Opposition forming on solar farm project that would locate north of Lawrence in Kansas River valley

photo by: Shutterstock

Solar panels are shown in this photo from Shutterstock.

Another big, proposed renewable energy project in Douglas County appears likely to face big opposition.

If you have driven around rural Douglas County at all in recent months, you’ve surely seen the yard signs opposing “industrial” solar projects and big wind energy farms. Neighbors from the eastern and southwestern parts of the county have teamed up to oppose talk of a solar farm near the county line of Douglas and Johnson counties, and talk of a wind farm in the rural areas near the county lines of Franklin and Osage counties.

But technically, both of those projects are just in the talking stage. A different project is further along than both of those — an 1,100-acre solar farm north of North Lawrence that we reported on in April. That project, which would ultimately be operated by Evergy, has filed actual paperwork with county officials.

I don’t know if opposition signs for that project are going to sprout in the Kansas River Valley, but a meeting of neighbors on Monday evening made it clear there is going to be sizable opposition to the project.

“There is going to be one hell of a crowd up there,” Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, said of the Nov. 13 Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission meeting, where the project tentatively is scheduled to have a hearing. “It will probably be standing-room only.”

But, the opposition behind this project may take on a different feel than what is brewing on the east side of the county, where there has been a lot of concern expressed about large expanses of solar panels being in reasonable proximity to rural homes.

At least some of the opponents of this northern project aren’t going to take that tack.

“I’m not worried about living next to solar panels or anything like that,” said Scott Thellman, president of Juniper Hill Farms, which works several hundred acres of ground in the river valley. “This is an issue about soil.”

In short, Thellman said he can’t understand why solar panels should cover some of the highest-rated, most productive farm ground in the county. He said he’s tried to keep an open mind about the project since representatives of the developer approached him in March or April. But now, he said, he’s left with many of the same questions. However, he does have what sounds like the beginning of a slogan.

“It is soil over solar,” Thellman said of how he characterizes his concerns.

If you are having a hard time remembering the details of this north project, don’t feel bad. The project became public in April, and then details were sparse while the development group — the renewable energy firm Savion, which would develop the project for Evergy — filed the paperwork.

But, in general, the project would be on about 1,100 acres near the Midland Junction area, which is about 2.5 miles north of Interstate 70 and the North Lawrence interchange on the Kansas Turnpike. The map below shows more specifics.

photo by: Savion/Kansas Sky Energy

This map shows the area proposed for a solar farm north of Lawrence in the Kansas River valley

According to the website for the project — dubbed Kansas Sky Energy — the solar panels would generate 159 MW of electricity. In terms of how many homes that would power, that is an equation that would require me to take off my shoes, consult a dictionary and still probably file a medical claim involving a slide rule. But, by almost any estimate, it would power several thousand homes.

It would do so in an area characterized by flat land that catches a lot of sunlight, relatively few homes, and a multitude of high-voltage electric transmission lines that come out of Evergy’s coal-fired power plant that operates on the south banks of the Kansas River.

A lot of those attributes are qualities that energy companies find desirable in creating an efficient project — especially the part about being near electric transmission lines, which cost millions of dollars to build new.

While all those attributes point to an efficient project, the recent history of the Kansas River Valley north of town would point to some potential problems for the project. Whether it be an industrial park or storage units, North Lawrence residents and others have fought many a project that aims to develop on the prime farmland of the river valley.

Perhaps there was a thought this one would be different because it doesn’t involve a big building or large parking lots. Solar panels, after all, can be installed in ways that theoretically allow for productive farming or grazing to happen beneath them.

Thellman said the solar developers on this project have mentioned incorporating such agricultural practices in the project, but he hasn’t seen much in the way of guarantees that it would actually happen or work.

“It seems much more of a vision they have, at this point,” Thellman said.

I’ve reached out to the development group for comment on this and other aspects of the project, but haven’t yet heard back.

The project will be an interesting one to watch, as the solar panels would change the area, and the multimillion-dollar project could create a significant new tax base for the area just north of Lawrence.

However, the project also will be interesting to watch in the broader context of renewable energy proposals in Douglas County. Lawrence is considered perhaps the most liberal city in the state, and the push to add more renewable energy to the U.S. power grid has been deemed urgent by progressives.

Yet, a narrative could be forming that sizable portions of the Douglas County population are against not one, but three, renewable energy projects that have tried to locate in the county. Could Douglas County call itself green and progressive, if that were the case?

Admittedly, that is a loaded question. But Thellman told me he recognizes the broader issues at play here. That’s why he said he’s adamant his opposition to this project is not based on a “not in my backyard type of argument.”

There were about 70 people at Monday’s meeting — which was organized by neighbors rather than the developer — and Thellman can’t speak for all of them. But he said he sensed that there were a lot of people who shared his concern that this is about protecting prime farmland rather than not wanting to live next to solar panels.

He said he thinks there are hundreds and probably thousands of acres in Douglas County that are suitable for solar farm development. In fact, one such site might be across from his home north of Lawrence. He lives on the edge of the river valley, and he said the land just to the north of him is marginal ground from an agricultural standpoint.

“If they asked for solar across the street from our home operation, I don’t think, other than asking for some dust abatement, I would ask for much of anything,” Thellman said.

But when a company proposes to put solar on land that has a proven history of producing crops at a much higher rate than ordinary land — and has easy access to water — Thellman said he thinks a community can be both progressive and still oppose a particular renewable energy project on a particular piece of ground.

“Our best farm ground in Douglas County is a resource we need to give extra consideration to,” Thellman said.

Thus far, most of the opposition to the three renewable energy projects mentioned above has come from rural residents. The fact that the North Lawrence Improvement Association, based in the city limits, is getting involved with opposition efforts on this project is noteworthy. If these projects advance far enough to reach the Douglas County Commission, it will be interesting to watch whether a rural/urban divide emerges — i.e. city residents who are supportive of renewable energy broadly versus rural residents who are being asked to not only be supporters but true neighbors to the effort.


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