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Iowa bill would limit commercial solar panel construction
Statewide proposal comes after Linn County OK’d utility-grade projects
DES MOINES — Energy companies and landowners would be limited on where they can set up solar panel arrays under a bill advanced Monday in the Iowa Senate.
The bill, Senate Study Bill 1077, would prohibit setting up a commercially owned solar field on land suitable for agriculture within 150 feet of a neighboring property, or within 1,250 feet of a neighboring residence or livestock facility. A three-member subcommittee advanced the bill 2-1, noting they intend to amend it.
Sens. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, and Dawn Driscoll, R-Williamsburg, voted to advance it, while Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, did not.
Zumbach, the bill’s floor manager, said it is intended to address multiple concerns landowners have about solar fields on neighboring properties. Some landowners don’t like to see solar panels near their property, he said, and he also said tornadoes and windstorms could blow debris into an adjacent property.
"Most people that live around them don't like what they look like when they're used to looking at farmland and pastures, and they see this new industrial-style product coming into our farmland," he said. "… But by no means is this bill intended to shut down the solar industry. It’s going to be a viable part of the state of Iowa, but it’s about showing respect for everybody on each side of the fence.”
Zumbach introduced a similar bill last year that would have prohibited installing solar panel fields on highly productive farmland. The bill also included a 1,250-foot setback requirement from the closest property.
Linn County supervisors last year approved three utility-grade solar installations that were hotly contested at public meetings: a 640-acre site west of Coggon and two near the decommissioned Duane Arnold Energy Center nuclear plant near Palo — using 316 acres of an 857-acre area for one, and using 815 acres of a 1,780-acre area for the other, which would include a battery energy storage facility.
Linn County’s ordinance requires a 300-foot setback from non-participating properties, although Republican Supervisor Louie Zumbach — a former state legislator — proposed increasing it to 1,250 feet. After the 2-1 votes to approve the facilities, supervisors placed a moratorium on any new applications while the ordinance is reviewed.
Several power companies and environmental organizations are registered opposed to the legislation, and they said during the subcommittee meeting it would limit options for landowners and hurt the expansion of solar power.
“The bill will severely limit the land available for landowners who wish to monetize their land in this particular fashion,” Alliant Energy lobbyist Ted Stopulos said.
Alliant Energy has both large utility-scale and smaller user-hosted solar projects, including working with NextEra Energy on the Duane Arnold projects.
As of 2022, there were 646 megawatts of solar energy installed across Iowa, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The state ranks 27th by the portion of its energy coming from solar power.
Opponents said the setback requirement, which amounts to almost a quarter-mile from a neighboring residence or livestock facility, would be a “project killer” and put a huge limit on the amount of space energy companies and landowners have to work with.
“The larger you make that distance, that means the more farmland we actually have to go out and try to work on, because you’re taking that farmland by the homeowner, by the livestock facility out of use; we’ve got to go acquire that someplace else, that means ultimately you’re raising the cost,” said Christopher Rants, a lobbyist for the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association and NextEra Energy.
Matt Gronewald, a lobbyist for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said the organization is in support of the bill, but it would support restricting only large-scale projects of 40 acres or more.
Samantha Peterson, a farmer from Benton County who spoke at the meeting, said she supports the bill but is mostly concerned with utility-scale projects as well.
“I think this is a good place to start, to set a statewide regulation or rules, and to really protect non-participating neighbors like my family and others around the state. And just giving us some peace of mind and a seat at the table when these large projects are composed,” she said.
Dan Zumbach said during the meeting that he is willing to amend the bill to address some of the issues raised, including adjusting the setback distance. He also said he would consider allowing a neighbor to sign a waiver to void the distance requirement.