UPDATE: Capping a long and often contentious evaluation process, the Linn County Board of Supervisors voted 2-1 on Sept. 6 to approve rezoning requests for a pair of industrial-scale solar projects near the former Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo, paving the way for a new era of renewable energy “solar farm” generation for the […]
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UPDATE: Capping a long and often contentious evaluation process, the Linn County Board of Supervisors voted 2-1 on Sept. 6 to approve rezoning requests for a pair of industrial-scale solar projects near the former Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo, paving the way for a new era of renewable energy “solar farm” generation for the county.
Denver-based NextEra Energy will build the two large solar generation projects, dubbed Duane Arnold Solar I and II, in the western portion of Linn County, on several parcels of land stretching generally northward from Palo to Center Point. Developers say the project will bring an overall estimated capital investment of $700 million and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 9.49 metric tons per year.
The two previous meetings to consider the project, on Aug. 29 and 30, drew comments from dozens of speakers in public sessions at the Palo Community Center that spanned several hours each. Many commenters were opposed to the projects based on safety, environmental and viewshed concerns, as well as a belief that the projects are inefficient and shouldn’t be built on highly-productive farmland.
At all three public meetings, supervisors Ben Rogers and Stacey Walker voted to approve the rezoning requests for the two projects, while supervisor Louie Zumbach voted to deny the requests.
The plan will change the zoning in the project area from agricultural to agricultural with a renewable energy overlay for a total of 30 years, potentially allowing the project site to return to agricultural production thereafter.
In comments before the board’s vote at the Aug. 6 meeting, supervisor Stacey Walker acknowledged that he was predisposed to support the project, but that he learned a great deal from the public meetings and took a “prosecutorial tone” in challenging NextEra officials on safety concerns.
“My support for this project is rooted in the fact that it is the obligation of responsible elected officials, in my view, to make decisions that will have ramifications not only for the here and now, but for five, 10 or 50 years in the future,” Mr. Walker said. “And whether or not folks agree with the fact that we are in a climate crisis, we have to do as much as we can to address it. That is our reality.”
Board chair Ben Rogers said the debate over the project had taken a personal mental toll, and responded passionately to those who had challenged board members’ integrity.
“In 2016, I had no clue the power plant was going to close, and I don’t know if anyone in this room did,” Mr. Rogers said. “Nor did I expect the community to reduce their representation (by voting to reduce the board from five members to three) and come to the microphone and hurl insults at us for not feeling like we’ve listened to you … When I look at the objective facts, I come to the conclusion that this is the transition our community needs … I’ve done my research, and I’m going to continue supporting these types of projects.”
“We appreciate the thorough review of Duane Arnold Solar Phase I and Phase II projects by the Board of Supervisors and their approval of our permit applications,” NextEra spokesperson Megan Murphy Salyer said in a prepared statement. “We believe both the Phase I and II projects will bring tremendous benefits to the community, including approximately $7 million in tax revenue which can be used to enhance schools, roads and essential services, millions of dollars in landowner payments and up to 200 construction jobs.”
Ms. Salyer didn’t specifically indicate when construction will begin on the two projects, noting that building permits must still be obtained from the Linn County Planning and Development department.
“We will continue to work closely with county officials throughout the construction process to address any questions or concerns about the projects,” she added.
Public comments address various aspects
About 100 people attended the Sept. 6 meeting, with 32 speakers offering their views on the project, mostly in opposition.
Sara Alden of Center Point, a leader of Iowa for Responsible Solar, reiterated her opposition to the plan.
“There’s so many things wrong with this project, from due diligence and accountability, greed, politics and a complete disregard for rural residents’ concerns,” Ms. Alden said. “I’m interested in the facts, not conjecture. You are on a path to ruin what you do not understand, and you are doing so at the whim of the developer.”
Sandy David of Fairfax, who spoke in support of the project, equated the concerns of opponents to those her family experienced when the Duane Arnold nuclear plant was being planned and constructed, noting that project brought railroad tracks across her family’s property.
“I want to let the people opposing this project know that I know where you’re coming from,” she said. “Over the years, the power plant and the railroad tracks became a permanent fixture in our lives. It really wasn’t that terrible … We feel very comfortable with this project and I’m not worried at all.”
The Aug. 30 meeting brought comments from 34 attendees, many of whom had also commented at the Aug. 29 public meeting.
A couple of commenters asked that the two proposals be considered separately and that the board approve the Duane Arnold Solar I request first, so NextEra could prove their mettle before allowing them to proceed to Duane Arnold Solar II.
“Don’t make this about another feather in your cap or another line on your resume,” said Mary Benton of Palo.
