The same energy firm proposing to build a 3,000-acre solar farm in southeast Douglas County also is exploring the feasibility of building a large wind turbine farm in southwest Douglas County, I’ve confirmed.
Florida-based NextEra Energy has begun reaching out to large landowners in southwest Douglas County and northwest Franklin County about a project dubbed the Larksong Wind Energy Center.
“We are just gathering interest to see if we can even develop the area,” said Ryan Fullerton, who is contacting land owners on behalf of NextEra, which is one of the largest renewable energy companies in the country. “It is really, really preliminary at this point, but hopefully we can get enough landowners interested that we can move forward.”
Fullerton didn’t provide any details on how large the wind farm may be, but NextEra has developed some of the larger wind farms in all of Kansas. Plus, the company certainly already has proved that it thinks big when it comes to projects in this area.
As we reported this summer, NextEra has expressed interest in building an approximately 3,000 acre solar panel farm along the county line between Douglas and Johnson counties. That project – which basically would be east and north of Baldwin City – would be one of the largest solar farms in the country.
NextEra owns nine wind farm developments in Kansas – primarily in central and western Kansas – ranging in size from about 40 turbines to 170 turbines.
Fullerton also didn’t provide specific information about the geographical boundaries of the project, other than to say the company is focusing on the southwest corner of Douglas County and northwest corner of Franklin County.
“I’m not sure how far everything can shift out from there,” said Fullerton, who works for Doyle Land Services, who is working for NextEra on the Larksong project.
Based on conversations I’ve had with people in the area, it appears the company’s interest extends at least as far east as the rural, unincorporated community of Worden, which is on U.S. Highway 56 about seven miles west of Baldwin City and about nine miles east of Overbrook.
NextEra is seeking to get a contract from landowners that would give the utility a two-year option to develop a wind farm on their properties, according to documents shared with me by one landowner. If the company successfully moves forward with a wind farm during that two-year period, then the long-term lease would kick in, which would allow for wind turbines on the property for 50 years, with two 20-year renewal terms.
The contract I saw proposed to pay the landowner $5,000 per year for each 1 MW of wind generation located on the property. For instance, many wind turbines are rated for one megawatt of power, meaning that each wind turbine would generate a $5,000 lease fee. But some wind turbines are rated for two or three megawatts, meaning the lease payments would be $10,000 to $15,000 a year for those turbines.
Fullerton didn’t provide any information about whether the company had secured any leases for the project. He estimated he would be working with land owners for the next six to nine months in determining whether there is enough interest for the project to be feasible.
If there is a group of landowners interested in the project, the project still would need to win approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the Douglas County Commission. Jeff Crick, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning office told me the company hasn’t filed any plans for the project and that his office wasn’t doing any work on the project.
But if plans are filed, the county does have regulations on the books for wind farm developments. In general, wind farms can only be located in certain zoning districts, and even then, they must receive a conditional use permit from the County Commission before they would be allowed to proceed. The county’s regulations, which were adopted in 2017, also require all property owners within a one-mile radius of the proposed wind farm to be formally notified of the development proposal.
The zoning regulations contemplate wind turbine towers that are more than 200 feet tall, but also create a prohibition on any wind turbine being closer than 1,500 feet from a residential structure. The regulations also give county commissioners the authority to evaluate wind farm developments based on a number of criteria, including visual impact, noise impact, impact to wildlife, cultural heritage considerations and impact to the rural character of the area, among others.
Douglas County has some small-scale wind turbines that individual property owners have erected, but it doesn’t have a commercial-scale wind farm. But such large-scale farms are getting closer to Douglas County. It used to be that eastern Kansas generally wasn’t considered a prime area for wind development.
But as technology has changed, so has that perception. There is a large wind farm less than an hour from Douglas County currently. The area along Interstate 35 that goes through Franklin, Osage and Coffey counties, has a significant number of wind turbines. If you are familiar with the BBQ restaurant Guy & Mae’s in Williamsburg, you’ll start seeing the wind turbines near that exit on I-35. They stretch far to the south and west, with one farm reaching all the way to the western end of Melvern Lake, near Reading.
News of the potential project comes at the same time that Evergy – formerly Westar and KCP&L – announced it wants to add 1,000 megawatts of wind energy to is portfolio by 2026. The company on Monday formally put out a request for proposals for wind energy projects, saying it would give a preference to projects in Kansas.
So, who knows, there may be more than one company out contacting Douglas County landowners about potential wind farm projects. The county already is near major power transmission lines, which is an important consideration for any wind project.
While I was talking to Jeff Crick at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning office, I did get a brief update on NextEra’s solar project. He said the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission intends to hold another public hearing on the text amendments for solar farms in November. The commission, however, hasn’t determined whether that hearing will be on Nov. 15 or Nov. 17, he said.
Crick said county residents have been reaching out to the planning department since residents started becoming more aware of the potential project in late August.
“We definitely have heard from people, and not just from that corner of the county, but really countywide and beyond,” Crick said.
As the Journal-World reported in August, the project would be several miles east of Baldwin City and would be about 4 miles long, stretching from North 700 Road to North 300 Road along the border of Douglas/Johnson counties.
While the project wouldn’t have four miles of continuous solar panels – there would be gaps where land owners haven’t consented or where the property doesn’t work for solar panels – it would be a large project. NextEra has estimated it would produce about 320 MW of solar power, which is enough to power about 40,000 homes.
Douglas County, much like Johnson County, is trying to get its zoning codes up to date to deal with commercial solar projects. Douglas County is working on a zoning code text amendement that would spell out items like setback requirements, fencing standards, road access and other such details. Once those standards are in place, NextEra then could officially apply for zoning approval of the project. That application then would create a new set of public hearings related to the project.
I do have a call into an attorney representing NextEra on the project. I’ll let you know if I hear of any other significant updates.