Jun. 6—Quietly powering a building or a farm or a house, early solar projects in Iowa sparked initial curiosity before becoming part of the Iowa landscape.
But as Iowa utility companies seek to make solar power a bigger part of the energy mix — spurred by the need to limit greenhouse gases to reduce the impacts of climate change — proposed solar installations have grown in size and number, causing more pushback from neighbors.
Some of the concerns are based on misinformation — solar panels don't increase flood risk or cause dangerous glare — but some opponents have legitimate questions about how utility-scale solar projects will affect their pockets of rural Iowa.
A proposed 200-megawatt solar installation by Palo is near Alden's home in western Linn County. The NextEra Energy project is slated to use about 1,200 acres of land. Not much when you consider Linn County is 460,000 acres — but as more neighbors sell their land to NextEra, Alden worries about the impact.
"Rolling hills, lots of trees. The road is called Green Grove for a reason," Alden said. "My husband and I have a dream to live in the country. We sacrificed a lot to save money to buy a little land and build a house and now we are being industrialized."
There also is new politicization of wind and solar energy.
While most Americans continue to support expanding solar (84 percent) and wind farms (77 percent), Republicans and Democrats have become more divided, the Pew Research Center reported in June 2021.
More than 90 percent of Democrats and left-leaning independents support solar and wind, Pew reported. But among Republicans and Republican-leaning survey respondents, support for solar power went from 84 percent in 2020 to 73 percent in 2021, Pew reported. Support for wind dropped from 75 percent in 2020 to 62 percent a year later.
MidAmerican Energy has a goal of providing 100 percent renewable energy to its customers by 2025. Alliant Energy wants to have net zero carbon emissions from the electricity the company generates by 2050.
Electricity generation in the United States in 2020 resulted in 1.55 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which equaled about 0.85 pounds of CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour of energy produced, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
U.S. power plants that burned coal, natural gas and petroleum were the source of about 62 percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2020, but accounted for 99 percent of power-related carbon dioxide emissions. The agency considers electricity from renewable sources, including wind, solar, hydro and biomass, to be carbon neutral.
Saving the planet isn't the only motivation for utilities; many of their industrial customers are insisting on cleaner power.
Wind power came to Iowa well before solar, with a 1983 bill requiring investor-owned utilities in Iowa to purchase wind power.
Then-Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, advocated for wind power in the 1980s and through 2016, when he recognized it in his Condition of the State address as a way for farmers to make money from turbine lease payments.
Nearly 60 percent of Iowa's electricity comes from wind — the largest share in the nation.
MidAmerican has more than 3,400 wind turbines across the state, with most concentrated in western and central Iowa. These wind farms generate enough electricity to power 2.3 million households a year, the company reported. A night drive along Interstate 80 from Iowa City to Des Moines shows an horizon blinking with red lights marking the tops of wind turbine towers.
Alliant owns and operates 1,299 megawatts of wind generation in Iowa, which is enough to power more than 500,000 homes, the company reported.
But unlike wind farms developed in the 1990s to 2010s, newer installations have drawn more criticism in Iowa. News headlines shed light on Iowans' concerns with wind:
— "Wind turbines haven't been universally welcomed by everyone in Iowa" — The Gazette, Feb. 23, 2019
— "Report: Sound from wind turbines does not harm human health" — The Gazette, Jan. 31, 2019
— "'Flickers' and 'stray voltage': Why these Iowans really, really hate wind power" — Des Moines Register, April 21, 2017
With half of Iowa's 99 counties having utility-scale wind farms in operation or development by 2017, the Iowa Environmental Council reported, more than half Iowa counties now have rules for siting, safety, infrastructure needs and decommissioning turbines.
The council recommends minimum setbacks from residential properties of 1,000 to 1,250 feet and limits on turbine sounds of no lower than 50 dBA (decibels weighted for the human ear).
"For counties interested in attracting all of the local benefits that come with wind generation, a well-drafted and balanced wind siting ordinance is an important initial step," the environmental group wrote. "Our review of county ordinances across Iowa shows that many counties have adopted workable ordinances resulting in successful local wind development."
Cerro Gordo County — which has had wind turbines since the late 1990s — has a special use permit that applies to utility-scale wind or solar farms and cell towers, Planning and Zoning Administrator John Robbins said.
It includes a basic setback of one foot of distance for every foot of height. But county leaders can layer on additional requirements depending on the proposed project.
"In recent years, it (wind) has become a little more of a NIMBY," he said, referring to the phrase, not in my backyard. Robbins noted it seems as if personal politics play more of a role in people's opinions about wind and solar.
Invenergy, a multinational power company based in Chicago, wants to build an 180-megawatt wind farm in Cerro Gordo County, with 40 to 50 turbines from the Floyd County line all the way west to Mason City, the Mason City Globe Gazette reported.
Landowners who spoke at a February meeting wanted to know exactly where Invenergy wanted to put each turbine, but the company said they want to sign voluntary easements and then chart a path for the towers.
