County planners and landowners are getting ready for a radically different type of farm planned for the area west of Gardner.
Once it’s operational, the West Gardner Solar Project by NextEra Energy will be the largest such solar farm in the state, and a new type of energy-producing sight for Kansans more accustomed to seeing spinning wind turbines and nodding oil pumpers on the prairie.
Some 2,000 acres have already been signed for the project, which is expected to generate 320 megawatts of power and could be online by 2023.
The idea of such a massive solar farms is new enough to Johnson County that county planners had no rules governing things like setbacks and screening in place before being approached by NextEra.
Work on details like that is ongoing before anything can be built.
In the meantime, here’s what we know about the West Gardner Solar Project. The following details come primarily from interviews with project director Billy Wilkins and NextEra resource spokesperson Conlan Kennedy:
Where is it?
The exact borders are still being determined as the company continues to work with landowners, Wilkins said, and the company declines to be more specific at this point.
However, officials have said they were interested in the area because of its proximity to the West Gardner substation, which is next to the historic Lanesfield School.
The project website puts an icon at a central point west of Gardner. Some of the project may extend into eastern Douglas County, as well.
Who is NextEra?
NextEra’s website bills the company as the world’s largest utility company by market capitalization.
It has made a name for itself in renewable resources, particularly wind and solar, and for battery storage units.
According to its website’s interactive map, the company already operates a wind farm near Clinton, Mo., and two wind farms under construction near Nemaha and Marshall, Ks.
The West Gardner project would be its first solar project in Kansas.
The company headquarters are in Juno Beach, Fla.
Will energy from the project be sold to local utilities?
That’s too early to say, Wilkins said.
A customer for the energy will be a key part of the project, but so far there is no contract with a buyer for the power.
“Wherever the energy is sold to, the benefits of the project do stay local,” because of jobs created, tax revenue generated and payments to landowners, Kennedy said.
How visible will the solar farm be?
The developer is working out the requirements for setbacks, screening and wildlife access, and planners have also discussed requiring the project to be at least a mile from neighboring cities.
Although none of those details are final yet, Wilkins has said the solar farm would not necessarily be one continuous mass of panels, but more likely broken up by natural features.
The project is not set to be near any major highways, Wilkins said.
Will tress and vegetation be removed to make way for the panels?
The solar panels would be ground mounted, a little above ground level with grass remaining underneath.
Stands of trees, streams and ponds would remain, Wilkins said.
Could the panels themselves release dangerous chemicals?
Modern photovoltaic panels are made from materials typically found in electronic equipment and they’re encased, so they don’t pose a problem for public health, Kennedy said.
“We have projects in 27 states where people have lived next to solar panels for decades and there’s no public health issues,” he said.
Are solar battery storage units that may come with the project unsafe?
NextEra is planning for a battery storage facility at the solar farm, but that’s not a certainty, Wilkins said. It’s possible the commercial buyer (whoever that turns out to be) may not require one.
Energy from photovoltaic panels is typically collected in a lithium ion storage unit, making it possible for a farm or solar array to harvest energy on sunny days and keep sending out power even when the sky is overcast.
But concerns have arisen about the potential for fire hazards of lithium ion batteries, especially since a 2019 fire in Arizona sparked by a massive solar battery.
Kennedy said there have been no battery storage fires at NextEra facilities. In addition, the battery designs undergo rigorous industry testing and certification, and the company monitors its facilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week from a control center in Florida, which can also control operations at those sites.
“We work directly with local fire departments to coordinate any response with them in the very unlikely case of a fire,” he said.
What about glare?
Solar collecting panels are designed to be absorptive, so don’t have as much glare as regular glass or even standing water, Wilkins said.
Solar fields have been used near airports, including Denver, and have not caused any glare problems, he said.
“The glare is actually very low. We’ve worked through third parties and done glare studies. That is almost a non-issue,” he added.
What could the economic impact be?
On its web page, NextEra estimates 250 jobs will be created during construction of the West Gardner project, not including any upticks for local businesses where those workers shop, Kennedy said.
No tax incentive will be sought, Wilkins said, but under Kansas law the project is tax exempt for its first 10 years.
The web page also estimates $10 million in tax revenue to local entities over 20 years, estimated by the company’s tax experts.
The company does not buy the land, but instead negotiates an easement with each landowner getting compensation for use of the land.
Kennedy said a primary source of tax revenue would come from personal property taxes paid on the solar equipment. That equipment is tax exempt for the first ten years, but the company would pay it for the 20 more years of its estimated lifespan.
The land itself would also probably be reclassified during the project’s life to commercial from agricultural, which is taxed at a comparatively lower rate, he said. Part of the agreement with the landowners is that the company would pay that increased rate, either to the landowner or directly to the county.
How long will the panels be there?
NextEra is estimating a 30-year lifespan for the solar farm.
When it reaches the end of its life, county planners may require a fully funded decommissioning plan that would remove the panels and return the ground to potential farmland.
Wilkins counts that as a big plus of solar energy.
“It’s preservation of farm land over the long term,” he said. “Because impacts are minimal, you’re actually preserving potential farmland over an extended period of time in comparison to other types of development.”
With a decommissioning fund requirement in place, panel removal would not cost taxpayers or landowners, he said.