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Iowa lawmakers advance a bill placing restrictions on solar panels built on farmland

Toby Talbot
The bill says solar panel fields can’t be installed on more productive farmland. It also says the facilities can’t be less than a half mile away from other solar panel fields and at least 1,250 feet from the nearest landowner.

Iowa lawmakers advanced a bill out of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday that would place restrictions on where solar panel fields can be installed.

Under the bill, solar panel fields could only be installed on less productive farmland. They also must be at least half a mile from other solar panel fields and not less than 1,250 feet from the nearest neighboring landowner.

State Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the bill isn’t intended to stop solar from expanding in Iowa. Rather, it’s about “showing respect” to farmland.

“I think this is very early stages of this energy industry moving into our state and growing in our state. But we have to have respect for what the state does and that’s produce food,” Zumbach said.

Zumbach said he'll be talking with energy companies to find a solution on appropriate land use and property rights.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said he doesn’t support the bill.

“We’re continuing to see land come out of production as we see our cities expand and what have you,” Wahls said. “I hope that there’s a balance that can be struck and I appreciate the want to bring more information and study to this issue.”

The bill references Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Corn Suitability Rating 2 index, which rates soils by how productive they are.

Under the proposal, people can’t install a solar panel field on agricultural land unless the land they want to install it on has a corn suitability rating of 65 or lower. These soils would have less of a corn yield than soils with a rating higher than 65.

Counties across southern Iowa have some of the lowest corn suitability ratings in the state, according to the CSR2 index.

Environmental groups, including the Iowa Environmental Council and the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, as well as energy companies like MidAmerican and Invenergy oppose the bill. Farm groups, like the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association are undecided. No lobbyists are registered in support of the bill.

Katie Peikes is IPR's agriculture reporter