116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Many solar panels could be installed in Linn County in the next couple of years as developers apply to build large-scale solar farms in the county.
Coggon Solar LLC, a partnership between Clenara and Central Iowa Power Cooperative, has already applied to build its project near Coggon.
NextEra plans to apply this summer to build its large facility in Palo.
Linn Clean Energy District Executive Director John Zakrasek said solar energy is an essential piece of creating a renewable energy power system to help combat climate change.
Zakrasek, 67, spoke with The Gazette recently and addressed some of the concerns residents shared at multiple public meetings over the projects.
Q. Can you describe what you do in your role and how long have you been in this role? What were you doing prior?
A: I’ve been a Cedar Rapids resident for 28 years and am currently director of Linn Clean Energy District, and I’ve been involved with environment and climate change well over 20 years. I’ve worked in the energy industry with Alliant and down in Houston and in Pennsylvania and have worked in the Duane Arnold Energy Center (in Palo).
I’ve been a consultant on many large projects. I have solar panels on my own prairie and I’ve previously been involved with other environmental organizations before Linn Clean Energy District.
Q: Are there any concerns with any chemicals within solar panels, in case they break from an accident or storm?
A: Most modern silicon-based solar panels are almost entirely glass (76 percent), with plastic (10 percent), aluminum (8 percent), silicon (5 percent) and metals (1 percent). Copper and lead are currently used to make the electrical connections between the silicon wafers within a panel.
Given the relatively small amounts of lead used by the solar panel industry, and the fact that the lead is enclosed entirely within the module materials, it is unlikely that solar panel products by themselves would be the cause of major lead pollution, even in a worst-case scenario with a large percentage of panels ending up in landfill.
Toxicity characteristic leaching procedure testing aims to simulate environmental leaching in landfill, and in the United States is a factor in determining hazardous waste requirements.
The construction of the panels is designed to keep the panel intact under significant stress from wind and hail. If damage does occur, the majority of the solar panel materials will tend to remain encapsulated, making cleanup easier and reducing the potential for the materials to create a hazard.
Q. Would establishing a large-scale solar project affect nearby property values in any way?
A: Patricia McGarr, who serves as the national director of CohnReznick Advisory’s Valuation Practice, has conducted a number of property value impact studies involving solar.
Studies found no consistent negative impact on residential property value that could be attributed to nearby solar farms. She also asserted that township and county assessors have tremendous amounts of data that point in the same direction.
McGarr referenced the 1,000-acre “North Star” solar project located in Chisago County, Minnesota. There, the county assessor found no adverse impact on nearby property values, noting, “It seems conclusive valuation hasn’t suffered.”
McGarr has attended many public hearings on proposed solar developments and listened to residents taking issue with the idea of putting good farmland out of production and potential impacts to viewsheds and drainage tiles.
But McGarr believes solar developers are addressing these issues. It’s now common practice for developers to include vegetative screening as a visual buffer between solar farms and adjacent properties to account for aesthetic concerns. In regards to drainage, developers are “conducting drainage tile studies and being vigilant … so that they don’t reroute the drainage.”
Q. How do solar panels work at night or in the winter, when sunshine is not as prominent?
A: Solar farms produce significantly less energy when it’s extremely cloudy or no energy at night.
In the winter time, there are panels that now produce energy from the top side and bottom side so light reflecting off snow can produce more energy on the bottom side. There can also be battery storage in place. During the height of the day, they will be overproducing so at night, you can tap into the storage. Those solar cells can only produce when the sun is shining and the more it is, the more they produce.
The solution to getting to entirely clean energy involves solar and wind as well as storage and transmission. You can’t get there entirely by solar, but we need solar to get there. Since wind blows more at night and solar produces during the day, they offset each other to produce power around the clock. With the proper combo of solar, wind, storage, etc., we could be almost 100 percent self-sufficient with just solar and battery on a lot of days.
Q. Would a large-scale solar project bring about any noise or glare from the sun? Are there concerns in those areas typically, and is there any way to diminish any of those issues if they exist?
A: Noise from inverters can only be detected when one is within a few feet. Noise from any large transformers can be mitigated through transformer selection, transformer location, proper pad mounting and, where necessary, surrounding the transformer with sound deadening materials.
When building panels, they do a lot of things in figuring out where to place the panels, elevation, topography, to minimize glare. They don’t inherently have a lot of glare because their purpose is to absorb light, not to reflect it. It is something engineers take into account while constructing and placing panels.
The solar panels tend to have a slick appearance rather than creating glare like a vehicle windshield can. Solar farm developers do glare studies using simulations to take into account the characteristics of the solar farm site and its surroundings with the objective of designing the solar farm to minimize or eliminate glare.
Q. Let’s say a project is now decommissioning years into the future. What do you do with those panels? Can you recycle them in an environmentally friendly way?
A: There are significant opportunities to repurpose solar panels because of their ability to continue to retain as much as 85 percent of their original power production efficiency after 30 years. Markets are developing in other countries and with various organizations for used solar panels. Recycling of solar panels is currently possible. Complexity of the recycling process increases depending on the percentage of the panel that is recycled. There is work to be done on policy and recycling processes to make them as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible.
As for quality of land, Linn County holds these developers responsible with a bond, and there has to be a decommissioning plan in place.
If you put these solar farms and you put short grass prairie in, in 30 years you could get that shortgrass prairie to 1950s land production levels. There is a shortgrass prairie requirement in the county with these projects so you can actually increase the quality of the land and have incredibly fertile soil after the project is decommissioned.
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