For years, wind was the power source of the plains. Now, Kansas is seeing solar step up
The number of megawatts produced in Kansas is expected to multiply by more than 34 times over in the next four years.
PRATT — The city of Pratt, Kansas, is home to around 6,500 people.
But the small town is rife with new developments. Driving around town, vice mayor Doug Meyer and Jamie Huber – Pratt’s director of electric utilities – point them out: a new swimming pool, recently resurfaced tennis courts, a 16-unit housing project.
One of their proudest projects, though, is a six megawatt solar farm that came online in 2019. It’s right on the edge of town.
“A lot of people don’t see it – I’ve got people who still ask me where it’s at,” Huber said.
Over the past decade, renewable power on the Kansas prairie typically meant one thing – wind turbines. But now, solar energy in Kansas is booming, with developers proposing utility-scale solar farms from Sedgwick County to Great Bend to Johnson County.
The city of Pratt operates its own electric utility. That means it generates, buys and sells its own power instead of relying entirely on the grid. In 2016, Pratt officials decided it wanted a solar farm to replace an expiring contract with a coal plant.
Solar was a reliable energy source during high-demand times of day. And its price stayed steady, unlike electricity from the grid. Meyer, the vice mayor, said he wasn’t on board, at first.
“I was opposed to it because of the size of the project,” he said. “And I didn't know how it worked.
“And once Jamie and his people convinced us what it could do for the citizens of Pratt as far as a steady rate of power, investment in the city, and none of our tax dollars going into build it, it was kind of an offer we couldn't refuse.”
Little did Meyer know his city was on the leading edge of an explosion of solar across Kansas. Right now, the state has just 36 megawatts of solar power, according to the Energy Information Administration. But in the next four years, that will increase to 1,261 megawatts, according to the Southwest Power Pool – more than 34 times the current amount. Another 12,000 potential megawatts of solar in Kansas are being studied.
The state is drawing developers because of its abundance of sun – Kansas is one of the nation’s 10 sunniest states – and an abundance of agricultural land to lease.
“The farmers and ranchers that we approach with leases are usually pretty interested in working with us,” said Nathan Stottler, associate director for development at Seattle-based OneEnergy Renewables, which is working on a project in Butler County. “... They're just looking at it as sort of an opportunity to sort of buttress their agricultural income.”
Utility-scale solar farms are typically far larger than the 40-acre Pratt farm – reaching more than 600 acres and sometimes into the thousands. The larger the solar farm, the more electricity it can produce.
Shrinking costs and efficient technology are also making solar more enticing to utilities and companies that want green energy, said Randi Tveiterras Jack, who serves as the renewable energy coordinator within the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Many of the proposed solar projects in Kansas plan to sell energy to a major utility or directly to Kansas businesses that require a lot of electricity – different from Pratt, where the solar electricity is sold directly to residents and local businesses.
“Our wind is so good that for a long time, solar just wasn't really competitive with wind,” Tveiterras Jack said. “When a utility would do an RFP [request for proposal] for renewable energy, wind was always coming in at a much more competitive rate.
“But technology has improved that, so solar is more affordable and more competitive with wind in Kansas.”
Attractive federal tax credits – boosted by the 2023 Inflation Reduction Act – are also driving interest in solar nationwide. And Evergy, Kansas’ largest utility, has a goal of adding 750 megawatts of solar by 2030.
The move to renewable energy like solar is part of a push away from fossil fuels like oil and gas. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide gas, which causes climate change. International bodies estimate greenhouse gas emissions need to fall 43% by 2030 to prevent severe impacts of climate change like frequent and severe droughts and heat waves.
“There are very distinct climate benefits to transitioning off of fossil fuels toward clean energy,” said Dorothy Barnett, the executive director of the Kansas-based Climate and Energy Project. “There are also very clear health and economic benefits. We know that in Kansas, like many other Midwestern states with failed crops and drought, that farmers and ranchers are struggling.”
As solar spreads across Kansas, many communities are skeptical about its expansion – wondering what it means for environmentally sensitive ecosystems and their rural communities. Several south-central Kansas counties, including Sedgwick, have recently instituted moratoriums on utility-scale solar to study whether new regulations on the power source are necessary.
But Meyer, the Pratt vice mayor, said his community is better off because of it.
“It doesn't obstruct your view of the sunrise or sunset,” Meyer said. “It doesn't pollute the land at all. It doesn't pollute the air. There's no noise. So I don't see what the objection would be other than you're not tilling the land and raising crops on it.”
KMUW will publish a second story on November 7th about why some Kansas counties are skeptical of solar power's expansion.