Lynne Hermansen
Special to The Gardner News
Johnson County Board of Commissioners discussed the possibility of bringing solar farms to the community. They also discussed solar regulations at their committee of the whole meeting last week.
No formal action was taken, but a public hearing will be held at 2 p.m., April 4 at the Embassy Suites for further discussion of solar regulations. Residents will be able to share their thoughts at that time in person or virtually at the hybrid meeting.
Jay Leipzig, director of planning, housing and community development, began the proposed comprehensive plan changes presentation in regards to solar regulations and said it was a project they had been working hard on for years.
“It’s been a very challenging project—one of the more complicated ones,” he said.
Leipzig said they had researched how to integrate solar into the comprehensive plan policies of promoting rural character and open spaces, providing future growth, protecting existing and future residential areas and parks and environmental sensitivities.
They had also received significant public comment through the additional county website.

Recommendations
The Planning commission recommended conditional use permits for utility scale solar facilities be limited for a maximum 20 years.
Karen Miller, senior planner, said they can last 30 to 40 years or maybe longer, but the industry doesn’t know.
Miller, Leipzig and Sean Pendleton, deputy director of planning, development and codes said the 20 years was set to coincide with the county’s 20 year comprehensive planning.
“Facilities often last longer,” Pendleton said. “It could be potentially appropriate for renewals, but we just wanted to be consistent with the comprehensive plans.”
Leipzig said in other areas of the country such as California and Texas terms typically exceed 20 years.
Miller said companies typically seek out farmland to build out photovoltaic panels-otherwise known as solar panels. A single solar facility could potentially include panels, inverters and battery storage on site.
“They like to use the existing fields in farms because it’s perfect for their use,” she said. “It’s already kind of grated and kind of flat.”
Miller said the area is already readily available for companies to build the solar facilities with the natural elements, wildlife corridors, vegetation and fencing, and it is careful in impacting the development of future growth of cities.
Project areas of at least 1,000 acres were recommended with a four square mile max of 2,560 acres.
In order to maintain vegetation and storm water, Miller said they also recommended a limit of the 1,000 acres to only 70 percent solar panel coverage.
A solar facility must also be located at least two miles away from other solar facilities and two miles outside city limits to control proliferation and geographic distribution, she said.
Miller said solar farms aren’t typically in the Midwest or near urban areas.
“We don’t want to devolve taking a major portion of the county—we want to be able to control,” she said. “If land is covered 100 percent it won’t promote rural character.”
The pods would be required to have a 50 foot buffer between panels and the property boundary. The solar panels have to be at least 250 feet away from homes and substations or battery energy storage facilities would have to be at least 150 feet away from the property boundary.
Miller said they would also need to be screened from roads, rezoning and existing dwellings.
She said they also had reached out to fringe cities including Edgerton.
“The setbacks in combination with the screening can be protective of that rural character and open spaces,” Miller said. “It can protect those sensitive areas like dwellings.”
Screening options include berms or trees, she said, and property owners can also provide up to 30 percent of required screening with fencing.
Darren Coffey, Berkeley Group consultant, said the distance screening requirements were typical but an urbanized county like Johnson County had additional competing land use pressures rural counties do not have.
“The size does become a more sensitive issue,” he said. “How much of your future land use do you want to be under panel versus competing interests.”
After the recent annexation of the Sunflower Ammunition Plant, the county currently retains about 10,391 acres of unincorporated land within the required two mile city limit buffer zone.

Safety Requirements
Commissioners Janee Hanzlick, Shirley Allenbrand and Becky Fast said they had questions about the safety of the facilities in regards to materials leeching into the soil, panels catching on fire and materials being recyclable.
Leipzig said they had met with local fire chiefs to review fire code terms in applying to battery storage facilities.
Miller said when the solar regulations are reviewed the board will be asked to adopt additional standards to ensure the safety of the battery energy storage facilities.
“One of them requires the applicant to use equipment that’s been tested at the factory and built to a certain standard,” she said. “That is to prevent thermal runaway and all that equipment will be the newest, most up-to-date equipment.”
Miller said other standards require the installation and operation of battery storage to be set at a specific level and the board will adopt those standards at the time of regulations review.
Solar Farm applicants will be required to work with local safety officials to develop and emergency response plan in the event a fire were to break out, she said.
Charlotte O’Hara, commissioner, said lithium batteries do catch on fire and emit toxic fumes.
Leipzig said it had been part of the Fire review with fire chiefs.
Coffey said the panels do not emit hazardous materials and leech into the soil or groundwater but can sometimes release Zinc.
“What does leech from galvanized posts is zinc,” he said. “There is an oxidation that occurs, and it has been found that higher levels of zinc can go into the ground from panels that chemical process occur.”
Coffey said peanut farming had significant issues, but that wasn’t a concern in Johnson County, and the land could be restored to original land use.
Stormwater runoff can be an issue, he said, but there were ways to mitigate the effects of done correctly.
“Hopefully best practices,” Coffey said. “But they will continue to evolve.”
Fast said she wanted to know if because they were only using 70 percent of the acreage for panels if farmers would be allowed to grow crops under the panels like elsewhere in the country.
Leipzig said the county would regulate the height of the panel, and it was a common practice to have crops under moving panels.
Miller said the maximum height of a lower panel would be 10 feet so they could have agricultural crops and animals, but cattle were too destructive.
“It would preserve rural character,” she said.

Decommissioning 
Pendley, deputy director of planning, said county leaders would need to consider how the equipment will be removed and the property restored when the solar farms are decommissioned.
Issuing escrow credits or bonds could provide the county a guarantee that the materials are properly removed, he said.
“These funds-these guarantees are to cover a number of things besides just the removal of the equipment,” Pendley said. “It’s also to stabilize the land and reseed and restore the ground to its next use.”
The decommissioned solar projects would most likely return to agricultural use, he said.
Pendley said it is difficult to determine the salvage value and city annexations have an effect on eligible areas.
“As cities grow it is very important to look at,” he said.
Jeff Meyers, commissioner, said he felt it was extremely important that decommissioning the sites was properly enforced for the protection of roads, infrastructure and future projects.
“But if that directly links to tax planning and tax activities I’ve got to understand that.”

Other Concerns:
Ed Eilert, commissioner chair, said he wanted to know if they could specially say the energy being produced from the solar farms would go directly into the county power grid.
Coffey said utilities go under the grid and is based on demand and not local.
Fast said she appreciated Coffey’s expertise but wanted to hear from more experts on how transmission works, as she believed the county does have a benefit from belonging to the Southwest Energy Pool.