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Linn County panel recommends approval of Palo solar projects
Linn County supervisors set to take up the issue in August
PALO — After first recommending last year against approving a utility-scale solar project near Coggon, a split Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission has voted to endorse a much larger solar installation near Palo.
On a 4-3 vote, the commission agreed Thursday night to advise the Linn County Board of Supervisors to approve two Florida-based NextEra’s Duane Arnold Solar projects north of Palo, near the site of the decommissioned Duane Arnold Energy Center nuclear plant.
The supervisors are set to take up the projects over the course of three considerations at the end of August.
Last year, the panel voted 6-1 to recommend the supervisors deny approval of the smaller Coggon solar project, but the supervisors ultimately approved a zoning change to allow the project anyway.
Commission members who voted to recommend approval of the Palo projects cited a stronger and more detailed application than they saw for the Coggon project.
But commission member George Maxwell — who voted no — said that “it doesn't matter what we do because the supervisors are going to do what they want.”
The Duane Arnold Solar I project proposes to use 316 acres of an 857-acre area to place photovoltaic solar arrays capable of generating up to 50 megawatts of energy.
The Duane Arnold Solar II project would use 815 acres of a 1,780-acre area to place solar arrays capable of generating up to 150 MW. It would also include a 75-MW, four-hour battery energy storage facility. The battery energy storage system will have about 96 20 x 8-foot containers that will house 7,040 lithium-ion battery modules.
Dozens of people — some in support of the project and some in opposition to it — attended the meeting at the Palo Community Center to voice their views on the proposed projects.
Some residents said they’re opposed to taking agricultural land out of production. Others are concerned that the project will cause a decline in property values.
“We don't want this in our backyard,” Sallie Buelow, of Palo, said. “We don't want to see a sea of black glass for 30 years. Most of the people that support this live in Cedar Rapids.”
Chip Davis, a farmer who lives on the edge of Cedar Rapids and Palo, said he attended a NextEra solar site commissioning ceremony in Wisconsin and was impressed with what he saw.
“The cover crops they used were impressive in that timespan. I know the cover crops will stop any erosion,” Davis said. “And the fencing was all habitat fencing, no barbed wire or anything like that. The only thing that wouldn’t get through there is maybe a deer.”
Sara Alden, of Center Point, said she’s concerned about the battery storage facility included in the plans. She and others said they’re worried it could catch on fire.
“Linn County has not set an ordinance for battery-storage systems,” she said. “They are not prepared to provide accurate and reasonable standards on this project. … If this is environmentally focused, the best move would be not to build it because that would be the least environmental impact.”
But Cedar Rapids resident Don White said he thinks the pairing of the panels with a battery storage facility is the best option.
“We have our local utility needing to replace a nuclear power plant’s worth of power,” White said. “The utility is partnering with a developer who has a great reputation in this state.”
Linn County Planning and Development Director Charlie Nichols said county staff recommended approval of the project with the county’s current stipulations. Those include a 300-foot setback from non-participating landowners. Nichols said there are 11 non-participating property owners within 1,000 feet of planned solar panels, and seven within 500 feet of panels.
NextEra, which has operated in Iowa since 1999 and has 12 wind farms in the state, said it plans to invest $800 million in the solar project, including $50 million paid to landowners for voluntary easements over the project’s 30-year life span. It would be the company’s first solar project in Iowa.
The Palo solar projects application was submitted in February. It includes site plans, a decommissioning plan, economic and land-use analysis, vegetation management plan, agricultural impact mitigation plan, setback analysis and a screening plan along with other documents. The project is estimated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 9.49 million metric tons per year.
Project Director Kimberly Dickey said the site was chosen because of its proximity to the former Duane Arnold nuclear plant, also owned by NextEra, that has been closed since the 2020 derecho.
“The infrastructure here is amazing and with the decommissioning of the nuclear plant, the capacity at the substation is still there. That’s unheard of anywhere,” she said. “But if we don’t have interested landowners, there is no project. In this case, we had a lot of interest and people signed up to participate and have a vision for the use of their own land.”
While NextEra will develop the project, Alliant Energy filed a proposal with the Iowa Utilities Board to buy the large-scale solar project from NextEra and further develop it into the state’s largest solar and battery storage facility, if that plan receives approval.
“Our requirements transfer to whoever the owner is,” Nichols said. “The new owner, Alliant, would be obligated under the same set of conditions. They are bound by them no matter what.”
The Iowa Utilities Board issued an order Tuesday granting electric generating certificates for the Duane Arnold Solar projects, pending county supervisor approval.
NextEra plans to have its Palo projects operational by December 2024. The estimated start of construction is the first quarter of 2023, if the projects are approved.
Progress on the 640-acre solar farm near Coggon — approved by the supervisors — is on hold while a court resolves a case brought against the supervisors by a family who lives near the site.
The solar farm, 3 miles west of Coggon, is a partnership between Idaho-based Clenera and Central Iowa Power Cooperative.
Laura Robinson, one of the family members who brought the lawsuit against the Linn County supervisors, spoke during Thursday night’s public comment period in Palo.
“I’ve been a Linn County resident for 42 years and after what we've been going through, I’m losing faith in the county government process,” she said. “This committee voted to not approve (the Coggon project.) During the Board of Supervisors meetings, any talk of any concessions whether they be setbacks, not using high quality farm ground, even panel heights, it was immediately shut down by out-of-state developers who said it would kill the project so supervisors said ‘OK, OK, whatever you want basically.’ … We are involved citizens who are being ignored by some of the county power structures. I hope this doesn't happen here with this project.”
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