The request to split the two proposals wasn’t addressed by the board.
A number of commenters also said they felt the votes by Mr. Rogers and Mr. Walker failed to take the county’s rural interests into consideration.
The Aug. 29 meeting began with nearly 50 people offering comments on topics ranging from environmental and safety concerns to impacts on property values, viewshed screening measures for residents near the project sites, decommissioning plans, and the appropriateness of using productive farmland for solar energy generation. Speakers were nearly evenly split between supporters and opponents, and exchanges were contentious at times, as they were during the Coggon Solar review process.
Jo Pearson of Marion said she felt renewable energy generation is critical to addressing global warming and climate change, and challenged audience members to “think outside the box” when assessing projects such as Duane Arnold Solar.
“People need to reassess their objections and consider thinking about others for a change and not be so selfish about their minds and their futures,” Ms. Pearson said. “We need to become advocates for our world, not working against those who are proposing positive change by expanding the availability of clean and renewable energy.”
Palo Mayor Eric Van Kerckhove talked to the board about the Palo City Council’s May 16 passage of a resolution opposing the Duane Arnold Solar projects based on five concerns, including impacts on neighboring property values, Palo’s reputation as a “gateway to the outdoors” and impeding the city’s future growth potential.
“I heard you say before that you value and respect local leadership,” Mr. Van Kerckhove said, “and it is my hope that my comments, Palo’s resolution and our community’s collective voice have provided context, added value and ultimately make your job a little easier in the coming days.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Van Kerckhove noted that at his request, the Center Point City Council had also unanimously approved a resolution opposing the Duane Arnold Solar projects.
“They are concerned that if the supervisors approve NextEra phase I and II, effectively cutting off Palo’s ability to grow, there will be nothing in the way of approving additional phases that present a similar or even greater challenge to Center Point,” he said.
As he did at similar public meetings regarding Clenera’s planned 750-acre, 150-megawatt solar installation near Coggon in northern Linn County – a project approved by the board in January, but is currently on hold pending a legal challenge from neighboring landowners – Mr. Zumbach at the Aug. 30 meeting proposed a negotiable setback of up to 1,250 feet from neighboring landowners who aren’t participating in the project, saying the proposal would treat rural residents more fairly than the 300-foot setback in NextEra’s plans.
The motion failed on a 2-1 vote at each meeting.
Mr. Zumbach also challenged the county’s evaluation of both the Coggon and Duane Arnold Solar projects, asking county planning and zoning director Charlie Nichols if he felt the county had “followed the best process” in reviewing the proposals.
“There have been bumps along the way in this process,” Mr. Nichols responded. “Do I think we’ve done it the best it could be done? No. I think we still have things to learn as we continue to work with these types of projects.”
The Aug. 29 meeting also included presentations on the project from Linn County Planning and Development Director Charlie Nichols and Duane Arnold Solar project director Kimberly Dickey.
The Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the project on a 4-3 vote July 28.
Project will be built in two phases
Under the plan, formalized in November 2021 in a filing with the Iowa Utilities Board, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources – which announced plans for the solar installation on the Duane Arnold site in March 2021 and have dubbed the project Duane Arnold Solar, with an office already open in Palo – will develop and install 200 megawatts of solar generation and a 75-megawatt battery energy storage facility near the former Duane Arnold nuclear plant, which is no longer in operation and is in the midst of a 60-year decommissioning process.
The project will be constructed in two phases. Duane Arnold Solar I is a 50-megawatt solar energy project on approximately 316 acres of agricultural land within an 857-acre area project site in Linn County, while Duane Arnold Solar II is a 150-megawatt solar energy project and a 75-megawatt battery energy storage system on approximately 815 acres of largely agricultural land within a 1,780-acre area project site, also in Linn County.
Between the two, the projects are expected to produce enough energy to power 40,000 individual homes per year. NextEra officials say a portion of that energy will be used locally, though the output will be routed into an overarching electrical grid that could send portions of the output outside the area as well.
The projects will also bring more than 200 construction jobs during installation and an estimated $260 million economic impact to the area, NextEra officials say.
Once completed, ownership of both projects will be transferred to Alliant Energy, through its subsidiary Interstate Power & Light Company (IPL), for ongoing operation.
The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2024 and is expected to make Alliant the largest combined solar and battery storage operator in the state.
The project already had a leg up in the approval process. The Iowa Utilities Board in late July issued an order granting a request for waivers and certificates of public convenience, use and necessity for the Duane Arnold Solar. Under the order, the IUB said it will issue the certificates for the two projects once they’re officially approved by county supervisors under the county’s utility-scale solar installation ordinance.