Your Turn: Massive, industrial solar project is actually horrifying

As a lifelong environmentalist, I was excited to hear of a solar installation in my part of Douglas County. I had visions of the lovely solar farms I had seen in Germany and Switzerland, where solar panels, glinting among the trees, followed the curves of the land and provided shelter to cows grazing below. Then I saw what Nextera had planned for our beautiful corner of Douglas County and was horrified. This is a massive, industrial solar project that could destroy thousands of acres of woods and pastures, cutting into erosive soils, displacing the wildlife and old oak-hickory forests, and threatening two watersheds. The plans were not disclosed to local residents for three years until it reached the final phase of seeking permits from Douglas County and Johnson County planning and zoning commissions.

Why should Lawrence residents be concerned about an industrial solar complex far from where they live? Lawrence residents have a lot to lose and little to gain from the proposed solar farm. Wineries, farm stands, historic landmarks now along shady roads will be surrounded on one or two sides by high chain-ink fences that come right up to the road (Nextera is asking to dispense with the current setbacks and requesting zero setbacks). There is a concern county taxes will have to go up to provide for additional personnel and equipment to monitor and protect the area, with the project not generating enough in taxes to cover those costs for many years. Energy generated by the solar farm will not directly benefit Lawrence electric consumers; it will just go back to the grid, unlike most of the solar we generate from our rooftops.

Lawrence also may lose its reputation for a city that cares about environmental and social justice. This kind of industrial solar is often portrayed as providing green energy — but similar installations have scraped the forests and pastures that capture carbon. Wildlife is trapped behind fencing; native plants and beneficial insects are killed with chemical spraying; groundwater is polluted with toxic runoff; and hundreds of acres of dead brush increase fire danger. Industrial solar often also relies upon the cheapest solar panels made in China with coal-fired energy, unlike the domestically manufactured panels used by Lawrence companies. 

 This is not green, carbon-neutral energy, but rather a cynical project planned by a tax credit-fueled energy giant for profit alone, with little care about the human costs. 

Until this proposed project, solar farms in Kansas have always been built in sparsely populated areas. The enormous decommissioned Sunflower plant surely would have been a better choice than this area. During the Kaw Valley Farm this past weekend, many could drive the miles of beautiful countryside south from North 700 to North 300 Road and east from East 2200 Road to Evening Star Road and ask themselves if this historic, natural part of Douglas County should give way to miles of massive solar industry. 

For reasons of environmental and social justice and plain common sense, Lawrence and Douglas County residents need to make their voices heard at the Douglas County Planning meetings Oct. 25 and Oct. 27, where a text amendment establishing standards for solar energy conversion systems in Douglas County is likely to be considered.

— Barbara Kerr is co-chair of Citizens for Responsible Solar Energy-Douglas County.


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