Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing sources of renewable power in the United States, but not everyone is welcoming the expansion of solar farms in their communities. In Kansas, two counties have recently imposed new restrictions on the size and location of solar projects, citing concerns over land use, aesthetics, and environmental impacts.
NextEra’s West Gardner Solar Project Sparks Controversy
One of the main drivers of the solar boom in Kansas is NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based company that announced plans last year for its West Gardner Solar Project, a 320-megawatt project on 3,500 acres in Johnson and Douglas counties in eastern Kansas. If built, the project would be the largest utility-scale solar farm in the state, generating enough electricity to power thousands of homes and businesses.
However, the project has faced strong opposition from some local residents, who fear that the solar farm would ruin the rural character of their area, lower their property values, and pose safety and environmental risks. They have also questioned the transparency and accountability of NextEra, which they accuse of having close ties with county officials and offering misleading information about the benefits of the project.
Carrie Brandon, who lives near the proposed project in Johnson County, is one of the most vocal critics of the solar farm. She is a member of Kansans for Responsible Solar, a group that has pushed for stricter solar regulations in the county.
Brandon says she is not against solar energy in general, but she believes that it should be developed in a more responsible and sustainable way, taking into account the needs and preferences of the local communities.
Counties Adopt New Solar Regulations
In response to the public outcry, both Johnson and Douglas counties have approved new rules that limit the duration, size, and location of solar projects. Johnson County restricts the size of the solar farms to 2,000 acres, and bans them in the Flint Hills ecoregion, a unique prairie landscape that covers much of eastern Kansas. Douglas County limits the size of the solar farms to 1,000 acres, with an option to expand by another 1,000, and requires them to be at least 1,000 feet away from any residence.
The new regulations also set standards for decommissioning, fencing, screening, noise, glare, and wildlife protection. Additionally, they require solar developers to obtain a conditional use permit from the county, which involves a public hearing and a review by the planning commission and the county commission.
NextEra has not yet applied for a permit for its West Gardner Solar Project, and it is unclear how the new regulations will affect its plans. The company did not respond to a request for comment, but in a previous statement, it said that it was committed to working with the counties and the communities to address their concerns and to bring clean energy and economic benefits to the region.
Solar Industry Faces Challenges and Opportunities in Kansas
The solar industry in Kansas is not only facing resistance from some local residents, but also from some state lawmakers, who have introduced bills that would impose additional restrictions on solar and wind projects, such as requiring them to be built only on lands zoned for industrial use, or imposing higher taxes and fees on them.
Sen. Mike Thompson, a Republican from Shawnee who sponsored some of the bills, says that he is trying to protect the interests of the landowners and the taxpayers, who he claims are being exploited by the renewable energy companies.
“They’re coming in here and they’re taking advantage of our people,” he says. “They’re taking advantage of our tax structure. They’re taking advantage of our land. And they’re not giving anything back.”
However, the solar industry and its supporters argue that the bills are unnecessary and harmful, and that they would stifle the growth of renewable energy in the state, which has great potential for solar and wind power. They also point out the many benefits that solar and wind projects bring to the state, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, diversifying the energy mix, creating jobs, and generating revenue for the local governments and the landowners.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Kansas ranked 40th in the nation in solar capacity in 2020, with 69 megawatts installed, enough to power more than 8,000 homes. However, the association projects that the state will add more than 1,000 megawatts of solar capacity in the next five years, which would make it one of the top 20 states for solar growth.
The future of solar energy in Kansas will depend largely on how the state and the counties balance the interests and concerns of the various stakeholders, and how they foster a regulatory environment that is fair and conducive to innovation and development.