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Report: Wind turbines viable in Linn County, but few rural residents want them

CEDAR RAPIDS – A University of Iowa report has found that a good portion of Linn County could provide a viable home for utility-scale wind turbines, but public opinions on such developments might be lukewarm at best.

Graduate students Luke Foelsch, Gia DeBartolo, Michael Delp and Zhi Chen completed the feasibility analysis of wind turbines in Linn County, which was presented Monday to the Linn County Board of Supervisors. The county first partnered with the students on the feasibility study last fall.

Despite wind energy’s reputation as a source more suitable for western Iowa, the report found several large swaths of Linn County, primarily in the northern, rural portions, could provide a suitable home to wind turbines

Years ago, turbine height and the location of major transmission lines confined most wind turbine production to Iowa’s western counties.

“There is a viable future for utility-scale wind development in Linn County. We hope that all of these put together will provide a good foundation for the future of Linn County,” Foelsch said during the board’s Monday meeting.

The report surveyed all of Linn County on its feasibility for wind turbines – focusing on regulatory restrictions, suitability of the site for turbines and compatibility of wind development with the area.

Some take-aways in the report include:

• In terms of current regulations, more than 116,000 acres, or about one quarter of Linn County, could allow for turbine development.

• More than 50 percent of the county has a high suitability for turbines. Another 40 percent has medium suitability.

• More than 60 percent of the county has a high compatibility for large-scale solar energy.

In addition to surveying the land, UI students also compiled public opinions on wind development from about 250 residents in a public survey – consisting of about 40 percent rural residents and 60 percent residents of urban or incorporated areas.

The survey found that about 72 percent of respondents were favorable to wind projects, yet about 66 percent of rural residents said they were unlikely to want to host a wind farm on their property.

Primary concerns included the visual impact, noise associated with turbines and shadow flicker – when rotating blades cast intermittent shadows – or ice throw.

“I think the developer has their work cut out for them in terms of addressing public attitudes toward large-scale wind,” said Les Beck, director of Linn County Planning and Development.

Beck said there currently are no wind turbine applications before the county government, but said the feasibility report should provide a guideline for future discussion should an application be received.

If a wind turbine application is received, public input would be provided at two levels during the conditional-use permit process – at the planning and zoning commission and at the board of adjustment.

Officials said public education meetings might help answer questions on wind turbines and raise the public’s opinion, similar to the Solar Power Hour meetings held during the Solarize Linn County effort in 2017. That program aimed to boost residential solar development across the county.

As wind development continues to push east, Delp said it’s possible Linn County could see project applications in the next few years.

About a third of Iowa’s energy generation – more than 7,300 megawatts – comes from wind. The Iowa Environmental Council estimated last year that 2,600 megawatts worth of wind turbines were under construction and another roughly 1,800 megawatts were in advanced development.