Build It And They Won’t Come, Part Two: Jessica Petersen Provides An Update On Battle Against Big Solar In Iowa

January 29, 2022

Last month in these pages, I published an essay written by Jessica Petersen, a sixth-generation farmer from Benton County, Iowa, about her family’s fight against Big Solar projects that have been proposed for her area. In that piece, Petersen explained why Iowa farmers and rural landowners are pushing back against the encroachment of large renewable projects. Petersen’s family owns an agritourism business that attracts people from around the state. They grow pumpkins, sunflowers, zinnias, and cosmos in a pick-your-own operation, as well as other attractions. 

In her essay, Petersen provided a full-throated debunking of the “vacant-land myth” – the notion 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. As I show in the Renewable Rejection Database, the fights over large-scale renewable projects in Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and other states have been raging for years. In Wisconsin, 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.

One of the opponents of the Koshkonong project is Carissa Lyle, who lives in a century-old farmhouse in Christiana Township, with her husband and three small children. Lyle wrote me earlier this month about her plight. If built, the Koshkonong project would surround their property on three sides. She wrote: “To anyone reading this who wants to dismiss our concerns and fears, I ask you to put yourself in our shoes…We don’t know what our family’s future will look like. As of right now, we face some difficult decisions. If this project is approved, we must decide if we want to risk staying at this location. If we decide it’s not worth the safety of our family and we need to move, will we be able to sell? And if we sell, how much of a loss will be taking?”

This week, Petersen wrote me with an update about the solar projects that are proposed to be built near her farm and the opposition to the Coggon Solar Project in Linn County, which is just east of Benton County. On January 24, the Linn County Board of Supervisors approved the 100-megawatt project on a 2-1 vote. This morning, Petersen shared with me her views on the approval of the Coggon project and what it means for her and other Iowa farmers. She wrote that the project was approved by the County Board of Supervisors even though the Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission voted 6-1 against the approval of the project, which is owned by Idaho-based Clenera. She explained that the Linn County Board of Supervisors held four public meetings on the Coggon project. Here is a lightly edited version of her update: 

In summary, the first meeting consisted of adding two conditions to the ordinance by one of the supervisors of a 1,250 ft. (negotiable) setback and a panel height of 28 inches instead of 18 inches – a recommendation from the Linn County Resource Conservationist to promote proper growth of the vegetation under the solar panel arrays. At the second meeting, both of those conditions were considered a “project killer” by Clenera. The project application then passed to roll to the third review for consideration. The third meeting consisted of discussion, public comment, and postponing third and final review to a fourth meeting. The fourth meeting consisted of the vote before any public comment. There was a 2:1 vote to remove both the 1,250-foot  setback to go back to 300 feet from a dwelling or 50 feet from a property line, and back to an 18-inch-panel height. Both happened very quickly. It has become painfully clear that this project has very little to do with improving the soil health throughout the life of the project, or helping protect the people who live around the solar electric generation facility.

There were two conditions added: to provide vegetative screening of 1,000 feet parallel with adjacent property owners, and to subtract the salvage value from the decommissioning cost. One supervisor also proposed adding a condition to hold Clenera accountable for any property value losses within the lifespan of the project. He mentioned how Clenera has stated that property values would not be negatively impacted by the solar facility, so it shouldn’t be a problem to be held accountable for the possibility of it in the future. The developer from Clenera did not have an answer after that statement. The other two supervisors made a motion to vote no on that condition.

My premonition is that whatever would have been added to this project as a condition to the ordinance likely would have stuck when NextEra Energy submits their application to Linn County, and a 1,250 ft. (negotiable) setback would have also made it very difficult for NextEra Energy because it’s so highly residential in the area they are proposing. I find the 1,250-foot (negotiable) setback incredibly reasonable, as wind turbines are generally recommended around that distance here in Iowa, and hog buildings in Linn County are required at that distance as well.

I also find it logical in regard to considering disaster and fire recovery, to help protect property values of those impacted, and to somewhat help the noise nuisance from the construction phase. This would also allow non-participating property owners to participate in the discussion. I have heard that the constant pile-driving noise for utility-scale solar facilities can be heard from a mile away. They are proposing construction to last around 12 months, Monday through Saturday, 7 am to 5 pm. I have talked to a couple of people who have gone through this around the country, and they have expressed that the pile-driving noise is absolutely mind numbing, and something that often seems to get swept under the rug when thinking about the people who are to live in proximity to the facility.

