A huge solar farm that may stretch west of Gardner all the way into Douglas County will, if it comes to fruition, become the largest in Kansas, a state that has lagged behind in developing solar energy.
Billy Wilkins, project leader for the West Gardner Solar Project, said Tuesday that his company, NextEra Energy, has already received landowner signatures for 2,000 acres of the proposed $ 320 million project.
However, the floor-mounted solar system would not necessarily run continuously. Wilkins said the project would bring setbacks and likely exclude land used for recreational or environmental purposes.
Kansas stays in Solar
Wilkins and development attorney John Petersen discussed the project with the county planning committee, which is beginning to review development rules for solar utility projects.
The county codes do not currently mention the rapidly growing solar industry. So officials are working with the Virginia Berkley Group consultants to find out what has worked elsewhere.
While solar power has increased in other states, Kansas is part of an area from North Dakota to Oklahoma that has lagged behind in development, said Denise Nelson, an environmental engineer with the Berkley Group.
Kansas doesn't have a nationwide energy plan for solar, Nelson said.
Kansas ranked 45th in the country for solar energy last year, with less than 0.2% of its energy coming from solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Sufficient solar panels are installed nationwide to generate 82 megawatts of electricity. However, they are spread across 1,104 locations, which suggests that the majority are small.
The recently opened Johnson Corner solar project in Stanton County on the state's western border is currently billed as the largest in the state. It generates around 20 megawatts.
The proposed West Gardner project would potentially generate 500 megawatts, according to its website. NextEra also hopes to have the West Gardner facility operational by the end of 2023.
Since the plan is still in the training phase, no precise limits have been set.
The NextEra website estimates the project will create up to 250 construction jobs and $ 10 million in tax revenue over 20 years. The array would consist of floor-mounted photovoltaic modules.
There was no information on where or to whom the electricity could be sold.
Petersen and Wilkins said NextEra is interested in powering Johnson County because of the amount of sunshine, business climate, and proximity to the West Gardner substation.
The county planning committee and NextEra's first point of contention could relate to a proposed limit on the size of the solar surface.
The consultant and planning staff recommended a limit of 1,000 acres, but Petersen, NextEra's attorney, said that competitive projects must be of a certain size.
“Size doesn't mean it doesn't fit well in a community,” he said. “To artificially limit a project to 1,000 (acres), we are not getting the state-of-the-art, utility-quality facility that we hope Johnson County will add to this overall effort.”
Wilkins said the trend is now towards larger solar parks as the cost of building them has decreased.
Planners are also considering other setbacks and verifications, including the fact that the projects are more than a mile from cities and airports.
Long term planning required
Nelson, the advisor, says there are many new issues to consider when regulating solar development.
Since they can be in service for up to 40 years, planners must ensure they have a plan for paying for equipment removal, and possibly return to farmland after they retire.
Planners in other locations also required extensive screening and wildlife corridors through the arrays, Nelson said.
Other aspects of solar parks also require some development standards, including substations, interconnectors, and battery storage. But these were not addressed at Tuesday's meeting.
Planners mostly asked questions about the problems they were facing, but did not provide an opinion on the West Gardner project.
However, Commissioner James Neese questioned whether solar panels might tie up too much land too close to growing population centers.
No action has been taken but the Commission will continue to work with the advisor and NextEra to reach a possible public hearing in June.
This story was first published on the Shawnee Mission Post.