Johnson County solar farm siting standards will have regional consequences for environment, equity

April 1, 2022 3:33 am

Johnson County will consider standards making it one of the most difficult places in the country to build a large-scale solar farm, writes Elaine Giessel. (Sirisak Boakaew/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Elaine Giessel, a Johnson County resident, is chairwoman of the Kansas Sierra Club.

Johnson County has long touted its quality of life. As a regional leader in sustainability, it takes pride in receiving national recognition as a great place to live.

That’s why it’s disheartening to see Johnson County considering standards that would make it one of the most difficult places in the country to build a large-scale solar farm.

The onerous restrictions proposed most recently by the Johnson County Planning Commission could amount to a de facto ban on large solar farms. The draft guidelines shorten the duration of the conditional use permit, double the original distance for solar farms from city limits and restrict the size of solar farms by half.

The KC Regional Climate Action Plan, which Johnson County leaders helped develop and recently adopted, establishes net-zero carbon emissions goals for local government operations, energy generation, and homes and buildings. Arbitrary restrictions on solar farms will make these goals more difficult to achieve for Johnson County and the region.

If Johnson County and other local governments add unnecessary red tape for building solar farms, existing utilities will continue to burn dirty coal and fracked natural gas. Just last year, Evergy, the largest electric utility serving customers in the Kansas City region, announced it would retire its Lawrence coal plant by 2023 while adding 700 megawatts of solar power by the end of 2024.

Utility leaders quickly changed that plan. Now, Evergy will add only 190 megawatts of solar, while running the Lawrence power plant on fracked natural gas. This new plan puts Evergy’s customers on the hook for rising fossil fuel costs.

In Kansas City, Evergy plans on burning coal at its Hawthorn plant until 2039, even though a disproportionate number of people of color live within three miles of the plant, including more than 10,000 children. Removing hurdles for solar farms could help expedite the investment in solar energy by Evergy, allowing it to accelerate the closure of its Hawthorn coal plant and the pollution it spews into surrounding neighborhoods. 

Decisions we make in Johnson County affect our neighbors. Our ongoing reliance on fossil fuels means exposure to global price volatility, local air and water pollution, and the release of emissions that have led to the climate crisis. Utility bill increases, air pollution, and climate change each have a disproportionate impact on our region’s Black and Hispanic communities.

The decision made by county commissioners is more than just the size of solar farms in Johnson County. It’s about whether we are serious about our role in achieving regional environmental equity for our neighbors who live near coal plants, gas plants and other fossil fuel facilities.

We can’t address the climate crisis without also fighting racism and the systems that perpetuate it. Everyone has the right to a healthy and safe community.

Large solar facilities can mitigate the worst impacts of our changing climate by providing renewable, reliable, affordable and safe energy, without emitting greenhouse gasses.

The Johnson County Commission should support landowners who want to build solar farms because it will help the county fulfill its commitment to address climate change and regional environmental equity. Landowners should be able to use their land to harness the power of the sun to power our lives while improving crop production. After solar panels are removed, the land can be returned to agriculture or other development as the landowner sees fit. This is possible because solar panels are safe, unlike coal plants that permanently threaten our region’s water quality because of toxic coal ash landfills.

The Johnson County solar farm siting decision will have ripple effects throughout the region. The good news is we can make positive changes together.

It’s about spurring economic development while protecting public health.

It’s about saving our planet for families and their future.

Johnson County residents should ask Commissioners to adopt solar farm siting guidelines that promote, not restrict, the development of large-scale solar energy at the public hearing on April 4, in person or online.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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