Johnson County reviews utility solar project regulations

JOHNSON COUNTY, Kan. – Johnson County leaders may soon put in place policies allowing large-scale solar projects to take root in unincorporated parts of the county.

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

Pending BOCC approval, Johnson County may soon be home to the 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 managing solar regulations. Over the past year, county staff have worked with consulting firm Berkley Group to help review and propose potential changes to the comprehensive plan to specify regulations for solar projects.

Planning commission recommendations

The county’s planning commission recommends that council limit conditional use permits for utility-scale solar (USSF) installations to a maximum of 20 years.

Karent Miller, senior county planner, said companies typically seek out farmland to build photovoltaic panels, commonly known as photovoltaic modules or solar panels. A single solar installation could have on-site panels, inverters, and potentially battery storage.

“They like to use existing fields on farms because it’s perfect for their use. It’s already a little grated, it’s a little flat. It is this area that is easily accessible to them to install their solar installations,” Miller said.

Where can a solar installation go?

The planning commission recommended that the project areas selected be at least 1,000 acres. Miller said that to maintain vegetation and track stormwater management, the county is recommended to limit the amount of space on land that is covered in solar panels to 70 percent.

The planning commission also recommends that a solar installation be located at least 2 miles from other solar installations and at least 2 miles outside established city limits.

Based on recent annexation of the former sunflower army munitions factory ownership, Johnson County currently owns approximately 10,391 acres of land which is outside of the 2-mile city limit buffer zone.

If the proposed regulations are approved, photovoltaic modules will be required to have a 50-foot buffer zone between the panels and the property line. Solar panels should be at least 250 feet from homes. Substations or any battery energy storage facility should be placed at least 150 feet from the property line.

“The setbacks combined with the screen can protect that rural character and open spaces. It can protect those sensitive areas like homes,” Miller said.

Miller said solar projects will need to be shielded from the road and nearby homes. PV modules can be shielded from view with landscaping options like berms or trees. Landowners can also provide up to 30% of the required screen with fencing.

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

“Size becomes a more sensitive issue. How much of your future land use do you want to be under commission versus competing interests? »

Solar Safety Requirements

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

Miller said when reviewing the solar regulations, the council would be asked to adopt additional standards to ensure the safety of battery energy storage installations.

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

Miller said the council 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 specific defined level.

Any applicant wishing 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 occurs at one of the facilities.

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

“What escapes from the galvanized posts is the zinc. There is oxidation taking place. It has been found that higher concentration levels of zinc can enter the soil from panels subjected to this chemical process,” Coffey said.

Dismantling standards

Sean Pendley, deputy director of planning, development and codes, said county leaders need to consider how equipment will be removed and property restored when solar installations are taken out of service.

Pendley said issuing escrow credits or bonds could provide the county with assurance that materials are being properly removed.

“Those funds, those guarantees have to cover a number of things in addition to just moving the equipment. It is also about stabilizing the land, reseeding and restoring the soil for 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 that generate electricity from renewable sources. If approved, solar projects in the county would be exempt from state property taxes for 10 years after the equipment is installed.

Johnson County Assessor Beau Boisvert said NextEra’s project would likely involve applying for tax increment funding (TIF).

Commissioner Michael Ashcraft expressed concern that he had not been informed of the potential tax incentives linked to the solar project.

“The only question that really gets me thinking is the issue of funding or fiscal expectations,” Ashcraft said.

“What we will be asked to do explicitly or implicitly by taking action on this. I have some sensitivity to these issues, because I thought we were only looking at land use planning, but if this is directly related to tax planning and tax activities, I have to understand that.

The board took no official action on Thursday.

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

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