The area that this project is proposed outside the small town of Coggon by Clenera has been hit with 20 tornadoes in the past 75 years. They held an Iowa Utilities Board meeting this past summer with Clenera and the public in Coggon, and it was cut short due to tornado warnings in the area. I was literally dodging funnel clouds for two hours on my way home from the meeting, ironically all throughout where both Clenera, NextEra Energy, and Invenergy are proposing projects here in Linn County and Benton County. Was this a sign? I would think so. I sure would hope so. It seemed that way to me.

We live in a very high-risk wind area here in Iowa. In my lifetime, my family’s farm has been hit with two tornadoes and a derecho (an inland hurricane) in August of 2020. I didn’t even know what a derecho was until I looked at the news a couple of days after the storm hit. It was 45+ minutes of 140 mph straight-line wind, Linn County and Benton County both getting hit the worst out of all. Again, ironically where thousands of acres of solar panels made of predominantly glass on agricultural land are proposed. It was very devastating and traumatic for so many people, communities, and farms.

People and our environment are still recovering and healing from this storm and the repercussions of it. Both Clenera and NextEra Energy have proposed that they will be building the facilities to Risk Category 1. We believe that it would be appropriate for them to be built to Risk Category 3 since the facilities are generating more than 25 megawatts of electricity. This category recommendation is also supported by the Department of Energy. Linn County officials have not yet committed to ensuring they would be built to this standard.

The people who are to live around this project by Clenera that was recently approved for rezoning are absolutely heartbroken. There is a family that has lived there and has been farming there for 40+ years. They have raised their families there. They are connected very deeply to their homes and their lives that they have built there…There is another family that has invested in their dream property for a koi fish farming operation. It took him eight years to find this property for his dreams and his retirement. He has held off on building his new home there due to this proposed project. He has aspirations to create a space at his farm for other people to come, enjoy, and learn about his Japanese koi fish gardens. He wants to build Airbnb’s and a wedding venue. There is an albino deer that visits his farm on occasion. He is a wonderful person who wants to do so much good for the community and for other people. He would be surrounded on three sides by the facility.

The lack of empathy and consideration for the people from Linn County, the energy companies, “green” initiative groups, and those who are aggressively adamant about these projects passing, seriously blows my mind. People are not listening. I sit through these meetings pale in the face and come home sick to my stomach.

People are on the microphone at public meetings, desperate for help, desperate for something to give them a glimmer of hope, and so many don’t even bat an eye. I have listened to NextEra Energy state that they will be abiding by the recommendation put forward by the US Fish and Wildlife Service of a 660-foot setback from any documented eagle’s nests in the area the projects are proposed. Gee, I sure do love eagles, but you know what I love more? People. And the people are barely considered.

It’s like many forget that people actually live out here. It’s been wild. At public meetings, you hear about farming, you hear about wildlife, you hear about who is purchasing the power and what money will go where and to whom, so on and so forth. What is a common theme that is left out of many conversations? That is the people who are impacted. Even Gina McCarthy, the US National Climate Advisor under President Joe Biden, has commented recently on a local news station on how the lack of transparency and communication with community members and farmers impacted by renewable energy proposals is a problem here in Iowa. I am finding that many certainly do need a dose of “energy humanism.”

Currently in MISO, we are seeing around 4,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar proposed for Iowa. That would require around 20,000 to 40,000 acres of solar panels. I feel very worried for Iowa. In addition to what is proposed in Coggon by Clenera, there are approximately 5,700 acres leased in Linn County,  and that number is growing. I don’t know much about what is happening with wind energy, but I have heard that it is aggressively getting leased as well, along with a large amount already established in the state. I have manifested what the possibilities are for farming in Iowa for quite some time now.

Iowa is an agricultural state. I want nothing more than to see it stay as an agricultural state. There are plenty of people who are eager to rent land to farm and to keep agriculture alive. Catchphrases are being thrown around about “the next generation of farming” in Iowa to be solar and wind energy generating facilities and to “harvest the sun” with solar panels on highly productive agricultural land. I certainly want to see the sun harvested too, but with growing and green plants. Never, in a million years would I have thought that the beautiful state of Iowa would be proposed to be a leader in wind and solar generating energy on productive farmland.

It’s heartbreaking. It hurts me to the bone. I love farming and I know the future possibilities that farming holds here. I love Iowa. I love the people who live here and the small communities that it holds. The proposed utility-scale solar and wind is doing a fine job at breaking that all apart.

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