Iowa's biggest solar farm opens in Kalona

Will generate enough energy to power about 120 homes

Leighton Yoder of Kalona and his son, Austin Yoder, 13, view information on the back of a solar module Thursday during t
Leighton Yoder of Kalona and his son, Austin Yoder, 13, view information on the back of a solar module Thursday during the the grand opening of the solar farm in Kalona.

KALONA — The opening of the state’s largest solar farm heralds an era of solar power growth in Iowa, state renewable energy leaders said Thursday.

“This takes us to a new level,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, one of several state legislators attending a ribbon cutting for Farmers Electric Cooperative’s new array of 2,900 solar panels capable of generating more than 1 million kilowatt-hours each year.

“Just six years ago Iowa’s largest solar installation was generating just 7 kwh,” said Hogg, a leader in the effort to promote renewable energy in Iowa.

With its new solar array, the 650-member Farmers Electric Cooperative can generate up to 1800 watts of solar power per customer, giving it the highest per capita solar generation rate of any utility in the country.

“The solar farm and our other clean local generation — including geothermal and wind — is part of our commitment to generate 15 percent of our power locally with renewables by 2025,” said Warren McKenna, the co-op’s general manager and chief executive officer.

“Generating our own power close to our customers allows us to reduce transmission losses, secure long-term rates and keep more money local,” McKenna said.

The array, on a 4.5-acre site northwest of Kalona, will generate enough energy to power about 120 homes. By displacing energy generated by coal-fired power plants, the farm will avoid about 2.1 million pounds of carbon pollution each year.

Barry Shear, president and chief executive officer of Dubuque-based Eagle Point Solar, which owns the array, said it cost $2.2 million and will pay for itself in less than eight years.

Shear said his company sells the solar energy to the co-op, which sells it at retail to its customers.

The main reason his company owns the array, Shear said, is to take advantage of a federal 30 percent investment tax credit, which is available to residential and commercial entities but not to public utilities.

Other incentives that helped make the project more affordable, he said, include a five-year depreciation schedule and a state tax credit in the neighborhood of $20,000.

Shear praised the Iowa Legislature’s recent tripling of the annual cap on the state solar tax credit from $1.5 million to $4.5 million.

Citing a recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling that not-for-profit entities such as churches and colleges can enter into power purchase agreements, Shear said he sees “massive growth in solar in the state of Iowa.”

So does Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association President Tim Dwight.

“We’ve been waiting for a project like this to showcase. The future is now. We can touch it,” the former University of Iowa and National Football League star said.

As an example of solar’s recent growth in Iowa, Dwight said solar-related jobs in the state have increased from 166 in 2012 to 667 now.

With solar’s recent growth, economies of scale are driving down the cost of solar installations, he said.

“When it comes to using sunshine to generate energy, Washington County is emerging as a leader in Iowa,” state Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Michael Naig said.

About 15 percent of the co-ops’ members already were investing in solar power before the development of the solar farm, McKenna added.

Producing local renewable power has implications beyond Iowa, said retired Air Force Gen. Ronald Keys, representing a panel of retired admirals and generals who study the link between energy, climate change and national security.

Diversifying the nation’s energy mix, making the United States less dependent on nations whose interests are hostile to those of the United States, expands national leaders’ diplomatic options, he said.

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