Linn County commission recommends Duane Arnold Solar rezoning

Dozens of comments submitted in public meeting at Palo Community Center

The Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission has recommended approval of a renewable energy overlay zoning district rezoning proposal for two industrial-scale solar projects near the former Duane Arnold Energy Center nuclear plant near Palo.

Capping a five-hour public meeting July 28 at the Palo Community Center, the commission voted 4-3 to recommend approval of the rezoning request. Commission members Allen Wagner, Curt Eilers, Tina DuBois and Brock Grenis voted in favor of the rezoning request, while commissioners George Maxwell, Diane Brecht and Griffin Kuntz voted in opposition.

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.

Duane Arnold Solar
A detail map shows the plans for Duane Arnold Solar 1 (outlined in red) and Duane Arnold Solar II (outlined in purple). CREDIT LINN COUNTY

If approved by the county, the project would be constructed in two phases. Duane Arnold Solar I is a proposed 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 proposed 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.

Once completed, ownership of both projects would 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 would make Alliant the largest combined solar and battery storage operator in the state.

The project already has 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 will issue the certificates for the two projects if they’re approved by the Linn County Board of Supervisors under the county’s utility-scale solar installation ordinance.

Public comments submitted prior to the July 28 meeting expressed concerns in a number of areas, including:

  • Concerns that a change of this scale to the landscape would have negative impacts on local wildlife and vegetation;
  • Concerns that first responders will not be equipped to deal with potential emergencies within the project area;
  • Concerns that BESS (Battery Energy Storage System) technology is too new to be properly studied;
  • Concerns that the project will not be constructed to sufficient standards to withstand natural disasters;
  • Concerns about the project causing property value declines in the surrounding communities; and
  • Concerns about the possible presence of PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance, known as the “forever chemical”) in solar panels.

Other pre-meeting commenters expressed support for the project based on a number of factors, including:

  • The potential reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in energy generation;
  • Increased tax revenue and local jobs;
  • The need for additional electricity generation in the region; and
  • The comprehensive nature of the application.

Laura Robinson of Coggon was among the speakers at the July 28 meeting. Ms. Robinson, whose family is pursuing legal action against Clenera Energy regarding the pending development of the Coggon Solar project – a project now on hold pending the resolution of the Robinsons’ lawsuit – told the commission she felt the concerns of industrial-scale solar project opponents weren’t being adequately addressed.

“I’m losing faith in the county government process,” Ms. Robinson said, noting that the Board of Supervisors voted to approve the Coggon Solar project in January, even though the planning and zoning commission had voted 6-1 in November 2021 to recommend denial of the rezoning application.

“Any talk of any concessions, whether they be setbacks, not using high-quality farm ground, even panel heights, (were) immediately shut down by the out-of-state developers who said ‘We can’t do that. It would kill the project,’” she said. “So the majority of the supervisors said ‘OK, whatever you want.’ It appears the voices of the concerned … are being ignored by some of the county power structures. I hope this doesn’t happen here.”

Another speaker, Junior Luensman of Cedar Rapids, business manager of IBEW Local 405, noted that the commission’s vote to recommend denial of the Coggon Solar project in November was based on several concerns, including water runoff, setbacks, decommissioning plans and viewsheds. Those concerns, he said, were addressed by county supervisors and Clenera before that project was ultimately approved, and he said he felt they’ve been addressed in the Duane Arnold Solar rezoning application as well.

“Unlike most rezoning applications that you review, this one will maintain the agricultural zoning and is temporarily rezoned as an overlay to allow the installation of solar equipment,” he said. “Rezoning for residential, commercial or industrial developments creates the reality that once you build, the land on the family farm is lost forever. This project does not take away the family farm. It saves it for future generations.”

The Duane Arnold Solar rezoning proposals still await consideration by the Linn County Board of Supervisors, which has scheduled three public meetings to consider the proposals – a public hearing and first consideration of the applications Monday, Aug. 22, and second and third consideration of the applications on Wednesday, Aug. 24 and Monday, Aug. 29. Each meeting will begin at 6 p.m. and will be held at the Palo Community Center, 2800 Hollenbeck Road.