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One of the first solar energy projects in Missouri could be built in Callaway County.

The Guthrie Solar Project is proposed by NextEra Energy, the world's largest developer of renewable energy, and it would begin operations in 2024.

"The Guthrie Solar project is more than solar panels — it represents a significant capital investment in Missouri," the project's website reads. "Once operational, it will create good-paying jobs and millions in additional revenue for the local community."

According to the Guthrie Solar Project's website, the project would take up about 600 acres and have solar panels capable of generating up to 100 megawatts of solar energy, which is enough to power more than 16,000 homes. To construct the project, 250 jobs would be created, and NextEra Energy estimates the project would bring in $6 million of additional revenue for Callaway County.

Bryan Garner, the spokesman for NextEra Energy, emphasized the Guthrie Solar Project would not use eminent domain to acquire any land. He said NextEra Energy's focus is on building renewable energy projects in partnership with communities for their benefit.

"It will be 100 percent voluntary," Garner said. "We're only going to do a project with landowners who choose to partner with us. That's our approach across the board."

The approach stands in stark contrast to a recent plan to install transmission lines across northern Missouri. During the previous legislative session, efforts to block the Grain Belt Express received bipartisan support but ultimately fell short, in part because of its proposed use of eminent domain.

The Grain Belt Express is an 800-mile merchant line that would transport renewable energy from western Kansas to the eastern part of the country. If constructed, it would run through northern Missouri.

Opponents of the transmission line said it would abuse eminent domain power by using it for private gain, and critics are continuing to advocate for eminent domain reform.

Missouri Farm Bureau President Garrett Hawkins has said the Grain Belt Express would make Missouri the "transmission superhighway for the Green New Deal."

Although Garner would not speculate as to whether the public perception of the Guthrie Solar Project would be affected by the controversial Grain Belt Express, he stressed the projects are very different because the Guthrie Solar Project will not use eminent domain.

"If it is a good fit, we would love to build the Guthrie Solar Project in this community," Garner said. "We think it has a lot of long-term benefits, in terms of economic development and clean energy development. That's really our focus: building a project in partnership with the community on a voluntary basis."

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found the majority of Americans support solar energy projects, but a partisan split is forming.

In 2016, 92 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of Republicans supported expanding solar panel farms. Now, 93 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans support solar energy projects, showing a drop in conservative support. Although Callaway County generally leans conservative, Garner is optimistic about the Guthrie Solar Project's public support.

"I think regardless of where people stand politically, they can get behind renewable energy for a number of reasons," Garner said. "Primarily, because this is locally-grown, homegrown clean energy that creates tremendous economic benefits. It is also one of the lowest-cost forms of energy in America today. It's not only the right thing to do for the environment, it's also the most affordable form of new energy, so that's a win-win. No matter where you stand politically, a renewable energy project can make a lot of sense for a community."

The Guthrie Solar Project is tentatively scheduled to begin operations in 2024 if it receives local and state approval, so Garner said the project is in its very early stages.

"We are at the point of scoping whether the area can support a solar project, so we're not even at the permitting stage," Garner said. "We're really scoping out the viability of the project in this area."

Garner said NextEra Energy would need to gauge interest with county officials, measure the solar resources available and secure land from landowners who choose to partner with them, among other tasks to ensure the project is successful.

"We're really excited to speak to folks in this community," Garner said. "We've got some enthusiasm already about interest in this project and renewable energy broadly. We like the idea of being able to bring economic development, good jobs, tax benefits and opportunities for folks to partner with us on a renewable energy project like this to the county."

More information about the Guthrie Solar Project can be found at www.nexteraenergyresources.com/guthrie-solar.html.

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