Linn County staff, along with area residents, recently participated in a group tour of the utility-scale solar development in Wapello, IA. This tour allowed participants to get insight into the development and ask questions along the way. Linn County Sustainability Manager Tamara Marcus and Linn County Planning & Development Director Charlie Nichols shared their thoughts in this Linn County Connection blog post:
Linn County Sustainability Manager Tamara Marcus
In the 2019 Climate Resolution signed by the Linn County Board of Supervisors, there are ambitious objectives around renewable energy generation and supply. Utility solar opportunities have the potential to help the county reach these sustainability goals. However, like most things, there is a delicate balance between people, land, and industry with numerous stakeholders whose perspectives must be considered. This has made the issue of utility solar projects a topic of much debate here in Linn County.
As a way to engage as many stakeholders as possible, the Linn Clean Energy District helped to organize a fact-finding group to investigate these projects and to ideally foster a greater understanding among all parties about what the impacts might be. The group was composed of residents from Palo and Coggon, Linn County staff, and local labor representatives. Together, the group met several times and encouraged each other to share their concerns and hopes for the project. Based on this conversation, we collectively selected a site of another utility solar project done by the same developer of the proposed Coggon plant in nearby Wapello, Iowa to tour. We were able to meet with Clenera representatives, local Wapello County staff, and local farmers to hear about their experiences with the project and what they would have improved if given the opportunity to do it again.
The power of participating in a group like this is that we got to really understand what motivates people and the foundation of their concerns. Some of those concerns were allayed through this process while others required our group to do more research. But having the opportunity to bring those who will be most impacted by proposed solar projects into the process of collectively asking questions, doing the research, and sharing the same information was an incredibly valuable experience. It allowed us to build a foundational understanding of this project from which we all benefitted.
Linn County Planning & Development Director Charlie Nichols
The stated vision of the Linn County Planning and Development Department is “earning and maintaining the public’s trust.” This is an ethos we take seriously and try to incorporate into the decisions we make and the way we interact with people. This vision and it’s central focus of trust has served the department well over the years in navigating controversial or difficult issues, and I have found this to be equally true in walking through the utility-scale solar application process.
While Iowa has had its fair share of utility-scale wind developments, until very recently there were no utility-scale solar developments (and currently there is only one such development in Wapello). When two developers (Nextera and Clenera) announced their intention to pursue approval from both the Iowa Utilities Board and Linn County for utility-scale solar installations potentially covering thousands of acres of Linn County farmland in solar panels, there were (and still are) many concerns voiced by residents in the proposed areas. To help residents understand the rezoning process for a potential utility-scale solar projects, as well as to explain the standards for approval that would be applied, Linn County hosted two public information meetings in May and June 2021. It was clear to me at these meetings that the public’s trust in the ability and willingness of county officials and representatives to adequately understand and address their concerns was low.
It was with the thought of building trust in mind that I eagerly agreed to be a part of the Linn County Solar Farm Fact Finding Task Force. The task force, organized by the Linn Clean Energy District, is made up of a mix of Linn County residents and officials. A clear effort was made to incorporate a wide range of viewpoints on utility-scale solar projects into the task force, including a healthy representation of residents who live near the proposed projects. The purpose of the task force is to observe and share the impacts (economic, social, environmental, etc.) to communities that are home to existing solar farms by speaking directly to affected individuals such as participating and nonparticipating landowners.
In September 2021, the task force took a trip to the Clenera solar project in Wapello. This project has approximately the same footprint as the project proposed by Clenera in northern Linn County near Coggon (750ish acres). Task force members were able to tour the site and ask questions of Clenera employees, Louisa County officials and elected representatives, participating landowners, and nonparticipating landowners. A record of everything learned during that visit can be found on the Linn Clean Energy District website (https://linncounty.energydistrict.org/linn-clean-news/). Lessons learned from this trip will help inform the decision making process of both the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Supervisors. Additionally, the group is planning another trip to a larger utility-scale solar site in November 2021.
I have found participating in this task force to be very enlightening. Not just for the lessons learned on the ground at existing solar sites, but also for the direct interaction between county officials and local residents. It is my hope that acts of collaborative learning such as this, where a diverse group of stakeholders is hearing information straight from the source (in this case those who live near and work on an existing solar farm) can help to strengthen trust between Linn County residents and Linn County officials and elected representatives.