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Solar developers are flocking to Kansas. But many communities are skeptical of their proposals

A field in Butler County, Kansas that was proposed as a site for a solar farm development.
Celia Hack
A field in Butler County, Kansas that was proposed as a site for a solar farm development.

Some Kansas counties are considering tighter regulations on solar farms as the industry sees significant growth in the state.

BUTLER COUNTY – About 10 miles north of El Dorado on U.S. Highway 77, a break appears in the rolling cattle ranches and farmland of the Flint hills.

It’s a different sort of farm – a solar farm. It supplies electricity to several small towns throughout Lincoln Township in Butler County.

“We’re not anti-solar,” said Terry Lowmaster, a trustee of the township, which gets some of this electricity. “We have a one megawatt here in our backyard that benefits our local residents.”

At the same time, he and other local residents protested earlier this year when a Chicago-based developer applied for a permit to build a new solar farm – a $550 million dollar, 3,500-acre project.

His reasoning for his opposition to one, and not the other? The existing solar farm is just 12 acres. Plus, it’s run by a local rural electric cooperative.

“They have an office downtown. The employees live in the area. Their kids go to school with our kids, our grandkids,” Lowmaster said. “It’s home, you know? It’s a community, and they’re part of it.”

As technology improves and green energy policy advances, solar development in Kansas is booming. Production of utility-scale solar power in Kansas is expected to increase 34 times over in the next four years.

But as out-of-state – and sometimes out-of-country – solar developers approach rural communities, many are skeptical.

Lowmaster doesn’t see why he should trust solar corporations from out-of-town. He wondered how they could be held accountable on certain promises, like the number of jobs the project is meant to create or training for local firefighters.

“They swoop in, they develop, they sell, and they’re gone,” Lowmaster said.

“They’re making tons of money.”

Hecate Energy, the company that proposed the Butler County solar farm, did not respond to a request for comment. But in July, a company representative announced at a public meeting that it had withdrawn its application to build.

A one-megawatt solar farm in Butler County provides electricity to the small, rural communities around Lincoln Township.
Celia Hack
A one-megawatt solar farm in Butler County provides electricity to the small, rural communities around Lincoln Township.

Pushback leads to potential regulations

In August, Butler County limited the size of solar farms and banned them in the Flint Hills ecoregion, severely restricting where the developments could go.

“The Flint Hills is basically an upside down rainforest,” said Butler County Commissioner Darren Jackson, before voting yes on the regulations. “... If we start tearing this up, we’re never going to get that back.”

This pushback isn’t isolated. Sedgwick, Barton, Reno and Harvey counties have all temporarily banned new commercial solar development while considering whether they also need new rules. Other counties, like Linn, may not have paused solar development but are facing stiff resident pushback.

Residents list a wide range of concerns – from aesthetics to the disruption of sensitive ecosystems to an unproven fear of groundwater contamination caused by the panels.

That’s the situation for Lowmaster’s community, where most people rely on well water.

“I don’t know that there’s any documented case,” Lowmaster said. “But nobody wants to be that first case.”

Misinformation – especially around groundwater – arises often in resistance to solar. Joshua Pearce is a business and electrical engineering professor at Western University in Canada, where he specializes in solar photovoltaic technology.

He said 95% of solar panels are essentially made of sand. Only a small subset of panels contain cadmium, a toxic heavy metal. But Pearce said it’s very unlikely to cause harm in the form it takes in solar panels.

“Even the cadmium telluride panels – you would have to try, like, go out of your way to try to pollute the water,” Pearce said.

Plus, solar farms can be installed in a way that coexists with some agriculture uses or even ecosystems like tallgrass prairie, Pearce said.

“There's zero reason you couldn't maintain a prairie underneath a solar array,” Pearce said. “In fact, it would probably actually do better. My bet would be you get faster growth.”

But science can’t combat some residents’ frustrations, which come more from the way the electric grid system works. The power produced by solar farms can be bought by out-of-state utility companies to diversify their portfolios. Locals question why their community is used for power someone else is buying.

Nathan Stottler is the associate director for development at Seattle-based OneEnergy Renewables, which is working on a solar farm in Butler County. He says even if a local utility isn’t buying a solar farm’s power, putting more electricity on the grid can lower rates by providing more supply. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to lower bills for local residents.

“To have somebody come in from out of town with big money, proposing a big infrastructure project, and then to not even be able to say that the people in the town are going to get the power from that project, that's not a good look,” Stottler said. “... But that's the system that we live in, and the system that people buy power in, and the system that people sell power in.

“And so it's on developers to explain that just because the electricity may not be getting bought and sold in the community, that doesn't mean that the solar farm can't bring benefits to that community.”

Some farmers and ranchers in Butler County already use solar panels in their fields as a way to pump water out of the ground, Lowmaster said. But the bigger solar farms still raise concerns.
Celia Hack
Some farmers and ranchers in Butler County already use solar panels in their fields as a way to pump water out of the ground, Lowmaster said. But the bigger solar farms still raise concerns.

Resistance frustrates those who would embrace solar

The resistance to utility-scale solar is frightening some state environmental groups, who worry it will impede the country’s ability to transition away from fossil fuels quickly. Burning fossil fuels like oil and gas releases carbon dioxide gas, which warms the planet and 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.

“The international energy agency tells us that we should be building the world’s largest solar array, which is over 2,000 megawatts of solar, every day worldwide for the next decade,” said Dorothy Barnett, the executive director of the Kansas-based Climate and Energy project. “We have to get off of fossil fuels if we’re going to be able to keep a livable planet.”

Barnett said her organization supports solar regulations backed by peer-reviewed science, but worries some are put in place based on fear and misinformation.

On top of the climate benefits, Stottler said solar farms can boost a county’s property tax revenues. Though Kansas has a property tax exemption for renewable energy, many developers will offer a payment in lieu of taxes to the community.

Most companies also pay local residents like Sara Dawson to lease out their land. Dawson’s family has owned a ranch in Butler County since the 1950s. With the increasing cost of fertilizer, feed corn and labor – as well as a crippling drought – she says her family’s business is increasingly less sustainable. So leasing to solar offered a viable future for the family’s land.

“It was a heart-wrenching decision to even sit down and consider the possibility of solar,” Dawson said at a Butler County meeting. “We never want to sell the property. We never want to destroy the property. But we knew that green energy was not going away.”

But she said she felt comfortable that her land would be taken care of under the contract she signed with the solar company. It contained promises that the company would control invasive weed species and repair the prairie when the project was decommissioned.

When Butler County passed its regulations, Dawson’s contract was canceled. Now, she’s worried future generations of her family won’t be able to carry on ranching.

And she’s frustrated that the county she pays taxes to won’t allow her to do as she wishes with her land.

“We thought it would … protect the future generations, it was going to protect our land,” Dawson said. “But then they limit us on what we can and can't do.

“They're limiting us on how we can use our own land.”

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.
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