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Solar vs. Soil Debate Brewing Near Lawrence  Solar Farm Faces Pushback Over Loss of Prime Farmland and Overloaded Stormwater System 

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Above image credit: Stan Herd is known across the world for his art installations in the earth. Herd calls Lawrence home and wanted to support his friends in the river valley with this earthwork. (Contributed)
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8 minute read

LAWRENCE, Kansas — Just before exit 204, westbound drivers on Interstate 70 crane their necks for a passing glimpse at an artistic carving in a lush field of wheatgrass.  

Viewed from above, they would see an earthwork installation by celebrated artist Stan Herd that reads: “Save Prime Farmland. Relocate Utility Solar.”  

“This really is the most beautiful, prime spot in my mind,” Herd said on the phone with Flatland as he got in his truck to drive out to the field near Lawrence.  

That’s the argument many of the landowners and farmers in the Grant Township area, just north of the college town, have against a proposed 600-acre solar farm. 

The project, which would be constructed and operated by Evergy, seeks approval of a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) from the Douglas County Commission. If the 25-year CUP is approved, the Kansas Sky Energy Center is projected to supply enough energy to power 30,000 homes annually.  

Most of the land encompassed in the proposal is covered with row crops and farmed by folks who have tended it for generations.  

The project illustrates one of the knottiest land-use issues confronting efforts to embrace sustainable energy. Opponents say they aren’t against solar installations. But they fear the repercussions of taking prime farmland out of agricultural production. 

“Solar is great. Wind is great,” Herd said. “This is just not the place for it.”  

On Saturday at 9 a.m. the Douglas County Commission will hear presentations, public comments and consider its decision on the permit. 

The Proposal  

Follow Lawrence’s famed Massachusetts Street north, across the Kansas River and continue along U.S. 24/59, and the college town quickly transitions into open farmland.  

If approved, the areas on both sides of the highway, though primarily on the west side, will host the Kansas Sky Energy Center solar farm.  

The proposal for the Commercial/Utility Scale Solar Energy Conversion System was submitted by a subsidiary of Savion, a Kansas City-based renewable energy company, last summer.  

According to its plans, the solar farm would have a total project area of 1,105 acres (a little larger than Golden Gate Park in San Francisco) and solar panels on 604 of those acres.  

Panels would be no taller than 15 feet, operational noise would be below 60 decibels (quieter than an electric toothbrush) and the plans call for vegetative screening around the perimeter of the project, to minimize local disturbance.  

Once completed, it would be an investment of more than $234 million. Backers estimate it will generate more than $61 million in tax revenue for the county over the 25-year life of the CUP. 

Kansas Sky Energy Center Development Director Brianna Baca said in an email to Flatland that the project, “is a unique opportunity for utility-scale solar in Douglas County,” and would be “a positive revenue generator with little to no stress on the local infrastructure.”  

The application contends the proposed site as an ideal location because of its proximity to existing electrical grid infrastructure (overhead transmission lines and the Midland Junction substation), its level grading and sparce residential development nearby.  

A dozen potential sites were considered for the project. According to the applicant presentation at the March 27 Board of Commission work session, the other sites had comparable amounts of prime farmland.

Prime farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “is land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops and is available for these uses.” 

Over Half of the Project Area is Prime Farmland  

A map of the project site shows green blobs around most of the area, representing prime farmland. A box around various plots of the area represent the project area.
Opponents of the solar project are upset it would cover prime farmland and remove it from current agricultural production. (Screenshot | Savion CUP Application)

Scott Thellman, owner of the Juniper Hills Farm and the Pines Garden and Market, has been outspoken about his opposition to the project.  

From his house, he can see the coal-fired Lawrence Energy Center and hear it at night. If the solar farm is installed, he would see it from his windows.  

But that doesn’t bother him.  

“I don’t think any of us are worried about this sight, or this sound,” Thellman said. “It’s the loss of such high-quality farm ground for an unknown amount of time. It could be 25 years, but it could be much longer.”   

Thellman is a first-generation vegetable and row crop farmer with acreage scattered through the area.  

“I don’t know if I could do what I do, especially with vegetables, if I if I wasn’t in the river valley,” Thellman said. “Because we have really good access to water… Just a few miles up the road, it is so much harder to grow vegetables.”   

Check the Maps

A map of Douglas County shows various colored boxes around the countyA map of Douglas County shows red, green, and blue blobs delineating prime farmland.
(Top image) 12 sites were identified as potential locations for the Kansas Sky Energy Center solar farm. Savion settled on the site north of Lawrence. (Screenshot | Savion CUP Application)
Compare with (bottom image) Douglas County is spotted with prime farmland (green). (U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service)

Can You Have Veggies and Solar Too? 

Agrivoltaics, or the dual use of land for solar and agriculture, has been discussed at length through the process.  

From the start, Kansas Sky Energy Center planned to implement grasses and other vegetation as ground cover and had initially vague intentions for agrivoltaics research, like planting food crops, grazing sheep or keeping bees on the project site.  

Following the urging of county officials and community members, the applicant has since strengthened its agrivoltaics plan, established a partnership and a $250,000 fund with The Nature Conservancy and outlined a phased implementation plan.  

At the end of the 25-year CUP, if approved, the solar project would be decommissioned and the proposal details how the land could return to agricultural use.  

