Iowa’s largest farm group is calling for statewide regulations that guide where large-scale wind and solar farms can be built, as members raise concerns about the loss of valuable farmland to renewable energy projects.
Iowa Farm Bureau Federation says it backs statewide “siting and setback rules for wind and solar farms,” given the rapid growth of wind and solar energy projects in Iowa.
The legislative priority could pit the politically powerful ag group against formidable energy companies, including investor-owned MidAmerican and Alliant Energy, which are pumping billions of dollars into renewable energy.
Since 2004, MidAmerican Energy has spent about $11.6 billion developing wind projects, and it plans to produce enough green energy to equal 100% of its customers’ power needs by 2022.
Alliant Energy plans to spend $2.4 billion to build wind farms in Iowa.
Representatives of MidAmerican, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, said Friday that a statewide policy “could be workable” as long as it didn’t prohibit future renewable energy growth.
“Continued development of wind energy is critical,” they said, to realizing “vast economic and environmental benefits” to local communities and the state.
Iowa is considered a national leader in renewable energy generation, getting 34% of its power from wind. It’s the second-highest share nationally after Kansas.
The energy companies’ rapid investment in wind energy, however, has sparked opposition across the state from neighbors, who complain about the sound and flickers from the blades, and claim that low-frequency “infrasound” causes nausea, sleep loss and anxiety.
Iowa Farm Bureau representatives declined to comment for the story but said in one of seven legislative preview videos for members that oversight for building large-scale wind and solar projects is a “patchwork” of county-by-county rules and regulations.
The group is particularly concerned about the loss of farmland to solar growth. It says online that about 20 projects, generating about 3,000 megawatts of power, have been proposed in Iowa.
“We know to create that much energy, it could potentially take thousands of acres out of production,” to cover land with solar panels, Farm Bureau tells its members.
Additionally, Iowa has about 4,600 wind turbines and that number continues to grow as new projects and new turbines are brought in.
“Iowa’s zoning laws give counties and cities jurisdiction to regulate the siting of wind farms. All those decisions are made at the local level, bypassing any state regulatory process or requirement,” the group said.
Kerri Johannsen, the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy director, said she understands that rules around siting renewable energy – especially large-scale solar, which is relatively new – can be confusing, because it involves both local and state board approvals.
Large projects generating 25 megawatts or more of energy require Iowa Utilities Board approval before moving forward. It primarily affects solar projects. The board weighs the energy coming from a group of turbines linked by a single line to a power substation, instead of a whole wind farm’s generation.
Johannsen said several companies may be exploring utility-scale solar projects in Iowa, but it’s unclear how many will be pursued.
Now, less than 1% of Iowa’s energy generation comes from solar, she said. Even if the state were to get 10% of its energy generated from solar, it would require “about 13,000 acres of land, which is about .04% of Iowa’s farmland.”
“I know there’s concern,” Johannsen said, and “people should think about what it means, but it’s not a substantial amount of land coming out of product, even with high levels of solar penetration.”
Bill Cherrier, CEO of Central Iowa Power Cooperative, the state’s largest cooperative energy provider, said most solar developers “won’t be looking at prime farmland.” Instead, they’ll look for “subprime land that’s probably not used or regularly used for production,” he said.
The cooperative plans to buy the power from a 100-megawatt project that’s under development on 850 acres in Louisa County in southeast Iowa. Along with 6 megawatts of solar already online, the cooperative is partnering on what, so far, is the largest solar project in Iowa.
“We’re proponents of local control,” Cherrier said. “We really believe it’s up to landowners to make decisions about what’s the best use of their land.”
Cherrier said he’s unsure what kind of legislative proposal could emerge, but he added that the cooperative will talk with Farm Bureau about its concerns.
Johannsen and Josh Mandelbaum, an Environmental Law & Policy Center attorney, said they, too, are open to discussing statewide siting and setback policies, but like MidAmerican, they want to avoid regulations that restrict wind, solar and other renewable energy development.
In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, renewable energy projects provide needed lease payments to farmers and property owners who provide the land for the projects and send tax revenue to rural governments and schools, advocates say.
MidAmerican Energy, for example, says it paid $26.3 million in property taxes last year.
Iowa Farm Bureau said a statewide renewable energy policy could be similar to the 2002 law that’s designed to provide uniform guidance for building confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
But the livestock regulations have been highly controversial, with opponents saying it overrides local concerns that facilities are built too close to neighbors and environmentally sensitive rivers, streams and other natural resources.
“I can see the benefits of having some consistent siting, but I think counties are the most responsive to the folks who live there,” Johannsen said. “That’s a positive thing.”
Mandelbaum said he’s unsure a statewide policy can be developed that will satisfy everyone, but any statewide policy should be guided by science and the best practices within the industry.
“I think the key piece is that Iowa has been a renewable energy leader … and any discussion on siting should be done in a thoughtful, data-driven way,” he said.
Cherrier said energy companies are likely to continue investing in renewable energy, given concern about climate change and the drive to keep costs low for consumers.
Renewable energy is less expensive than energy from coal and natural gas, Cherrier said.
“With tax credits, they’re by far the most economic,” he said. “But the studies and information I’ve seen, if you look at the cost without tax credits, they are still lower costs than fossil resources.”
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