If the county's special-use permit works as intended, the setbacks should be adequate to reduce community concerns, Robbins said. The county also has worked with developers to reduce shadow flicker — when the sun is low on the horizon and casts rays through the turbine blades — by proper siting and, in some cases, timers, he said.
Robbins hopes the county's permitting process also will work to regulate utility-scale solar installations, which haven't yet come to Cerro Gordo County.
Next up: solar
But solar is heating up in Iowa.
"MidAmerican just started developing solar last year," said Adam Jablonski, the company's vice president of resource development. MidAmerican only has five solar projects, including a 3-megawatt facility opened in Hills earlier this year.
The Hills site was on land MidAmerican already owned. The company did an environmental study and then went through the design and permitting process. The utility started construction in spring 2021 and opened the installation in early 2022.
"That one was pretty smooth sailing," Jablonski said. "We got good support from county. We talk with the adjacent landowner to make sure he was aware of it. He had no concerns."
Even with a larger project, the 117-megawatt Holliday Creek Solar Project in Webster County, slated to be fully operation in 2022, MidAmerican has not encountered significant resistance, officials said.
But two large-scale solar developments in Linn County have faced open opposition from some neighbors.
Clenera and CIPCO announced in April 2021 their plan to open an 100-megawatt solar project near Coggon. Linn County Planning and Zoning in November voted 6-to-1 against rezoning agricultural land to allow for the solar farm.
This was after some neighbors expressed concern about taking farmland out of production, the looks of solar farms, reduced property value and the county's ability to enforce ordinances.
"Cornfields are just as important to me as oceanfront property," Greg Bickal, owner of Bickal Koi Farm, said at a public meeting last year. "This is my retirement property and I've dreamed of this and now I'm going to be surrounded by solar panels on three sides."
The Linn County Board of Supervisors voted 2-to-1 in January to allow Coggon Solar to proceed. The site is expected to be operational by 2023.
Iowa for Responsible Solar's Alden opposed Coggon Solar and she's against the NextEra project near Palo. But she makes clear she's not against solar in all situations.
"We have tons of concrete parking garages, rooftops. Why are we not utilizing that space?" she said. "To turn productive prime farm ground into a part-time electric generation facility is just not responsible."
MidAmerican's Jablonski said rooftop solar projects usually are smaller scale and panels usually don't move to track the sun, which lowers productivity.
MidAmerican knows Iowans are concerned about taking agricultural land out of production, but these projects are just a sliver of Iowa's farmland. A MidAmerican sister company in California allows sheep grazing at a solar installation and projects also can be habitat for bees and other pollinators.
There still is relatively little research on the impact solar farms have on nearby property values. One study in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, more densely populated than Iowa, suggested houses within one mile depreciate 1.7 percent following construction of a solar array.
A 2018 report by the University of Texas Austin said a "geospatial analysis shows that relatively few homes are likely to be impacted."
Politics divide on renewables
Republicans are more than twice as likely as Democrats (65 percent to 30 percent) to say wind and solar are unreliable, the Pew Research Center study found. Republicans also are more likely to say wind and solar cost more than other energy sources.
More than 80 percent of Democrats say producing power from wind is better for the environment, compared to 45 percent of Republicans, Pew found.
And where Branstad touted Iowa's leadership in wind, his successor, Gov. Kim Reynolds, also a Republican, has not mentioned the state's wind ranking in recent Condition of the State addresses. Instead, she promotes corn-based ethanol and biodiesel.
More than 2,800 people have signed an online petition on the Iowa for Responsible Solar website.
Belinda Scott, of Cedar Rapids, wrote on the site that she wants NextEra to find another spot for the solar farm, proposed for land near the Duane Arnold Energy Center, a nuclear facility that started its decommissioning process in 2020.
"There is plenty of land around to use without tearing up a neighborhood and uprooting families," Scott wrote. "Families have already been torn by the closing of this plant! There are more important things than money! Find another place!"
Jablonski said developers and utility companies can take steps to make solar installations less noticeable. By a 3-megawatt solar installation in Waterloo, MidAmerican planted trees along the edge of the property to provide screening for neighbors, Jablonski said.
While some communities want to hide solar projects, Johnson County officials are excited by the prospect of an 150-megawatt installation being on display along Highway 218 south of Iowa City.
The Johnson County Solar Triangle, proposed for 1,200 acres, is under review by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, MISO, which manages the power grid across 15 states and a Canadian province.
"I think it's a really great talking piece for the county when they are recruiting employers, developers, tech companies and future companies," said Sean Kennedy, partner at Megawatt Photovoltaic Development Inc. "We're erasing a significant piece of that carbon footprint in Iowa."
Tom Banta, director of strategic growth for the Iowa City Area Development Group, agreed when The Gazette interviewed him in 2021.
"It doesn't get us to 100 percent renewable, but it gets us closer that way and becomes a marketing tool for businesses that are looking for that," he said.
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