In its report and presentations to the Board of Commissioners, county staff affirm that the solar project fits with goals outlined in the 2040 Comprehensive Plan. County staff concluded it would create more permanent, native ground covers on land now used for commodity crops and increase access to renewable energy sources.  

Opponents feel differently.  

“I would hope that all of this would make our county honor its 2040 Comprehensive Plan, that our citizens worked on tirelessly, to make sure these open spaces were protected,” said Jeff Dennis, the farm manager at Pines International, which operates on land next to the proposed solar project. 

Part of the plan’s environmental and natural resource goals include, protecting, “high-quality agricultural soils.”  

Dennis has posted signs lining the highway on the Pines International property and on neighbor’s property (with their permission) urging the city to “save prime farmland” and “relocate utility solar.”  

“You can’t rob Peter to pay Paul,” Dennis said. “I want renewable energy. I want to support it, but I want people to ask two more questions. Where is it going to go? And at what cost?” 

Three white signs in the grass sit in front of railroad tracks and powerlines. The signs read, "Soil over solar" "save prime farmland" and "Relocate Utility Solar"
Proximity to overhead powerlines and the Midland Junction substation were additional draws for the project site. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

Pines International grows and processes organic wheatgrass for human consumption, which means Dennis operates under a strict set of parameters to ensure his crop is up to snuff. 

He fears the solar project will not only remove land in the valley from agricultural production but also encourage excess wildlife or flooding on the farmland he manages.  

Drainage Issues

The uncertainty of stormwater management has been a big concern for a lot of folks — especially those living in North Lawrence.  

Because of the levee, stormwater that would naturally wash down the banks of the Kansas River, is instead pumped through a system of pipes, which the Lawrence Journal World reports are already overstressed, to prevent flooding in North Lawrence.  

Citizens and county commissioners are worried that the drastic land use change from the project could be detrimental to the already tenuous system.  

“For years we’ve been having this problem, and it has not been solved,” Dennis said. “I ask the county to fix one problem before adding a circumstance that’s just going to feed it.” 

There is also a possibility that if placed properly and with vegetative systems growing throughout the solar panels, the project could make the land more efficient at absorbing storm water and alleviate stress on the system.  

According to the same article from the Journal World, Douglas County Public Works Director Chad Voigt, rejected one stormwater plan from the developers and the new plan will not be submitted before the commission meeting on Saturday. 

Baca with Kansas Sky Energy Center wrote in an email to Flatland that the project team is maintaining an open dialogue with Voigt to ensure the revised plan “progresses with a commitment to demonstrate that the proposed project won’t exacerbate stormwater runoff compared to pre-development conditions.” 

A sign in the grass alongside a highway that reads "Save Prime Farmland"
Signs against the placement of the proposed solar farm line U.S. 24/59 north of Lawrence. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

Food Security

Thellman drove along the gravel roads of the area where he farms, past solitary farmhouses, and pointed out the areas that would be covered with panels if the project is approved.  

“It really is kind of jaw-dropping when you get out here,” Thellman said. “It’s a huge project.” 

He farms some cropland outside of the levee-protected valley and shared a story of losing the food he grew there to a flood.  

He gestured to the surrounding acreage. 

“This is our food security. 

“Because we have the levee and the access to water and such high-quality soils … this is the best of the best we have, and it’s hard to see that lost to a public utility.” 

Thellman fears once the project is in place, there will be little that can be done to stop it from expanding or trying to extend the CUP past the 25-year proposal.  

“It’s our lifetimes,” Thellman said. “When this is done, I’ll be in my 60s. And that’s at the earliest, if they don’t extend it.”   

Thellman loves the idea of agrivoltaics but is not convinced it could replace the loss brought on by the panels. 

Sarah Moser, Savion’s director of farming operations and agrivoltaics, said in the December 18 planning commission meeting that if the Kansas Sky Energy Center implemented 50 acres of agrivoltaics, it would be “huge.”   

Thellman is unimpressed. 

“We’re taking 1,000 acres out of agricultural production for 50 acres, maybe, of research sheep?” he said. “It doesn’t sit well.” 

The cropland in the valley is dominated by corn and soybeans. But Thellman said the tides are changing.  

Last year he grew pumpkins and winter squash on acreage that had for decades prior been in a corn-bean rotation.  

The field where Herd’s earthwork was dug is currently transitioning from a conventional crop to organic wheatgrass.  

Other neighboring row croppers are planting more vegetables and trying to expand that business because they want to support a local food system.  

“California and Arizona are going to keep drying … and eventually, that’s going to translate to issues of food security across the country,” Thellman said. “We can grow so much here … we could potentially become a leader in true food.” 

Careful Consideration  

The solar farm proposal, which the Journal World calls “geographically the largest commercial development ever proposed” in Douglas County, has been carefully considered by all parties.  

When the CUP first appeared on the county’s Planning Commission meeting agenda, the meeting ran until 3 a.m. and was eventually defeated in a 4–4 vote.  

There are thousands of pages of descriptions, charts and revisions between county and applicant documents.  

Citizens were present at meetings, asked questions and read the agenda packets to make sure nothing was overlooked. 

It all suggests a long day at the Works/Zoning and Codes Building on Saturday, as the commission will hear staff and applicant reports and public comments before making its decision or deferring.  

“A lot of farmers, like myself, would rather be planting corn but they’re going to make time to be there,” Thellman said.  

“This is not about missing a Saturday. This is about protecting this ground for hopefully the rest of my life.”   

Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. 

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