The Nov. 16 meeting of the Johnson County Planning Commission was a departure in tone from other recent meetings on utility solar regulations.
Where past discussions had drawn commissioners’ praise for their civility, the November meeting began with an attendee who attempted to stop approval of the agenda, a typically routine procedure.
That attendee then dared a deputy to arrest him after he was asked to stop speaking. Later, an impromptu recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance broke out.
There was cheering, too, when speakers made points against solar energy. But perhaps none as loud as when commissioners ultimately began to back away from proposed regulations on solar farms’ size, buffer zones and lifetime limits that had been crafted through months of work to balance the needs of solar developers with those of nearby neighbors.
Instead, the planning commission is now headed towards approval of some of the country’s most restrictive solar farm regulations when it meets Tuesday, Dec. 14, for what may be a final vote.
New regulations for a new industry
County planners began studying utility scale solar installations this past spring.
That’s when NextEra Energy of Juno Beach, Fla., expressed interest in putting in an array of panels that could stretch through 3,000 acres in Johnson and Douglas counties.
The West Gardner Solar Project, as the project has been dubbed, was expected to become the largest solar farm in Kansas, a state that has many wind turbines but lags behind most other states when it comes to solar energy production.
Because solar utilities are new to the area, Johnson County currently has no regulations on the books governing solar farms. That includes rules for things like setbacks, landscaping, size and decommissioning of the panels once their useful life is over.
After the West Gardner Solar Project emerged, what followed were weeks of meetings with a consultant poring over how other counties have done it, plus more time hearing from landowners, officials of nearby cities and the developer.
Some key components were the time limit for solar farm permits, the buffer zone between the panels and a city border and the acreage the solar installation could cover.
By the November meeting, planning commission staff had taken the commissioners’ directions to come up with regulations that proposed:
- a 25-year permit limit,
- a one-and-a-half mile buffer zone from cities
- and a 2,000 acre coverage limit.
That all unwound as the meeting ticked on.
The 25-year permit became a 20-year permit. Then the city buffer zone increased to two miles, cutting out large sections of land from development.
As commissioners wrapped things up, Commissioner Lindsey Grise proposed dropping the total solar farm area from 2,000 acres to 1,000, noting, “I’ve been incredibly moved by the statements of the people tonight.”
Republicans take the offensive
Until recently, the speakers at commission meetings were a mix of farmers who would be paid by NextEra for use of their land, environmentalists who support solar energy and neighbors concerned about screening and aesthetics next to their own property.
But in recent weeks, a more organized political opposition to the project has arisen involving some of the county’s most prominent Republicans.
Greg Cromer, chairman of the Conservative Republicans of Southern Johnson County, has encouraged big, boisterous turnouts to planning commission hearings.
Cromer spoke about the issue in a YouTube video under the title “Tethered States.”
In the video, Cromer painted solar energy as unreliable and blamed it for the energy crisis following a historic outbreak of winter storms that knocked out power to large swaths of the central and southern United States in February.
In fact, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report published in November concluded that the biggest cause of the rolling outages was a lack of winterization of equipment.
Cromer urged his viewers to turn out en masse to the planning commission.
“Just show up. Clap if someone says something good,” he said.
He’s not the only local Republican who has taken up the cause.
Kansas Sen. Mike Thompson of Shawnee, County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara and Sheriff Calvin Hayden have also written or spoken to the commission voicing their opposition to the West Gardner plan.
O’Hara sent a lengthy scientific paper from researchers at the University of Calgary which posed concerns about the costs and potential pollution from the disposal of old photovoltaic panels.
Hayden, who said he lives near the proposed solar project, spoke at the November meeting. He objected to NextEra’s efforts to sign landowners before the plan became widely known.
He also added his views on climate change.
“I think you guys need to follow the science,” he said. “We’re talking about this global warming junk. Need I remind you this used to be an ocean we’re standing in? The climate changes. It does. There’s not a darn thing we can do about it.”
Hayden ended his remarks by asking for the Pledge of Allegiance, and several in the crowd obliged.
Thompson, a former TV weatherman has called climate change science “false” and a “canard.” He wrote a letter to the commission objecting to the West Gardner Solar Project.
In it, Thompson argued that reliance on solar could undermine coal and nuclear plants and force them to operate at a loss.
He also mentioned the possible negative effect on property values and the cost of dismantling the site when it’s taken down. Ensuring that cost is not passed to taxpayers is part of the county’s proposed regulations, however.
Thompson’s letter closes by suggesting the solar installations are a bad fit for Johnson County, for Kansas and beyond.
“The bottom line is, I think Johnson County is the wrong place for this. I tend to think Kansas is as well,” the letter said. “Even in the large deserted areas of the desert southwest where the air is drier, the sun angle is higher year-round and the annual cloud cover is far less than it is here, these similar problems exist.”
‘A black eye for Johnson County’
The opposition to the West Gardner project seems to be part of a larger pushback against renewable energy efforts across Kansas that has proponents of the emerging technology worried.
Sedgwick County recently banned large wind farms, a fact that was noted during the commission meeting. There has been opposition in the Flint Hills to wind turbines as well.
Thompson, chair of the Kansas Senate Utilities committee, has also backed a bill limiting wind turbines to one per square mile – a change wind energy proponents say would end investment in what has become Kansas’ largest source of electricity.
And he supported the “Energy Choice Act,” a bill backed by the natural gas industry that would limit cities’ abilities to put restrictions on natural gas use.
Thought the majority of speakers at the planning commission’s November were against the project, a few spoke in favor. The commission also received a large number of letters of support.
The Kansas Sierra Club has consistently supported it, as have several families whose land would be used and who would like to see the area have a smaller carbon footprint.
Steve Clark, a former resident of Johnson County who now lives in El Dorado Hills, Calif., is one who has family members who could see payment for use of their land. But Clark, a solar engineer, said he’s concerned that misinformation has sparked neighbors’ fears.
Approving the tighter restrictions will mean, “You will be caving in to the NIMBY’s, to the anti-science, to the climate change deniers. It will be irresponsible; it will result in a black eye for Johnson County.”
NextEra representatives have said the longer permit terms and shorter buffers are necessary to make the project financially viable.
A 20-year permit is considerably shorter than the 30- to 40-year lifespan of photovoltaic cells. Billy Wilkins, project director for the West Gardner project, told the planning commission the company is trying to meet market demand.
“NextEra is a forward-looking company. I understand much of the discussion has been rear-looking,” he said. “The industry is changing to meet market demands,” specifically Evergy’s plan to acquire 700 megawatts of solar over the next five years.
Other customers like Amazon and Google are also interested in solar power, he said.
“We need regulations that will allow us to simply plan and develop a viable project,” he argued.
The company did not say whether the proposed changes would make them back away from the project entirely.
In a statement to the Post after the meeting, NextEra spokesperson Sara Cassidy said the proposed regulations would discourage future renewable energy development in the county, possibly depriving residents of the job creation, property tax revenue and payments to landowners.
“Adopting the proposed regulations – which contain some of the most severe requirements in the nation – would send a message that the county does not want businesses to invest in clean energy here,” the company said. “We will continue to work closely with county officials to address any questions or concerns about our proposed project or solar energy development.”
The planning commission meets again Tuesday, Dec. 14, and the proposed solar rules will be on the agenda.
Once the planning commission has finalized it, the rules will go to the county commission, possibly as soon as January.