Home FinanceEnergy & Environment Build It And They Won’t Come – An Iowa Farmer Explains Backlash Against Big Solar

Build It And They Won’t Come – An Iowa Farmer Explains Backlash Against Big Solar

by YAR

For more than a decade, I have been reporting on the rural backlash against big renewable-energy projects. I have written about it in my last three books as well as in numerous articles. In April, the Center of the American Experiment published my 42-page report on the backlash. The numbers don’t lie. Since 2015, more than 300 communities from Maine to Hawaii have rejected or restricted wind energy projects. Details on those rejections can be found in this spreadsheet.

Rejections of Big Wind are only part of the story. Big Solar projects are also being rejected or are facing fierce opposition. In September, I published a piece in the New York Daily Newsthat detailed recent rejections of Big Solar projects in Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Montana

While the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and other pro-renewable groups don’t want you to know about the backlash, the hard truth is that rural residents in several other states are also fighting Big Solar. In Wisconsin, local residents in Dane County are fighting the proposed 300-megawatt Koshkonong Solar Center, which is being promoted by Chicago-based Invenergy, one of the world’s largest privately held renewable-energy developers. In Virginia, a group called Citizens for Responsible Solar is fighting three large projects that aim to pave thousands of acres near the town of Culpeper with solar panels. 

These fights are part of a global backlash against the energy sprawl that always comes with the expansion of wind and solar energy. Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency’s “Renewables 2021” report included more than a dozen mentions of the growing problem of “social acceptance” of renewables in countries all over the world. For instance, in Italy, the IEA says that “limited land availability and growing social acceptance challenges further hamper faster growth of renewables.” (See page 66).

Last week, I got an email from Jessica Petersen, a sixth-generation farmer from Benton County, Iowa about her family’s fight against a solar project being pushed by Chicago-based Invenergy. Given how thoroughly she describes the situation, I decided to let Jessica explain what is happening in her own words. See below for a lightly edited version of her letter. It provides a clear window into the land-use conflicts that are the binding constraint on the growth of wind and solar. In doing so, it also debunks the “vacant-land myth” that there’s plenty of land out there in flyover country, ready and waiting to be covered with forests of wind turbines and oceans of solar panels.

My name is Jessica Petersen. I live on a farm in Benton County, Iowa. My family owns an agritourism destination that attracts thousands of people from around our state each year. My sister and I are the 6th generation to farm here. 

We grow 20 acres of pumpkins, 8 acres of sunflowers, and 4 acres of zinnias and cosmos — all for a pick-your-own operation, as well as many attractions for people to enjoy and get a taste of what rural Iowa is about. We continue to grow each year and I have plans to continue to add to the pick-your-own operation here at the farm with more varieties of flowers and produce, as well as getting into beekeeping and possibly, livestock. We have been in the agri-tourism business for 23 years. My father also farms 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans in both Benton and Linn Counties.

Invenergy has approximately 2,000 acres signed up in our county for industrial-scale solar. Benton County is one of the very few (if not the only) counties in the state of Iowa that has an ordinance in place that if the land is 70 CSR2 or above, the land cannot be converted into industrial land. CSR2 is a “corn suitability rating” developed by Iowa State University that calculates soil productivity. The “perfect corn-producing soil” gets a rating of 100. A soil having nearly no potential to grow gets a rating of 5. It is widely used as a measure to establish rental prices and farmland values.

A neighboring county, Linn County, has approximately 4,800 acres signed on as of now with NextEra

Energy. Invenergy also has approximately 1,000 acres signed on in Linn County.

There are also approximately 800 acres signed on outside of the small town of Coggon, which is also located in Linn County, by the company Clenera. The land that this project is proposed on is in the top 10 to 15% of farmland in the state of Iowa and is recognized as “nationally significant” — which the state of Iowa possesses a large amount of when it comes to nationally significant and prime agricultural land. 

There has been a lack of transparency and communication from NextEra Energy to community members who will be impacted by this project. The project was first communicated that it would just be land surrounding the previous Duane Arnold nuclear power plant. We then started digging into leased land for the project, and we found that it was much bigger than was communicated. When signing land on for lease, confidentiality contracts are also signed, to not talk about the project with neighbors. 

Many landowners who are signed on to the project are absentee landowners. This has caused many conflicts within the community and there are people who feel left in the dark in regards to this project.

The Duane Arnold Nuclear plant outside of the small town of Palo got shut down in August 2020, after a 140 mile-per-hour derecho hit Linn County and surrounding counties, which knocked down the cooling towers at the Duane Arnold Nuclear Power Plant. It was then decided they would not rebuild the cooling towers.

The interesting piece here is that NextEra Energy Duane Arnold, LLC had an operating license for the nuclear plant from the U.S. NRC through 2034 (docket # 05000331). NextEra Energy and Alliant Energy

(IPL) modified their power purchase agreement (PPA)

originally negotiated 2024 to end it in October 2020. This resulted in a buyout agreement where Alliant Energy bought out the PPA at $110 million and then raised their rates to Alliant Energy consumers to pay for that buyout. 

