More opinions voiced about industrial solar projects at Central City forum

Area residents had another chance to voice their opinions on Linn County’s permitting process for large-scale solar installations Wednesday night at a public forum at the Linn County Fairgrounds in Central City.

Like last week’s forum in Palo, where NextEra Energy is considering a 3,500-acre solar project for the area surrounding the now-shuttered Duane Arnold Energy Center, comments Wednesday night focused on a specific area proposal.

In this case, Clenera Energy, based in Boise, Idaho, is planning a 750-acre solar installation near Coggon. Under the proposal, Clenera would sell generated power to the Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO) under a 25-year power-purchase agreement. The project is tentatively set for completion in 2022.

And while most attending the meeting spoke in opposition to the Clenera and NextEra projects, there was a larger measure of support for industrial solar projects overall than at the Palo forum.

“For me, it’s all about my son’s future, and my future grandchildren’s future,” said Don White, who said he’s lived in northeast Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha “all my life” and served on the board of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association for 10 years.

Mr. White said climate change, as exemplified by volatile storms and severe drought in the western U.S., is proving the need for renewable energy sources.

“Industrial-scale solar is way past due for balancing out the Earth’s carbon cycle,” Mr. White added. “We have to take bold action now. Think of the impact Linn County can have on reducing carbon emissions with this uniquely positioned opportunity. Don’t let a small contingent of ‘not in my backyard’ people be the voice of the entire county. It is time for Linn County to seize the moment it has prepared for since 2008.”

“I’ve heard about the carbon cycle and climate change my whole life,” added Seth White of Marion, who identified himself as a college student and a landscaper. “There was always another hurricane on the East Coast or wildfires in the West. But 2020 forced me to change my perspective. The storm last year did damage that will maybe never be repaired in my life — the big, beautiful trees that define all our homes in Marion and Linn County. I have never seen such pain. There are trees that I didn’t know I missed, that have left gaping holes.

“I know that solar might not be the perfect answer,” he added, “but I’ve heard that the alternative might be burning coal and contributing to the next storm that could destroy our homes and our history. If burning coal is the alternative, maybe this isn’t my home anymore.”

Mr. White was followed to the microphone by Jerry Rozeboom of Cedar Rapids, a recently retired physician, who focused on the “permanent” impacts of a solar installation on the area’s farmland, wildlife, and pollinators.

“I am a renewable energy advocate,” he said. “I have solar panels on my land. But this is not a judicious use of industrial solar energy. Why would you take prime farmland just for transmission lines? Throughout the country, you have land that is not tillable. Why would you allow this? Our most precious resource is our farmland. You cannot replace farmland. You have protected it wisely for decades around Linn County. And now you want to say we can do this as a (zoning) overlay because it’s not permanent? That’s BS.”

Greg Bickal of Coggon echoed others’ concerns about what he sees as a permanent impact of solar installations on the area’s rural landscape. He said he wants to build his “dream home” in the area and displayed a photo of Grant Wood’s “Young Corn,” a painting depicting the rolling countryside of rural Linn County, followed by another rendering of the same scene with superimposed solar panels.

“I didn’t dream of building a property that looks like that, with solar panels covering everything,” he said, pointing to the rendering. “Don’t sell out our prime, beautiful Iowa farm ground. It’s not worth the profit to send that electricity to another state. It’s in your hands. Don’t lease out our ground. We have to keep our Iowa tradition going.”

County officials at the meeting, including Linn County supervisors Ben Rogers and Louis Zumbach, said they would take input from the Palo and Central City forums as they continue to develop the county’s industrial-scale solar permitting process.