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JOHNSON COUNTY, Kan. — Johnson County leaders could soon put policies in place to allow utility scale solar projects to take root in unincorporated portions of the county.

During a committee of the whole meeting Thursday afternoon, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) received an update on proposed changes to the county comprehensive plan with regards to solar regulations. 

Pending approval from BOCC, Johnson County could soon be home to the largest solar farm in the state of Kansas. NextEra Energy, a Florida-based energy company, has expressed interest in developing a $320 million solar farm.

Before NextEra can apply for the project, the county must establish guidelines for handling solar regulations. Over the last year, county staff have worked with the Berkley Group consulting firm to help review and propose potential amendments to the comprehensive plan to specify regulations for solar projects. 

Planning Commission recommendations 

The county planning commission is recommending the board limit conditional use permits for utility scale solar facilities (USSF) to a maximum 20-year period.

Karent Miller, senior planner for the county, said companies typically seek out farmland to build out photovoltaic panels, commonly referred to as PV pods or solar panels. A single solar facility could have panels, inverters and potentially battery storage on site. 

“They like to use the existing fields in farms because it’s perfect for their use. It’s already kind of grated, it’s kind of flat. It’s this area that is readily available for them to come in and put their solar facilities,” Miller said. 

Where can a solar facility go? 

The planning commission recommended selected project areas be at least 1,000 acres. Miller said to maintain vegetation and keep up with stormwater management, it’s recommended the county limit the amount of space on a piece of land that is covered by solar panels to 70%. 

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. 

Based on the recent annexation of the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant property, Johnson County currently has approximately 10,391 acres of land that sit outside the 2-mile city limit buffer zone. 

If the proposed regulations are approved, PV pods would be required to have a 50-foot buffer between the panels and the property boundary. Solar panels must be at least 250 feet away from homes. Substations or any battery energy storage facilities would need to be placed at least 150 feet from the property boundary. 

“The setbacks in combination with the screening can be protective of that rural character and open spaces. It can protect those sensitive areas like dwellings,” Miller said. 

Miller said solar projects will need to be screened from the road and nearby homes. PV pods can be screened from view with landscaping options like berms or trees. Property owners can also provide up to 30% of the required screening with a fence. 

“In terms of process screening distance requirements, those are all typical of utility scale solar regardless of where they are located. It’s just when they are located in an urbanizing county like Johnson County, you’ve got a whole lot of competing land use pressures that more rural counties may not have,” Darren Coffey with the Berkey Group said.

“The size does become a more sensitive issue. How much of your future land use do you want to be under panel versus competing interests.” 

Solar safety requirements 

Jay Leipzig, director of planning, housing and community development, said county staff have worked with local fire chiefs to review terms of the fire code when dealing with battery storage facilities. 

Miller said when reviewing the solar regulations, the board will be asked to adopt additional standards to ensure battery energy storage facilities are safe. 

“One of them requires the applicant to use equipment that’s been tested at the factory and built to a certain standard. That is to prevent thermal runaway with battery energy storage facilities. All of that equipment will be the newest, most up-to-date equipment,” Miller said. 

Miller said the board will also adopt standards for the installation and operation of battery storage facilities. Other standards require the installation and operation of battery storage to be at a set specific level.

Any applicant wanting to create a new solar facility would be required to work with local public safety officials to develop an emergency response plan in the event a fire were to break out at one of the facilities. 

Coffey said panels do not emit hazardous materials into the soil or groundwater, but some types of panels can release Zinc. 

“What does leach from galvanized posts is Zinc. There is an oxidation that occurs. It has been found that higher concentration levels of Zinc can go into the ground from panels that have that chemical process occur,” Coffey said. 

Decommissioning standards 

Sean Pendley, deputy director of planning, development and codes, said county leaders need to consider how the equipment will be removed and the property will be restored when the solar facilities are decommissioned. 

Pendley said issuing escrow credits or bonds could provide the county a guarantee that the materials are properly removed. 

“These funds, these guarantees are to cover a number of things besides just the removal of the equipment. It’s also to stabilize the land and reseed and restore the ground to its next use,” Pendley said. 

Pendley said decommissioned solar projects would likely be returned to agricultural use. 

Tax incentives 

The state of Kansas offers a property tax exemption for projects producing electricity from renewable sources. If approved, solar projects within the county would be exempt from state property taxes for 10 years once the equipment has been installed. 

Johnson County Appraiser Beau Boisvert said NextEra’s project would likely involve a request for Tax Increment Financing (TIF).  

Commissioner Michael Ashcraft raised concerns about not being notified of potential tax incentives affiliated with the solar project. 

“The one issue that really gives me pause is the issue of the funding or the tax expectations,” Ashcraft said.

“What we will be asked to do either explicitly or implicitly by taking action on this. I have a certain sensitivity to those issues, because I thought we were looking at just land-use planning, but if that directly links to tax planning and tax activities I’ve got to understand that.” 

The board didn’t take any formal action Thursday.

The BOCC will host a public hearing at 2 p.m. Monday, April 4, to discuss the proposed solar regulations. Residents will have the option to share their thoughts on the proposed changes virtually or in-person during the hybrid meeting.