobe Stock

Aerial drone view of solar panels at a solar energy generation farm at Sunset in South Wales, UK

In this place north of North Lawrence, the farmers count acres, the fellows at the grain elevator count bushels, and next to no one counts houses.

Why would they in this land dominated by flat, black, tilled fields? Everybody from the pickup driver on the gravel road to the crows overhead knows that there are few of them. What’s more, not many of the residents here are particularly interested in having more of them.

Another house, after all, is just something that blocks a tractor’s path.

In all of Grant Township — one of several names for this place north of North Lawrence — there are 169 homes spread across its approximately 11,000 acres, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Simple enough. As the crow said, not very many. But soon, the counting around here may get more complicated. Plans have been filed for a utility-scale solar “farm” that would put 237,300 solar panels on about 600 acres of farm fields. That is nearly 8 million square feet of solar panels.

photo by: Shawn Valverde

This site north of Lawrence is the proposed location of the Kansas Sky Energy Center solar project.

That is a hard number to count in any part of Douglas County. The Kansas Sky Energy Center — being developed for the state’s largest utility, Evergy — is geographically the largest commercial development ever proposed for the county. Do not go looking for an 8 million square foot building in Douglas County. You won’t find it.

One way to picture 8 million square feet is that it is equivalent to 4,000 homes that are each 2,000 square feet in size. At its current pace, that is more homes than the entire city of Lawrence would construct in 30 years. Add an extra battery to your calculator, if you want to figure how many years it would take Grant Township to build 4,000 homes.

photo by: Kansas Sky Energy application

The type and model of solar panel planned for the Kansas Sky Energy Center are shown.

photo by: Kansas Sky Energy application

The boundaries of the Kansas Sky Energy project are shown. Also shown are soil types in the project. Areas shown in red are soils that are rated to have high stormwater runoff potential.

There are several reasons that the township doesn’t have many homes, with a chief one being flooding concerns. Every square foot of land that a home occupies is one square foot of land no longer available to absorb rainfall. In short, if the rain doesn’t get absorbed, it will flow to creeks and streams that ultimately become swollen and flood. Due to the lay of the land, much of that water flows into North Lawrence, home to more than a thousand homes and tens of millions of dollars in businesses.

But, let’s stop right here. A house and a solar panel are not the same thing. It would be unfair to say that a solar panel has the same impact on the Kansas River valley as a single-family home. A key difference between the two: There is no floor to a solar panel.

Where the ground beneath a home’s roof would be covered with concrete or foundations, the solar panels proposed for this project would have grass underneath them. That grassland is going to absorb some water, but how much? Any water that reaches it will be water that flows across it, rather than falls from above. That makes a difference.

But just days before this project is set to possibly be approved by the Douglas County Commission — it meets Saturday for a special meeting — how much water this solar farm may send to flood-prone North Lawrence is unclear.

In some ways, that is not surprising. The Journal-World has spent weeks researching regulations related to stormwater and solar farms across the country. The industry is new enough that reliable data on how much stormwater is produced by large solar farms is scarce. But the Journal-World investigation did find three noteworthy items related to the Kansas Sky Energy Center project.

• Douglas County planners are declining to use a stormwater computer model that regulators from across the country say is the gold standard for estimating stormwater impacts of solar farms. When the project went before the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, the sole stormwater report was one produced by a consultant hired by the developers.

• City of Lawrence engineers have not reviewed the project at all, despite the existence of a 2005 drainage study that warns North Lawrence’s stormwater infrastructure is already at risk of failure, even if the area north of North Lawrence doesn’t further develop. The study makes clear tens of millions of dollars of new infrastructure would be needed to adequately alleviate flooding risks in North Lawrence.

• The county’s engineer also is aware of the city drainage study — and generally agrees that the Kansas Sky Energy Center project would violate key tenets of the study. But the county is declining to use that study as a reason to recommend denial of the project. Instead, county officials are betting that they and the solar farm’s developers will come up with on-site engineering solutions that will prevent the stormwater from reaching North Lawrence. But they also acknowledge that if the water does reach North Lawrence, it will produce problems for homes and properties.

