A late June storm with baseball-size hail devastated the Community Solar Farm in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, shattering some 14,000 panels, and forcing consumers to fall back on traditional sources for their electricity needs for the foreseeable future. The CEO of GenPro Energy Solutions, which developed the solar farm in partnership with the Nebraska Public Power District, said they used top-tier solar panels that are able to withstand most hail storms. But the late June storm put the project offline until the complete damage can be assessed and repairs made.
The aftermath has focused attention on the West Gardner Solar Project in eastern Kansas, expected to be online by late 2024.
The proposed 3,500 acre project, approved by Johnson and Douglas County Commissions in 2022 will provide 500 megawatts (MW) of power to customers, although no formal application for the project has been received or approved by either county.
Both Johnson and Douglas counties approved rules that generally limit the duration of solar projects to 25 years. Johnson County restricts the size of the farms to 2,000 acres; Douglas County restricts them to 1,000 acres with an option to expand by another 1,000.
In Johnson County, the solar panels must be located at least 1.5 miles from a city’s boundaries. In Douglas, the only setback requirement is for the panels to be at least 500 feet from residences.
The Nebraska project, producing just 5.2 MW of power, was miniscule in comparison to the proposed solar farm in Gardner, raising concerns about the potential havoc a similar storm in eastern Kansas could cause.
Johnson County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara, a critic of the project, and the sole vote in opposition upon passage last summer, says storm concern is justified:
“What about all of the folks who will be in the path of a tornado that plows through the, at least, 3,000 acre West Gardner Solar Project? I can’t imagine the amount of debris that would be scattered over our residential areas. What would be the impact from toxic elements in the solar panels, how could this possible disaster be mitigated?
O’Hara shared an article from Solar Power World on natural disasters and solar installations that cites signifcant hail damage in other states, including more than $300 million in Texas alone.
Andy Hyland, Assistant Director of Public Affairs and Communications in Johnson County, says the county’s role in preventing a Scottsbluff-type disaster would be minimal:
“The only responsibility the county would have is through building code enforcement. All design and construction of any potential solar project would need to follow International Building Code requirements as adopted by Johnson County.”
Karrey Britt, Public Information Officer for Douglas County, agrees:
“In Douglas County, the Board of County Commissioners recently approved temporary business permits for geotechnical testing only. Douglas County has not received an application for a solar facility in that area. When it comes to storm damage, that would be a question for the company providing such services.”
We reached out to NextEra Energy Resources, developer of the West Gardner project, for comment. They did not respond.
Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to reflect the Johnson County Board of Commissioners has not received or approved a formal application for the solar farm project.