Your Turn: Don’t put solar plant on uniquely valuable farmland

photo by: Contributed

Nancy Thellman

As a former Douglas County commissioner, I want to commend the county for its effort to lead on renewable energy. I know from experience it’s hard work, even painful, to bring big, new ideas forward and then be met with opposition. Unfortunately, I find myself on that side of the county these days — opposing the Kansas Sky Energy Center, slated for a vote on April 13. It is not solar energy I object to. Rather, it’s placing our first solar power plant on our very best, most rare Class 1 and 2 soils north of Lawrence.

This massive solar power plant, larger than the University of Kansas campus, would add hundreds of thousands of solar panels, hundreds of thousands of steel piers, and potentially hundreds of acres of impervious surface to an already sensitive flood-prone area. That’s a lot! Now double it, because plans show this facility is designed for expansion, including land reserved for a large electrical substation and a future battery storage facility, neither included in this first vote. That’s all the infrastructure required for a permanent major industrial energy hub on land that until recently was protected by the county because of its uniquely valuable soil.

I know folks’ first thought. Here comes the NIMBY argument, selfish and detached from the public good. But before judging too harshly, I urge an open mind. Not much more than a decade ago, hundreds of us successfully fought to protect this soil, formed by a melting glacier thousands of years ago. It is rare on earth and productive beyond belief! These glacial fields produce yields that are 60-70% higher than any other land in Douglas County, according to the Kansas Corn Commission and Kansas Soy Commission, and that’s not because they’re farmed harder, but because of what they’re made of: rich, deep, dark glacial topsoil connected to a veritable river of groundwater running underneath. When you think of it, isn’t that exactly the kind of land we want to have for the climate-challenged, drought-stricken times we’re already in? But as a solar power plant, these prime acres will be largely locked away from productive agriculture with no assurance the land will ever be returned to its best and highest use. Just fingers crossed.

According to Douglas County soil data, there are only 8,000 acres of these high-quality Class 1 soils in the county. On the other hand, there are tens of thousands of acres of marginal land within one mile of transmission lines. According to the American Planning Association, marginal land, not prime farmland, is where utility-scale solar power plants should go because of how much land they require and how long they’ll be on the land. Prime farmland, the APA advises, is too valuable a community asset if other land is available. We are fortunate to have lots of marginal land.

Here’s the shame of it. As our nation’s traditional food producing regions become too hot and too dry to support growing food, the river valleys of the Midwest will likely become America’s new Central Valley. We are already well positioned for that future given all the hard work of our local farmers and years of county dedication to the local food system. That shift to a food future in the Kansas River Valley is already underway. Hundreds of acres of organic wheatgrass and soy (think tofu!), and dozens of acres of organic vegetables are already farmed in the valley with more to follow as the next generation of farmers take the helm. Regenerative practices like cover-cropping and no-till have been the rule on thousands of Kansas River Valley acres for years. These farmers and these acres advance the county’s stated goals of supporting young farmers and promoting soil health. How ironic to think the county might now upend all that progress to make way for a sprawling solar facility that could and should be developed on less rare and less productive land.

Far from being NIMBYs, those of us who oppose this project do so not because we won’t like the way it looks, or we think it will destroy our property values. We oppose it because it’s not just our backyard that’s at stake. It’s your backyard, too. Within this proposed Kansas Sky Energy power plant are nearly all the acres necessary to grow food for every citizen in Douglas County and beyond — whether by choice or necessity — in the climate-challenged days to come. All I can say is, these river-bottom acres may be few, but they are mighty. And they are worth a fight.

— Nancy Thellman is a former Douglas County commissioner.


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