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Utility-scale solar project draws opposition from some Linn County residents

Solar cells sit in the sun at the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in Desert Center, Calif. The people who run California's electric grid expect the solar power output to be cut roughly in half during the eclipse.
Marcus Yam/LA Times via Getty Images
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LA Times via Getty Images
Solar cells sit in the sun at the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in Desert Center, Calif.

Scientists say that rapidly expanding the country’s renewable energy infrastructure is vital to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. But local resistance is complicating the path toward that energy transition in Iowa. A utility-scale solar project proposed in Linn County is facing resistance from some residents who don’t want to see the development built on farmland.

On Monday, residents crowded into a building at the Linn County Fairgrounds for a hearing on a 750-acre solar farm slated to be built near Coggon. Person after person took to the mic to tell the Linn County Planning & Zoning Commission they oppose the project, which would take 640 acres of farmland out of production.

Coggon resident Laura Robinson argued the project poses a threat to the local ag economy.

“It’s a proposal to industrialize prime Linn County farmland. It clearly eliminates job opportunities for farmers and people employed in the seed, fertilizer and farm equipment business,” Robinson said.

“It’s a proposal to industrialize prime Linn County farmland. It clearly eliminates job opportunities for farmers and people employed in the seed, fertilizer and farm equipment business,"
-Laura Robinson, Coggon resident

Under the proposal, Idaho-based Clenera would construct a 100 Megawatt utility-scale solar facility and operate it for 35 years, selling its power to Central Iowa Power Cooperative or CIPCO for 20 years, with the option to serve other utilities for the following 10 to 15 years.

Clenera development director Tom Fitzgerald wagered the solar power would be “some of the cheapest and most competitive priced power” that CIPCO has ever had. The company has also sought public feedback from landowners and neighbors throughout the development process, he added.

“Working with the county, we were able to incorporate [that feedback] into the project, including setbacks from residences, inclusion of the native prairie vegetation plan, the agricultural impact mitigation plan. And all of those things I feel have led us to develop a very balanced project that will fit well within the fabric of the community,” Fitzgerald said.

According to Clenera, the project would power approximately 18,000 homes and offset some 300 million pounds of carbon dioxide each year. The development would partially meet local power needs created by the decommissioning of the Duane Arnold nuclear power plant in Palo, a CIPCO staffer told the commission Monday.

It’s one of a number of energy projects to draw opposition from rural residents in recent years; many of the complaints center on residents’ opposition to taking farmland out of production.

Residents also raised concerns about who would be responsible for debris cleanup if the panels were damaged during a storm, and questioned whether the company would invest adequate resources in decommissioning the site when it’s taken offline.

According to county staff, the area has been farmed since the mid-1800s and has an average corn suitability rating of 73.76, classifying it as high value agricultural land. After construction, the land would be seeded with native prairie grasses to help manage stormwater, improve soil health and establish habitat.

“There is clearly a tradeoff,” said Charlie Nichols, director of the county’s Planning & Development Department. “We would be gaining utility-scale renewable energy but losing, for a period of up to 35 years, what is clearly prime farmland.”

Still, Nichols made clear that the use of the land for renewable energy generation isn’t meant to be permanent. The project is seeking to temporarily rezone the land to allow for a renewable energy overlay district. After the 35 year timeline, that permit would expire and the county could decide whether to return the land to crop production.

“I think it’s a drop in the bucket. Anyone who says otherwise…I know people who farm five times that by themselves. So…640 acres, percentage-wise is not a lot.”
-Griffin Kuntz, Linn County Planning & Zoning Commission member

“Obviously, this will be taking land out of production for up to 35 years, which is not an insignificant amount of time,” Nichols said. “But the intent is that it's not going to be forever.”

Joel Peyton, one of the property owners whose land would be used in the project, defended the solar development, which he said he sees as another “risk management tool” available to farmers looking to increase their revenues and diversify their portfolios.

“Another benefit in my mind is letting our ground rest and rejuvenate for 35 years,” Peyton said. “Our land will be covered in prairie grass and pollinators, allowing the ground to rest. After 35 years, our kids will be able to take advantage of the organic matter that’s built during this time.”

Nonetheless, the overwhelming number of speakers at Monday’s meeting opposed the project, citing similar concerns about the loss of crop ground and what they see as drastic changes to the rural landscape.

Meanwhile, P&Z Commissioner Griffin Kuntz argued that the number of acres slated to be taken out of production is vanishingly small.

“I think it’s a drop in the bucket,” Kuntz said. “Anyone who says otherwise…I know people who farm five times that by themselves. So…640 acres, percentage-wise is not a lot.”

Still, Kuntz and a majority of the commission voted Monday night to recommend denying the project. Ultimately it’ll be up to the Linn County Board of Supervisors to decide whether to approve the proposal. The board must hold three readings on the project before voting. The first reading has not yet been scheduled.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter