Big Solar Farm Proposal Near Lincoln Advancing
By Fred Knapp , Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
Oct. 28, 2021, midnight ·
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A proposal for what would be the biggest solar energy installation in Nebraska is moving forward, despite the objections of some neighbors.
Walking along a gravel road just east of Lincoln, you can see acres and acres of corn ready to be harvested. But if a proposal now making its way through the approval process gets the go-ahead, future harvests here could be electricity from the sun.
This is where a company called Ranger Power, out of Chicago, wants to install solar panels, and lots of them. The entire project would include about 3,000 acres – almost five square miles – of which about 60 percent would be covered with solar panels. The company says the project could generate 250 megawatts of electricity. That’s more than 40 times more power than the largest installation currently in Nebraska, in Kearney. And the company says it’s enough to power about 32,000 homes, after it’s hooked into the grid via a nearby Lincoln Electric System substation.
This week, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission held an eight-hour hearing on whether to approve permits for the proposal. Dan Griffith was among those supporting it, calling it a response to the real threat of climate change.
“What kind of planet do we want leave our children and our grandchildren? Do we want to be on our deathbed years from now, having to look our families in the eyes, and having to answer the question ‘Why didn’t you do more?’” Griffith asked.
Griffith said he’s signed up his land to be part of the project, although he acknowledged many people in the area feel differently:
“It’s my land and it’s my legal right to do what I want with it. And it’s not my job to tell my neighbors what to do with their land. And that door swings both ways,” he said.
One of the neighbors objecting to the proposal was Hayli Bulow, who said instead of bordering on farm ground, her house would be surrounded on three sides by solar panels.
“We are literally at the pocket, surrounded by solar panels, and if there’s fencing, it’s going to look like a prison where we’re at – trapped in the corner. Is there a better place? That should be a top priority. Maybe not around people. Not about residents. If you want solar, find somewhere that it’s safer, and not around residents,” Bulow said.
Opponents said living next to solar panels would lower their property values, subject them to noise from inverters that transform direct current from the panels into alternating current for the grid, and increase the risk of fires.
Supporters said inverters would be located away from property lines, and studies had shown no increased risk of fire or damage to property values. And they said landowners could make more from using land for solar panels than from farming.
Opponent Andrew Pool supported the idea of switching to solar power, but questioned the specific proposal.
“The proponents have really great points on solar energy, I don’t think most of us are here to refute the efficacy of solar energy or the benefits it can provide -- the reduction in greenhouse gasses, all this stuff. What we’re questioning is just the location of it,” Pool said.
But David Levy, a lawyer for Ranger Power, said the company has the support of participating landowners. Levy said the question before the Planning Commission wasn’t whether to move the project away from residences and the Lincoln Electric System hookup.
“They’re applying under the rules for a permit to do a legal use on land that is voluntarily put into the project. Absolutely, the location of the substation is a factor – that’s an important piece. But without willing landowners, you don’t have a project,” Levy said.
One factor that caused some hesitation among commissioners was the question of whether to allow solar panels on parts of rural subdivisions, known as Community Unit Plans or CUPs, that are supposed to be preserved as open space. Commissioner Dick Campbell suggested allowing them could amount to a bait-and-switch.
“We’re doing a disservice to the people who have bought homes or built out in the CUPs, thinking that the outlots were going to remain open and they may have crops on them or they may be grasses of some type…We’re changing the whole situation on them after the fact,” Campbell said.
Campbell’s proposed amendment to prohibit solar panels on outlots in a portion of the project within the city’s zoning jurisdiction was defeated, 4-3. The proposed permit was then approved, 7-0. Commissioners also voted 4-2 in favor a permit for the half of the project in the county’s zoning jurisdiction, but five votes were required, so there will be a revote at the next meeting when more commissioners are expected to be present.
Opponent Mick Von Busch sounded resigned to the eventual outcome, but urged caution.
“This thing’s going to go through. It is. There’s no stopping it. I understand that. But we can take a pause and make sure it goes in properly, safely – you know, (protecting the) health, safety, welfare of the people that live around it,” Von Busch said.
Back out at the site of the proposed solar farm, the corn waves softly in the breeze. But if you peer into the future, you might see a very different sight.
The Planning Commission is expected to revote on the county portion of the permit Nov. 17. Its decisions can be appealed to the county board and city council.
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