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OLATHE, Kan. —Plans to build a utility scale solar farm in western Johnson County will need a little more consideration. 

Last spring NextEra Energy expressed interest in creating a 320 Megawatt (MW) solar farm in unincorporated portions of the county. The potential West Gardner Solar Project would cover more than 3,000 acres in western Johnson County and eastern Douglas county. But before any work can begin, county leaders have to decide how solar farms will be regulated. 

Following a four hour public hearing Monday afternoon the Johnson County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) voted 6-1 to send proposed regulations for utility scale solar back to the county planning commission for further review. 

The planning commission recommended selected project areas be at least 1,000 acres and allow solar panels to cover up to 70% of the land. The projects would last for 20 years before being decommissioned or the developer must re-apply for a special use permit. 

The planning commission also recommends a solar facility be located at least 2 miles away from other solar facilities and at least 2 miles outside established city limits. 

The suggested guidelines would also require a 50-foot buffer between the solar panels and the property boundary. Any electric substations or battery energy storage facilities would need to be placed at least 150 feet from the property boundary and solar panels must be at least 250 feet away from nearby homes. 

During the public hearing Monday, more than 40 residents spoke on the proposed regulations. 

Michael Talboy said making renewable energy more readily available could help bring in new business opportunities to the county. 

“21st century businesses are demanding access to renewable energy options and these are companies and industries we want to attract here in Johnson County,”Talboy said.

Alan Aglyn said the 1,000 acre proposal is too large for Johnson County.  

“We stand to lose the character of our community; transition from rural and agriculture use to industrial use. Our property values will be negatively impacted by these industrial sites.We stand to lose out also on progress and access to services such as cable and 5g, and school improvements which follow population density,” Aglyn said. 

For Susan Alig, with Mothers Out Front, solar regulations should be centered around taking steps to address climate change. 

“This is an intergenerational equity issue. We need to be thinking about what our actions mean,” Alig said. “For how livable the Earth, which includes Johnson County we’re a part of it, how livable is our climate going to be in 20 years when my kids are hitting adulthood.” 

“We need to keep our coal plants, not ship them to China. That’s where they’re going. They are going to get the cheap energy. We’re going to have to pay the expensive stuff,” Robert McCollum said. 

While many factors still need to be considered, almost all speakers agreed the size of potential projects and the length of time each project would be active were top concerns. 

Billy Wilkins, project developer for NextEra Energy Resources, said a 20 year project period with no guarantee of continuance wouldn’t be attractive for investors 

“With customers we enter into long-term power purchase agreements and financial institutions analyze the economic viability of the project to determine if they will finance the cost. Investors are increasingly relying on longer solar project operational lives as the basis for their investment decisions,” Wilkins said. 

Mike Young said he isn’t against solar energy, but he feels the proposed West Gardner Solar Project would only benefit a small group of landowners and not the county overall. 

“None of us are against solar energy, we’re just against looking out our front door being able to see three-quarter of a mile. I don’t want to look at solar panels every day of my life for the next 20 years of my life, minimum,”Young said.  

If a solar project is approved, there is no guarantee that the locally generated energy will be available for local use. The BOCC has directed the planning commission to review the proposed guidelines to be voted on by the BOCC at a later date. The planning commission will discuss and give consideration to several amendments including:  

An increase in proposed project size from 1,000 acres to 2,000 acres.

An increase in project  length from 20 years to a 25 years with potential for a one-time automatic 5 year renewal.

Decreasing the project buffer to 1.5 miles outside city limits. 

Add considerations or feedback on regulation of transmitters affiliated with the solar project. 

The next planning commission meeting is scheduled for May 24 at 5 p.m. at the county administration building.