Iowa expected to see a burst of solar energy development

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

Dave Johnson sees solar power under development in northern Iowa bringing some desperately needed jobs to the rural area — and stable revenue to farmers battered in recent years by trade wars, oversupply and low prices.

“Things are just deteriorating out here in rural America,” said Johnson, who farms with two sons near Riceville, not far from the Minnesota border. “It’s just empty.”

Already a national leader in wind energy, the state could see an explosion of solar development. About a dozen projects are expected to come online in the months ahead, adding about nine times more solar energy than the state currently produces, according to filings with the Iowa Utilities Board.

For years, wind energy enjoyed widespread support in Iowa as farmers reaped cash from leases, counties brought in tax revenue

and state leaders and environmental activists alike lauded the clean power and jobs it has provided.

But as wind farms proliferated and as the state has now pushed to getting nearly 60% of its electricity from wind, new wind projects have attracted lawsuits and moratoriums, citing noise, health concerns and visual blight.

Concerns are emerging, too, about commercial solar projects sprouting across the state. Some residents worry about loss of farmland and potentially higher land costs, especially for young farmers. The proposed solar projects are expected to need nearly 14,000 acres for hundreds of thousands of panels.

In northern Iowa, Johnson’s neighbor Erik Weida says he and his wife, Kirby, have worked for years to buy nearly 5 acres to build their dream home, only to learn one of the state’s largest solar projects is slated to go up in their backyard.

The Invenergy project, one of three the Chicago company has planned in northern Iowa, is like having a prison built next door, with their home bordered by a 7-foot-tall chain-link fence, Erik Weida said.

The view from his house — now filled with a creek, woods and prairie — will be replaced with thousands of solar panels. And the deer, turkey and pheasants that wandered through his family’s acreage will be cut off, no longer able to roam his property freely.

Erik Weida said his family is losing their piece of the natural world, but neither they nor their community can directly tap into the renewable energy source for power.

“What’s frustrating is that we have to live with this, but we get none of the benefits,” the 42-year-old said.

Providing clean energy for Iowans

Mark Crowl, an Invenergy renewable energy manager, said solar energy has become more attractive to build as costs have dropped — falling about 80% in the past five years.

Invenergy is developing three projects on about 6,000 acres in Mitchell, Howard and Worth counties that are expected to generate about 750 megawatts of energy. The solar farms, which include the one near the Weidas, would be the largest in the state.

The company says it expects to invest about $1 billion in the projects, an amount that includes landowner leases, and create 1,000 construction jobs.

“It’s a way to provide clean energy at a lower rate to Iowa residents,” said Crowl, whose company also is discussing solar projects with Palo Alto County supervisors in northwest Iowa.

Bill Cherrier, CEO of Central Iowa Power Cooperative, said federal tax credits have spurred large investments in wind energy — and solar is following. Last year, Congress extended federal wind and solar tax credits, both of which were slated to expire.

But even without tax credits, Cherrier said renewable energy is the cheapest source of power.

The cooperative, which already gets 32% of its energy from wind, is buying 100 megawatts from a solar project that recently came online in Louisa County and plans to buy another 100 megawatts from a project being developed in Linn County.

MidAmerican Energy has invested heavily in wind, getting 80% of its electricity last year from the renewable energy.

But the Des Moines utility is also adding solar. It’s looking to develop 100 megawatts in Webster County; 24 megawatts in Adair County; and 17 megawatts at sites near Sioux City, Waterloo, Iowa City and Hampton.

Iowa’s growing renewable energy portfolio comes as President Joe Biden has called for spending $100 billion over the next decade to build a “carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.” He proposes investing in the nation’s transmission lines and energy grid, expanding renewable energy and storage and workforce re-training, among other initiatives.

Cherrier calls Biden’s goal aspirational, adding that the nation lacks the technology needed to provide storage for renewable energy. The most common storage method is through large batteries.

“It will require a very substantial amount of storage, which is extremely expensive,” he said.

To some, solar ensures longevity

In northwest Iowa, Palo Alto County residents and officials are grappling with concerns about a proposed Invenergy solar project.

Dean Gunderson, an area farmer who is the county zoning board chairman, said the company is looking at putting a solar project on about 2,000 acres of “prime farm ground” in the county.

Gunderson said he’s heard landowners could get $900 an acre to lease land for solar projects — three times more than the rental rates for farming. Gunderson said he’s concerned the payments, supported by taxpayers through investment and production credits, will drive up the rents for other farmland.

Young farmers already struggle to get access to land. “It’s just devastating,” Gunderson said. “We need young people out here to farm.”

Cherrier said he understands concerns about losing farmland for renewable energy projects. But he said it makes no sense to develop solar projects on Iowa’s best — and most expensive — farmland.

“It comes down to economics,” said Cherrier, adding that the project in Louisa County, was developed on “subprime” land. “We want to get the most cost-effective facility we can get,” he said.

Johnson, who farms near Riceville in northeast Iowa, said he’s asked Invenergy to consider using some of his land for its 300 megawatt project, called Big Dave.

But the land the 71-year-old is offering is among his least productive acres, he said. And the added income can help keep his family farming. He and his sons feed about 6,000 hogs and 1,000 cattle, in addition to raising corn and soybeans on 750 acres.

“It’s insurance — to make sure we can stay out here,” said Johnson, who also has agreed to have four wind turbines on his land.

He said the projects could employ young Iowans interested in remaining in rural Iowa. And taxes from the projects will help struggling cities, counties and schools.

NextEra Energy Resources, for example, estimates it will invest $820 million to build 690 megawatts around the now-shuttered Duane Arnold nuclear energy plant near Cedar Rapids. The project, covering 3,560 acres, would create about 300 construction jobs and generate nearly $42 million in local taxes over three decades, the company says.

Living in rural Iowa, Erik Weida said he expected to contend with nearby livestock operations and wind turbines. But he said he hadn’t expected his family also would have to grapple with solar energy.

Invenergy has made concessions, Weida said, agreeing to push back the fence further from his property line. But, he added, “That just makes my box a little bit bigger.”

Arden Greiner, Director of consumer energy for CIPCO talks about the solar operation Friday, April 9, 2021.