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Community Energy holds open house for solar farm project

Community Energy holds open house for solar farm project

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Solar farm project

TAKING A LOOK: Yutan resident Rick Hancock looks at an example of the solar panel that will be placed in the proposed solar farm project planned south of Yutan. The developer, Community Energy, and OPPD held the open house last Friday at the Yutan Veteran’s Country Club to provide more information on the project. (Staff Photo by Suzi Nelson)

YUTAN – The agencies involved in the proposed solar farm near Yutan met in an open house setting last Friday to provide additional information about the project.

Although the location was the same, it was a much different setting than the first town hall meeting on March 31 where Community Energy announced the program to the local residents.

Community Energy, a private renewable energy developer based in Pennsylvania, plans to build a solar farm on about 500 acres in eastern Saunders County, south of Yutan. It would generate a maximum of 81 megawatts of power, which would be fed back into the OPPD substation and sold to the utility. OPPD solicited private companies to build solar energy generation facilities as part of its Power with Purpose strategic initiative.

The preliminary plan includes three “pods” of solar panels between county roads L and J and county roads 5 and 7 that would be connected by underground wire to a substation located adjacent to the OPPD substation on County Road J. The solar fields will contain approximately 183,000 solar panels. The area will be surrounded by chain link fence six to eight feet tall.

Construction is proposed to begin in spring 2022 and will last nine to 12 months. The facility is expected to start producing solar energy by the end of May 2023.

Community Energy looked at several areas in the eastern part of the state within OPPD territory. The Yutan area was chosen for several reasons, including proximity to large electricity demand and infrastructure, along with interest shown by landowners. Community Energy began contacting landowners in 2019 to discuss the project.

Questions that arose during the March 31 meeting included what the solar panels are made of, setbacks and possible landscape buffering for residences, what happens to the panels in the event of weather damage or at the end of their lifespan, road damage during and after construction, water runoff and potential erosion issues and the permit process the project must go through with the county.

Some of the questions were answered that night, but others were not, leading Community Energy and OPPD to hold the second meeting on Friday.

Representatives from Community Energy and OPPD were on hand to answer questions individually. There was no group presentation.

Many local residents are concerned that one of the planned pods is adjacent to Hollst Lawn Cemetery, the only active cemetery in the Yutan area. Sam Sours, vice president of development for Community Energy, said the company reached an agreement last week with the cemetery board that include greater setbacks and more landscape buffering around the cemetery.

“Everybody is happy,” he said.

Courtney Kennedy, manager of alternative energy programs for OPPD, said OPPD representatives fielded technical questions about the panels, how the solar fields connect to the substation and about the utility’s Power with Purpose initiative as they were stationed throughout the Yutan Veterans Country Club.

“People had questions answered at the tables along the way,” she said.

Handouts explaining the project were also provided to attendees, all in an effort to provide more information to residents. Sours said Yutan residents are more involved compared to other projects Community Energy has done across the country, which shows they care a lot about their community and want to maintain what they have.

However, Community Energy and Yutan can peacefully co-exist, Sours said.

“A lot of fear comes out of these and it’s our job to try and allay some of that fear and indicate we can be a good neighbor in the community,” he added.

Teresa Akeson, the leader of a group of local landowners opposed to the project, said they were “disappointed” in the way the meeting was set up. They would rather have had an event similar to last month’s meeting where everyone could hear the questions and answers.

She also said there are lingering questions from area landowners. However, there were some positives that came out of Friday’s meeting, Akeson said.

“I did get some questions answered,” she said.

But she has many more questions to be posed to Community Energy, OPPD and county officials.

Akeson was at Tuesday morning’s Saunders County Board of Supervisors meeting to speak about concerns she has regarding the project. She said the county board and the zoning department incorrectly approved additions to the zoning regulations regarding solar energy last February. She also noted that allowing Community Energy to submit an application for a conditional use permit without proper documentation was also incorrect.

She also produced a list of 75 signatures from residents of Saunders County who are against the solar farm proposal.

Because Akeson was not on the agenda, the supervisors could not take action on her comments.

Akeson has also submitted a proposed zoning change that would place stricter regulations on solar energy in the county. This will go in front of the Saunders County Planning Commission for a public hearing on Monday, May 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the 4-H Exhibition Hall at the Saunders County Fairgrounds in Wahoo.

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