Signs have popped up in the area north of North Lawrence urging county commissioners to deny the project. Some are arguing that the project could be relocated to another area of the county with fewer land and stormwater issues.

The county engineer also has acknowledged that he’s being asked to give his approvals to the project — the largest the county has ever considered — using the county’s conditional use permit process, which moves much faster and produces fewer details than what would be required if the project were in the city limits.

“The CUP is not suited to this, but we are having to make it work,” said Douglas County Engineer Chad Voigt, who is doing all the county’s stormwater review of the project.

Add it all up, and the situation is creating both discomfort and worry for some North Lawrence residents. In a town like Lawrence, it is uncomfortable to oppose a green energy project. Opponents note they are not denying climate change nor renewable energy’s potential to mitigate it. But they also are convinced the hundreds of thousands of solar panels will create more stormwater runoff that enters North Lawrence, gets trapped by the Kansas River levee, and then floods their homes and businesses.

“There will be collateral damage,” said Ted Boyle, the longtime president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association. “North Lawrence will need to learn how to swim.”

But, of course, climate change is creating worry among large segments of the population too. Lauren McPhillips, a Penn State assistant professor of engineering who researches stormwater impacts of solar projects, said regulators also have to think about the alternative of doing nothing. Climate change also will produce a lot of flooding, if we don’t start adding massive amounts of renewable energy.

“We have to strike the balance of doing our best to do it right but not letting that hold us up forever such that we are locking in worse impacts everywhere,” McPhillips said.

About the project

The Douglas County Commission will meet at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 13 at the Douglas County Public Works facility, 3755 E. 25th St., to consider approval of a conditional use permit for the Kansas Sky Energy Center solar project.

The 159-megawatt solar project would produce enough electricity for about 30,000 homes per year. Approximately 237,300 solar panels would be grouped together on about 600 acres of ground in Grant Township, north of North Lawrence. The groups of solar panels would be spread out among 1,105 acres of the largely rural area.

The proposed facility would be located west of the intersection of East 1450/U.S. Highways 24 and 59 with one parcel at the northwest corner of East 1400 and U.S. Highway 24/59 and another in the southwest corner of the intersection of East 1500 and North 2000 roads.

Plan problems

Here are a couple of facts to know about North Lawrence: The Kansas River levee is North Lawrence’s friend. The Kansas River levee is North Lawrence’s foe. Which one is true at any given time depends on which way the water is moving.

If you are trying to be protected from rising water levels in the Kansas River, the levee is friend. If you are trying to be protected from rainwater that is trying to flow into the river, the levee is foe. The levee acts as a dam to that stormwater. Basically, the only way it can reach the river is to be pumped through pipes.

North Lawrence is worried about the latter with this solar project. A study sitting on a shelf at Lawrence City Hall is worried as well. The 2005 North Lawrence Drainage Study warned city and county officials that North Lawrence’s system of pipes and pumps in 2005 was extremely strained. Its main recommendation was an $11 million pump — $17 million in today’s dollars. The pump station would be built north of North Lawrence. It would capture the stormwater that falls on those farm fields and flows towards North Lawrence. It would pump the water around North Lawrence, alleviating the current strain on the system.

The pump has never been built. The fact the pump has never been built has previously been used as a reason to dissuade development in the valley. But now, this solar project would add 8 million square feet of structure to the valley, more structure than has ever been added to the valley at one time.

“It is being selfish, stupid, ignorant and in denial,” Boyle said of the idea of allowing the solar project to proceed without building the pump.

While Voigt doesn’t use any of those words, he does think the North Lawrence Drainage Study is important. He was the City of Lawrence’s stormwater engineer when it was developed. It was a warning that North Lawrence is “in trouble,” he said. At one point during an interview with the Journal-World, he said: “As you said, that pump station should be built.”

