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MidAmerican takes over potential 150-megawatt solar project in Johnson County
The utility hasn’t decided if it will move forward with the project. Meanwhile, Johnson County has amended its ordinances for utility-scale solar.
MidAmerican Energy has assumed the rights to a 1,000-acre Johnson County solar energy project, although the utility hasn’t made a final determination on whether to move forward with it.
The Johnson County Solar Triangle Project would likely have a 150-megawatt capacity at peak output — more than all of MidAmerican’s existing solar projects combined. The proposed site is located west of Highway 218 between Iowa City and Hills, MidAmerican spokesperson Geoff Greenwood said.
Last month, MidAmerican reached an agreement with the developer, Megawatt Photovoltaic Development Inc., to assume property rights and leases for the Solar Triangle Project. The companies will continue working together during any potential development of the project.
Most of the land rights needed for the solar project have already been secured through voluntary agreements with local landowners. The company acquires land for projects like this through traditional land purchases as well as easements — not through eminent domain, Greenwood said.
Movement on the project comes as the Linn County Board of Supervisors this year approved utility-scale solar projects near Coggon and Palo, which drew strong opposition and ongoing lawsuits, and after Johnson County updated its local ordinance governing such large solar projects.
Greenwood estimated that MidAmerican is at least three years away from the start of construction, if the project moves forward. The company still is completing studies on how to best connect the project to the regional power grid and its operator, Midcontinent Independent System Operator, along with other developmental tasks like site and environmental evaluations.
The potential project would add to MidAmerican’s $3.9 billion renewable energy project Wind PRIME announced in January, which boasts 2,042 megawatts of wind generation and 50 megawatts of solar generation in Iowa.
The utility currently operates six solar sites in Iowa that sport a combined generating capacity of 141 megawatts at peak output, including a 3-megawatt solar array in Hills.
“Renewable energy, including wind and solar, generates clean energy and helps us maintain affordable rates,” Greenwood said.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors hasn’t taken any action yet regarding the Solar Triangle Project, said Supervisor Jon Green, who is up for re-election. But he said he sees the project as an opportunity for more jobs and cleaner energy in the area.
“(Supervisors) do hear a lot that we need to be addressing climate change, and one of the biggest ways that we need to do that is ensuring that we're generating as much electricity via renewable sources as possible,” he said.
Green said the supervisors haven’t received much pushback on the potential project thus far, although he anticipates some opposition if the project moves forward. Until then, the county is awaiting progress from MidAmerican and Megawatt to see what next steps may look like.
“The ball is in Megawatt’s court,” Green said.
Recent amendments to county solar ordinance
Johnson County had a “fairly solid ordinance” for solar projects in the area, but as proposed developments kept growing in size, officials decided to make some adjustments, said Josh Busard, director of the county’s planning, development and sustainability department.
“We felt the need to amend our ordinance for the third time, essentially, in three years,” he said.
His staff learned from the public meetings on the solar projects in Linn County about what’s important to the public when it comes to siting large solar projects. After approving the two solar projects, the Linn County supervisors placed a moratorium on more until its ordinance governing the facilities is reviewed and updated.
The latest amendments to the Johnson County solar ordinance, which became effective May 19, included:
- Establishing best practices that support agricultural usage of the land after the solar array’s life span.
- Letting the county’s Board of Supervisors decide on any large solar arrays instead of the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
- Requiring perennials to be planted as ground cover under solar arrays to help control stormwater and enrich the soil.
- Accounting for battery energy storage systems, which can store excess energy generated by solar arrays and release it as needed.
Many regulations have stayed the same through the revision process, including those regarding road repairs, landscape buffering, noise and decommissioning.
Brittney J. Miller is an environmental reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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