Iowa has a growing commercial solar and wind problem.
One of the key problems is that solar and wind developers are circumventing our county governments. When those developers seek to develop a project in the county, they don’t first come in and talk to the county supervisors, zoning board, or any elected officials. They never ask what the best location for these projects might be, even though the county has a comprehensive land use plan, zoning ordinance, and land drainage history to help determine the optimal placement of these facilities. It may very well be that there is less fertile, less productive land that could be used for a project.
Instead, the developers ignore local governments and go directly to landowners, offering appealing easement terms to landowners and using those landowners to lobby county officials for the developer. All landowners see is the money they can receive by signing easements. County supervisors need to consider the bigger, more important picture for the whole county – the effects a project could have on residents and the economy, the budget, land use and the environment. Their job includes protecting the quality farmland that currently produces big crops and healthy tax revenues for the county. The likely best result would be to keep the fertile, high CSR (above 65 corn suitability rating) land producing crops and to look at less productive, low CSR (below 65) land for commercial solar and wind developments. Both alternatives benefit the county.
Our county supervisors are elected to deal with these issues. They have a duty to spend our money wisely and take care of our roads, bridges, county employees, and drainage issues, among other things. They are also entrusted with the care of the county’s vital resources. In most Iowa counties, land is the most vital resource. In fact, because Iowa land is some of the most fertile land in the world, everyone considers it to be a critical resource. Yet, solar and wind developers come into the county and persuading landowners to allow them to put massive projects on some of the most fertile farmland in the world, thereby taking it out of production.
But the issue created by the developers is not limited to the circumvention of local government. Commercial solar and wind projects may well create problems for the farmers adjoining a project. Solar projects can obstruct and/or completely eliminate future drainage improvements to some lands. Solar projects are estimated to be in service for between 25 and 50 years. That is a long time. No one today knows or can foresee what improvements or new drainage may be required on the lands surrounding those projects.
Much of what is now Iowa farmland was originally wet prairie land. It was establishment of drainage districts and tiling of that land that created the fertile farmland that feeds the world today. How important is drainage in Palo Alto County, where I live? We have over 600 drainage districts – 300 open drainage districts and 300 tile drainage districts – the most drainage districts in any one county in Iowa. Commercial solar facilities have the potential to significantly hinder drainage districts and tiling maintenance and improvements. As you might expect, a field full of solar panels may prevent any work from being performed on the tile in the ground underneath the development. If you have a farm and your tile runs across your land and then through a solar facility, existing tile in the solar facility may not be able to be properly maintained, repaired or improved. Iowa Code Chapter 468 is Iowa’s drainage law and must be followed in the siting of commercial solar facilities in order to ensure proper drainage for all county landowners now and in the future.
Solar facilities can also negatively affect everyone in the county (not just farmers) by eliminating property taxes. Here’s the problem: The solar project owners are responsible for the property taxes for the land their projects occupy – not the landowners. That tax is based on the actual amount of electricity produced by the solar facility. Each year, the solar project owner reports the amount to the Iowa Department of Revenue. The Department of Revenue then tells the project owner how much it is to pay the county in property tax. Again, It is entirely dependent on how much electricity the solar facility produces. There are no guarantees that the county will get any tax revenue at all. If the solar facility doesn’t produce electricity, or doesn’t produce as much as it designed to produce (after a weather disaster such as the 2020 derecho, or equipment failure, etc.) or the state changes the rules, then the county may not get any property taxes for the land hosting the solar facility.
Iowa’s counties must, and have a duty to, protect what is likely their most valuable asset – farmland – as well as the tax revenues that enable counties to provide services to their residents and businesses. County governments must be able to oversee the selection of locations for commercial solar and wind development (as they do for many other types of commercial endeavors). They need a view of what is best for the health, safety, physical and economic welfare of the county’s residents – including but not limited to protecting drainage districts that allow farmers to achieve high yields and productivity.
Counties need the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa Farm Bureau, the Iowa Legislature, and Gov. Kim Reynolds to help do this. The grandfather of taxpayer-funded subsidies for renewable energy facilities like wind and solar facilities, Sen. Chuck Grassley, also needs to pay attention to what is happening in the 99 Iowa counties that are having to deal with the negative impacts being created by commercial developers and their projects.
Dean Gunderson is chair of the Palo Alto County zoning board.
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