But he’s unwilling to say the pump station must be built before this solar project can proceed. The solar project is not causing the need for the pump. The city and the county have never come together to build the pump. A project shouldn’t necessarily be denied because those parties have failed to act. Instead, the project should be given a chance to prove that it can contain its own stormwater runoff. If the solar project can contain its runoff on its 1,100-acre site, then it won’t cause any new problems for North Lawrence, he said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The Kansas River levee is shown on April 3, 2024. The levee runs through North Lawrence, but also extends into the countryside, shown above.

A stormwater plan will show how that runoff can be contained. But the plan is not yet complete. A previous plan created by the developers recently was rejected by Voigt. The new plan won’t be completed before Saturday’s County Commission meeting, meaning commissioners will be asked to vote on the project without seeing basic details, such as how many detention basins are needed to contain the stormwater on site.

Eventually, county commissioners will get to see and vote on the stormwater plan, but it will be after Saturday’s key meeting where commissioners will be asked to green-light the solar project. Developers of the solar project — Savion, a renewable energy company owned by the oil and energy giant Shell — declined in an interview with the Journal-World to provide an estimate of when the new stormwater plan would be complete. Whenever it is, residents worry that stopping the project after county commissioners already have given it an approval will be difficult.

“How could I have confidence in the promise that they will get it right in the end — after the vote?” Nancy Thellman — a former Douglas County commissioner who represented the area, who still lives in Grant Township and has a son who farms in the valley — said. “The county’s solar regulations only required a preliminary stormwater plan, and they couldn’t get that right. When it is time to come up with the real plan, it will be too late.”

A Savion official told the Journal-World the company ultimately will prove to residents that it is committed to managing the project’s stormwater impacts appropriately.

“We are experts in this,” said Brianna Baca, development director for Savion. “We are a renewable energy developer/owner/operator at Savion and have been doing this for years … We are thankful for the conversations we have had with these folks and all that goes into designing a good project that the county and the community can get behind.”

photo by: Adobe Stock

Aerial drone view of solar panels at a solar energy generation farm at Sunset in South Wales, UK

Silent City

This proposed solar project would be entirely in unincorporated Douglas County. But, you could argue the biggest risks associated with the project can be found inside Lawrence city limits. If the developers are wrong and they can’t contain all the stormwater on their site, North Lawrence properties are likely to flood more often than they already do.

Voigt has acknowledged as much: “After experience, if we come back and the runoff is higher, it will make everybody go back and read the North Lawrence Drainage study again to figure out where those pump stations go,” he said.

It also is easy to imagine which door will be knocked on for funding. The flooding would be happening inside the city limits. It would be city pipes and infrastructure that can’t keep up with the water. The city could be on the hook for those costs, and they could be significant. The key pump station had a 2005 cost of $11 million, but the study recommended $42 million in projects in total — more than $65 million in today’s dollars.

So, what does the City of Lawrence think of a need for this pump station or other infrastructure prior to the construction of the solar project? No one knows. Both Voigt and Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky acknowledged that they’ve never asked the city whether it thinks the city’s stormwater infrastructure is at risk if the project is built without the pump.

As a former elected official, Thellman said that is bad government.

“That this project has not been presented to the city, and the city commissioners don’t know what they are in for if this goes wrong, that is reprehensible,” Thellman said. “If I were a commissioner, I would be furious. On either side, I would be furious, either as a city commissioner or a county commissioner.”

Of course, the project hasn’t been a secret. The City of Lawrence could make its views known even if the county hasn’t asked for them. However, Jeff Crick, the city employee who oversees the planning department for the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, confirmed that the city’s engineers have not reviewed the project “since it isn’t within the Lawrence city limits.”

Boyle, who has been president of North Lawrence’s neighborhood group since 1996 and fought many an issue with City Hall over flooding, said the neighborhood group will hold the city and county responsible for any damage done to North Lawrence by the solar project.

“It will be a costly situation for the residents,” Boyle said of potential flooding. “But it will be costly for the city and the county because there will be lawsuits, I guarantee you.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

High voltage electric transmission lines run through a farm field near the site of the proposed Kansas Sky Energy Center. Developers of the solar project say the presence of the lines is one of the reasons the site would work well for the project.

