Stan Herd earthwork highlights opposition to solar energy project as Douglas County Commission’s decision looms – The Lawrence Times

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Opponents of a planned solar energy project have joined with Lawrence artist Stan Herd to create an earthwork ahead of the Douglas County commissioners’ special Saturday meeting where they will vote on the project permit.

The earthwork depicts a farmer surrounded by a circle featuring the text “Save Prime Farmland / Relocate Utility Solar.” It is visible from the north side of Interstate 70 between East 1500 and East 1600 roads in northeastern Douglas County.

“This project is about voicing our concerns in a manner that captures attention and fosters discussion,” Herd said in a news release from project collaborators. “The land speaks, and we’re merely amplifying its important message.” (Click here for a map of the approximate location along the highway where the earthwork is visible.)

Meanwhile, proponents argue that the solar energy project is essential to efforts to reduce global warming and climate change.

The Kansas Sky Energy Center, a 159-megawatt solar farm, would be built, owned and operated by Evergy with designs provided by Savion LLC, a division of Royal Dutch Shell based out of Kansas City.

If approved, the solar facility — set to be located on parcels that constitute 1,105 acres north of Lawrence, west of the airport and south of Midland Junction — will begin construction in early 2025.

City staff members have recommended approval of the project, but Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission members voted in December to recommend denial of the project on a 4-4 tie. A valid protest petition was submitted, so a unanimous vote — 3-0 — would be needed for the commission to approve the permit. A protest petition is signed by neighbors of the potential solar farm who are opposed to the permit.

Representatives from Savion and others working on behalf of the plan spoke to commissioners during a work session on March 27 about why they believe the project’s permit should be approved. They said this location was the best spot in Douglas County for the project and the project would meet rigorous code requirements on wildlife, conservation, stormwater runoff and more.

Herd, some area farmers, and members of the local group Save Our Soils – Kaw Valley, however, have concerns about developing the “exceptional farmland” for the solar project.

Contributed photo Stan Herd’s latest earthwork

“The farmers argue that while renewable energy is essential for climate mitigation and long-term sustainability, prime farmland — especially the land of the river valley — should be preserved for agricultural use,” according to the earthwork collaborators’ news release. “They propose that the solar facility be relocated to less productive marginal lands to ensure both energy progress and long-term food security.”

Jeff Dennis, farm manager for Pines International Inc., said in the release that we have some of the most fertile soils in the world in this valley, along with accessibility to water less than 20 feet below its surface.

“There is only so much ground like this out there, and for our community’s long-term food security, placement of this project here just doesn’t make sense,” Dennis said in the release.

Those in favor of the project argue that Savion and Evergy plan to utilize agrivoltaics — “agricultural production, such as crop or livestock production or pollinator habitats, underneath solar panels or adjacent to solar panels,” according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

“Solar panels have been found to be significantly cooler from evaporation by crops below, increasing their energy production,” Tad Kramar, of Big Springs, wrote in a letter to the Times. “Because the sun moves in the sky, crops under the panels are not shaded all the time, and shading the hottest sunshine can make some crops more productive and reduces needed watering. The panels also protect crops from intense rain and hail.

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“While agrivoltaics is a fairly new endeavor and much is to be learned, this will give Douglas County the opportunity to be a leader in this important field,” Kramar wrote.

The Douglas County Commission will hold its special business meeting starting at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 13. They will hear public comment, discuss, and consider action on the permit.

The meeting will be held at the Public Works/Zoning and Codes Building, 3755 E. 25th St., because the commission’s regular meeting room is undergoing renovations.

The meeting will also be available via Zoom. Commission meeting information and Zoom links are posted on the county’s website, and the agenda is available at this link.

Commissioners also will soon decide on revisions to proposed wind energy regulations. They will have a work session at 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 24, and consider approving proposed changes at a regular business meeting starting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 1. Read more about that at this link.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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