This solar farm in Bourbon County is owned by Heartland Electrical Cooperative. Heartland plans to build a relatively small solar farm about two miles north of Mound City (File photo)
By Roger Sims, Journal publisher
(This opinion article has been updated to correct inaccuracies on the number of acres and the percentage of total county land that the zoning regulations have approved for industrial solar operations.)
The recent call for Linn County to ban solar “farms” is, in a word, misguided.
The county’s newly adopted zoning regulations allow up to 8,000 acres of area (about 2% of the total area) in the county to be used for commercial solar electricity generation, up from the the initial proposal of 4,000 acres. That does not mean that all 8,000 acres will be in one area.
Solar power companies have been hovering around landowners in the northeast portion of the county to commit land to large installations, and they have been successful. Those companies are looking at the first installation just south of the La Cygne Generating Station owned by Evergy. And rightly so.
The mostly flat terrain there is close to valuable high-voltage transmission lines leading from the power plant, and those lines could presumably handle the power produced by the solar farm as well.
Last year, Evergy announced plans to begin retiring plants like the La Cygne power plant over the next 10 to 15 years. With recent pollution controls added to the La Cygne plant, it will likely be one of the final coal-powered generators for the company to shut down.
When it announced the shuttering of the coal-fire plants last year, it also indicated that it would invest more heavily in cleaner, renewable sources of electricity including solar and wind energy. Earlier this year, Evergy backed off of its timetable to close the coal-fired plant in Lawrence, Kan., and it could delay closure of other plants as well.
However, with the growth of renewable power in the state, new developments in energy storage technology, and the increase of weather events scientists attribute to climate change, it appears that electrical power is entering a new, more dominant role in supplying energy.
Already wind energy is supplying almost 50% of the electricity we consume with most of that being produced in the state.
Opponents of solar power claim that those farms will destroy the rural way of life we enjoy in Linn County, will disrupt the patterns of wildlife in the area, and will diminish the historical landmarks of which the county has a bountiful supply.
What they don’t take into account, however, is that over the past couple of decades the rural way of life has changed. While the small family farm remains, farming itself has changed into a largely industrialized version, not just in Linn County but throughout the farm belt. The more successful operations use massive computer-guided equipment to plant and harvest crops on thousands of acres.
The Fourth of July parade of farm machinery in Blue Mound this summer included a line of a few pieces of machinery, together the equipment was easily worth millions of dollars.
And while many landowners run a few cattle and even may feed cattle on a lot during the winter, the larger producers have integrated their operations with feedlots that cover hundreds of acres in the western part of Linn County. One of those operators has even considered building a small meat processing plant.
Wildlife manages to adapt to the changing landscape as well, with foxes, coyotes, deer, raccoons, and even bobcats regularly sighted on suburb outskirts to the north. To think they can’t survive and even thrive in an solar farm environment is naïve.
Solar farms are hardly repudiation of the county’s history either. The La Cygne Generating Station is very much a part of the county’s history. With lights ablaze throughout the night and the constant hum of generators providing a backdrop to life around it, the power plant has provided a livelihood for its workers, for those who built it, for those who process the fly ash byproducts, and for those who have jobs created by the tax dollars it supplies to local entities and county governments.
It provided a livelihood for those who tortured the land in harvesting the Linn County coal that fed the power plant until the high sulfur content was found to have created too much pollution. The strip pits that were created in that process remain in silent testimony in the Prescott area.
Even away from the power plant, much of the corn produced by Linn County farmers every year goes to the ethanol plant in Garnett to be used to fuel our cars. And major pipelines cross through the county providing links to gas produced elsewhere.
No, the history of Linn County is as much the production of energy as it is the bucolic rural lifestyle, the history of Jayhawkers fighting border ruffians, and the blood spilled on the battlefield of Mine Creek.
While the smoke from the smokestack at the La Cygne plant is cleaner than it has ever been, the history of pollution from the plant is undeniable as well. Stories of metal corroding from the fallout and health problems that were never fully studied are a part of that history as well.
The installation of solar farms will alter the course of that history in a good way, producing clean, renewable energy and cutting into our reliance on fossil fuel that is hastening climate change. And that investment holds promise of jobs and tax dollars we will need long into the future.