Duane Arnold Solar, LLC was incorporated in the state of Delaware in 2018. Duane Arnold Solar II, LLC was established in Delaware in March 2021. The first land lease contract for solar was recorded in Linn County in 2019. Some 2,500 residents in the area received their first certified mail letter announcing the project in April 2021. 

As of today, they have submitted their application to the Iowa Utilities Board, and it will come down to the Linn County Board of Supervisors to approve or deny the project if it gets approved by the Iowa Utilities Board. They have come out with their plans for Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the project, and have openly stated they are always interested in additional projects. 

They are projecting this to be the largest utility-scale solar project in the state, as well as the largest battery storage facility in the state of Iowa. According to their IUB application, the lithium-ion battery storage facility is proposed to take up 2.75 acres, comprising 88 battery container facilities, and fill an equivalent of 44 semi-trailers worth of storage. Each container will have 10 racks of batteries housing 7,040 modules, and each container weighs 35 tons.

We are finding that this project will most likely set a precedent for the entire state of Iowa when it comes to utility-scale solar. They have also announced, about a month ago, their plans for Alliant Energy to purchase the project as well as the battery storage facility once Phase 1 and 2 are completed, an investment of $750 million. They plan for construction to start the second quarter of 2023 and be operational by the third quarter of 2024.

There is strong opposition to this project from the community, for a large number of reasons. Many questions come to mind. For instance:

Why did they [NextEra Energy] shut down a clean, stable electric generation facility that was already providing consumers with 640 megawatts of electricity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? 

Why require energy consumers to pay for a shutdown and then come back and say they need the power and want to build a utility-solar facility that consumes thousands of acres of agricultural land without the dependency of stable power? The battery storage stores 4 hours of power. If Alliant Energy purchases the development from NextEra Energy, it is likely the consumers of Alliant Energy will have to foot the bill. They have decided that they will spend more money for intermittent, “clean” electricity when we already had a clean, stable version licensed to 2034. 

Other concerns people in the community have are about property-value losses, lack of mindfulness when it comes to siting of the plant and the productivity of the soil they are sighting solar panels on, choking out small-town growth, wildlife concerns, taking away land from farmers who rent land for their livelihoods of farming, drainage issues with tile damage, lack of fire and disaster recovery plans, lack of proper setbacks from people’s properties (the county requires a minimum of 50 feet from a property line), the mental health component with the construction phase and those who live amongst the project, hurting small businesses in small towns, and so on. 

Homes in and around the small town of Palo are already not selling as quickly as they once were due to the possibility of this project coming to fruition. 

[Renewable promoters] claim that industrial-scale solar will not hurt property values or the growth of the towns it will impact, but we are already seeing the repercussions of it,  even before the project has been started. The project is also quite spread out, extending to other rural areas of small towns in Linn County. 

People in the area are truly living through a nightmare knowing that this may be the largest solar plant project in our beautiful state of Iowa. There are some that are finding out that they have the possibility of being surrounded by solar panels on 2, 3, if not all 4 sides of their properties.

We do see this as a community, statewide, and nationwide crisis. We continue to see proposed projects popping up in our state and in the Midwest. Some say that it is just a drop in the bucket when taking up farmland for industrial-scale solar, but it certainly adds up and we are seeing that happen quickly. The World Bank reports that the U.S. has 18% arable land to grow crops on. Our productive soil is Iowa’s biggest asset and our most important natural resource that we have in this state, and to see industrial-scale solar proposed on such rich soil is incredibly heartbreaking and irresponsible. 

There are so many future opportunities with the soil that we have here, and we do not understand how it makes any type of sense to propose solar projects on such highly productive agricultural land. They propose that the land will be farmable once the project is decommissioned in 35-50 years, but there is no proof of that as there is not a solar project that has been decommissioned from productive farmland after that long.

We also do not believe that industrial-scale solar projects belong where people live and surrounding communities that want to grow and prosper. The area that this project is proposed is very highly residential and on the fringe of Cedar Rapids. Awareness and common sense – that’s what we are doing our best to spread.

Some perceive us as NIMBYS who just do not wish to look at the largest industrial-scale solar project in the state of Iowa. That is the least of our worries within this situation. 

We are fighting for much more than that. [We are fighting for] the potential of the future of farming in Linn County and in our state, the ability for our community to live in symbiosis with each other again, the growth of small town Iowa, the businesses that want to stay successful in small communities, the mental and physical health and safety of the people who live here and their overall wellbeing, the access of affordable energy to consumers, and so much more. 

Industrial-scale solar is truly tearing communities and families apart and it seems to be set up for it to be this way. We don’t want that here. We don’t want that anywhere. We want strong and thriving communities, we want trust to be established, and we truly want to feel at home here again.

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