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Solar updates; Bottoms concerns heard
Solar meeting

HOISINGTON — A multi-national energy company’s proposal to locate a solar facility in Barton County drew officials and residents to the Hoisington Activity Center Thursday morning to a special meeting of the Barton County Planning Commission. 

The meeting was requested as an informational session by Acciona Energy.  While some questions on the nature of the facility were addressed, the question of proposed location dominated the two-hour informational session.

The Bottoms is a factor

Barton County officials have known since February that Acciona had purchased leases from another developer and was intent on building a solar facility capable of generating up to 300 megawatts of electric power, along with battery storage facilities, connected to the grid at a substation located east of Great Bend and south of Cheyenne Bottoms in the county. 

County regulations, developed by the Barton County Planning Commission and approved by the Barton County Commissioners, had yet to be determined and permits had yet to be issued.

Public outcry regarding the facility’s impact to the Bottoms, however, led to the Commissioners’ putting the project on hold by placing a temporary moratorium on solar developments within six miles of the Bottoms until the end of the year.

The Planning Commission scheduled Thursday’s special meeting at Acciona’s request at the Hoisington Activity Center meeting room, in anticipation of a large public attendance.

More details

Adam Stratton, Acciona’s project development manager, opened the meeting with a brief history of the company leading up to its current focus on solar development in the United States and Canada. He noted that while solar projects have been or are being constructed currently in Kansas, they were of a smaller scale, generating less power than the project being proposed in Barton County.

“This is a first time for a project this large, at 300 megawatts,” he said. “The other arrays produce half of that or less.”

The location as originally developed hinged upon an existing substation to be used as an interconnection point just east of NE 30 Road and NE 40 Ave., approximately two miles east of Barton Community College.

It is also within a two-mile range of the Bottoms. The site was part of the original research done by Tenaska, another energy company, which Acciona acquired in 2018 along with the purchase of leases in 2019. The research was electrical engineering-based and did not include information about the Bottoms, he said.

“That information is actually not published on maps that we use for citing, national databases that you can get like desktop databases,” Stratton said. “We use something we like to call critical issues analysis. It pulls all this nationally published data that is supposedly the most sensitive and important data about an area.”

Support for the Bottoms

At that point, Planning Commission Chairman Mary Ann Stoskopf recognized several patrons in the audience speaking on behalf of the Bottoms, which is recognized as the largest inland marsh in North America and is an important stopover for migrating birds, some of them with protected status.

As comments continued, Stoskopf reminded speakers that the meeting, while public, was requested by Acciona and that questions should be directed to them. The meeting was not a public forum regarding the Bottoms. 

“If you have comments that need to be addressed on this specific issue, the opportunity to get those on the record will be at the public hearing,” Stoskopf said. “I know people are passionate about this specific project. They asked to come and present to us, and we agreed to do that to learn more about it.”

Board member JC Bosch asked Stratton directly if that location was Acciona’s only option.

“We’ve heard from the Kansas Ornithological Society and Nature Conservancy,” Bosch said. “Their map for a critical corridor is, like, smack in the middle of this. All these organizations that have done the research and that care about this area, we’ve done the research. Is there any other area you’re looking at?”

Stratton noted that the company has located landowner interest that encompasses around 6,000 to 7,000 acres, but that the actual facility space would require less than half of that. 

The land leases are designed for 30 years, with two successive options of five years each. 

“There is some flexibility, but it is important that the panels be located as close as possible to the interconnection point,” he said. “The farther away it is, the more expensive it gets.”

“I love the landowners in this area,” Bosch noted. “I love them; they’re some of my best friends. They signed the leases, great. I don’t fault anybody for doing what they think is the right thing to do. And I don’t want to take rights away from individual landowners. The last thing I want to do is take anyone’s right to do what they want to do on their land. That’s not at all what I’m saying.

“What I’m saying is we have an obligation and a duty to the nation’s largest inland marsh and the most crucial migration stop in the northern hemisphere.”

Joshua Svaty, a former state congressman and secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said he became involved with Acciona while the company was constructing the wind farm near Ellsworth, where he operates a farm. “As much as some of you may not like the original map and the original location, those are human beings, some of them definitely residents of the county, that said, ‘I want this project.’” Svaty said. “It’s not for us to decide whether or not they’re worthy. It’s their property and they entered into it.”

Board member Junior Welsch noted that discussion should be mindful of both sides of the issue. “The people that are in this room, you guys are divided,” he said. “Not everybody is for this, and some are for it. We need to respect everybody’s opinion in here because some of these landowners could benefit hugely from it. I see both ways and that’s what we’re all here for.”

Presently, the zoning commission is revising the county’s solar energy conversion system regulations. The Barton County Board of Commissioners will vote to continue or not continue the moratorium at the regular meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 12.