Another study?

Voigt, the county engineer, thinks this project can work without harming North Lawrence. A stormwater engineer by training, Voigt notes that stormwater detention is a well understood science. You can calculate how big of a detention basin you need to hold a certain amount of water, for instance.

Yes, he acknowledges, it is a little trickier in a river valley like this. Groundwater levels are close to the surface, and if you dig a detention basin too deep — just 6 feet in some cases — the detention basin simply fills up with groundwater and has no room to store stormwater. That is a major worry of area residents, but Voigt said he understands how the groundwater works and will ensure Savion designs the basins to account for it.

What’s harder to understand is how much stormwater a utility-scale solar project produces. How much rainwater gets soaked up by the ground? The massive number of panels, their varying angles, their drip edges and the potential erosion all make it very complicated.

Voigt acknowledges that is problematic. So does the U.S. Department of Energy, which is a big fan of renewable energy. In an article on its website last year, it said regulators like Voigt often have to “make educated guesses or use simple approximations to estimate the runoff” at solar projects.

Yet, that runoff number is the key to reducing the risks for North Lawrence. You can build a stormwater basin to hold X amount of storm runoff. But if the project actually produces X+100 runoff, it won’t matter that you built the basin correctly. It still will overflow and head to North Lawrence.

Recognizing the problem, the Department of Energy funded a program where scientists from the University of Minnesota, the Great Plains Institute and elsewhere measured actual stormwater runoff levels at five solar sites across the country. Using that data, they created a model they are now making available to cities, counties and other jurisdictions that are being asked to approve solar projects.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Evergy’s coal-fired power plant sits just on the other side of the river from the proposed Kansas Sky Energy site. In the foreground an irrigation system waters a sod farm field that has not yet sprouted in this April 2024 file photo.

In neighboring Johnson County — which is preparing for a large solar project to apply there — the county’s top public works official said the model is the “best research we know of” and its findings have guided that’s county’s regulations.

Douglas County, though, is choosing not to use the model. Voigt said he’s unsure the data the model uses is relevant enough to the Douglas County site. A creator of the model disagreed after being told briefly about the Douglas County project. He said he “absolutely” thinks the model would be useful for the Douglas County project.

Its biggest use, he said, might be to ease some worries. He said it is very possible the amount of runoff coming off the proposed solar project might be less than what is coming off the current farm fields because farm fields are notorious for producing large amounts of runoff. That’s a position Savion has been touting from the beginning.

But whether that actually is the case often depends on how the project is designed and constructed, said Brian Ross, vice president of renewable energy with the Great Plains Institute. The model can show what the benefits would be of decompacting the soil after construction, or what happens to runoff if you increase the distance between solar panels, for instance. Voigt acknowledged that he doesn’t know details about several best practices. For instance, he said he knows that many solar farms have solar panel rows spaced 20 feet apart, but he doesn’t know if that is based on science or simply because that creates a comfortable distance to drive a truck between the rows.

Ross said if a project uses the model to employ a full list of best practices, it is not uncommon — especially for projects built on farm fields — to improve the stormwater issues of cities downstream. In that sense, North Lawrence residents might be having the wrong worry. The worry perhaps shouldn’t be that their flooding situation in North Lawrence will get much worse, but rather that local government is missing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the situation much better.

Area residents aren’t sure they can yet agree with that premise. There is skepticism that 8 million square feet of panels will do anything to improve stormwater flooding in North Lawrence. But they do agree with Ross that the county should be using this model to better understand this massive project.

Thellman, the former county commissioner, said she was “shocked” the county is not using the study.

“It is refusing help when you really need help,” she said. “That is the way this whole process has looked to folks from the outside. It has been a do-it-yourself process from the get-go.”

In short, residents remain worried.

“That is very understandable,” Ross said. “It is a huge project, and if things go wrong, it could have a big impact.”


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