September 19, 2021

Solar energy studied for Union County

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With the construction of wind turbines underway, solar power is next on the agenda for the Union County Board of Supervisors.

Taylor McClellan, Justin Foss and David Vollmar from Alliant Energy explained their possible upcoming solar farm project east of Creston and answered questions from the board during its regular meeting Monday at the Union County Courthouse.

Foss said the project has not been finalized. They are still in the part of the process where they are contacting landowners to see if there is enough interest in solar farming in the area to continue the project. Alliant would need a “couple hundred” acres, which Foss went on to clarify as 200 to 500, to build a farm.

“The project that we’ve put in the queue to study for this area is about 50 megawatts,” Foss said.

Alliant is “close” to having enough acreage in order to move on to the next phase of the project, Foss said.

Supervisor chair Rick Friday asked why Alliant chose Union County for this project.

Union County was chosen due to having room on its energy grid and the updates currently taking place, Foss said. That will make it easier to tie a new project in.

In response to a question from Supervisor Ron Riley, Foss said there is no firm timeline for this project since Alliant isn’t certain the farm will be built.

“If they move forward it would be in the next three to five years, but we’ve got a lot of due diligence and questions we need answered before I can give a date,” Foss said.

The effect on area wildlife will be studied once specific land is chosen for building the solar farm. Foss said it does not make financial sense for the company to conduct a study without confirmation that the land will be available.

The biggest difference from a wind farm is solar farms are more compact, Foss said. While wind turbines might be spread across many farms due to their size and the setbacks needed between them, solar panels are placed near each other in one or two farms, covering most if not all of a tract of land.

The adverse effects on roads is minimized in building solar farms, Foss said. The heaviest loads needed are for the equipment such as bulldozers brought in to prepare the ground as opposed to the large, heavy sections of a wind turbine.

Riley asked about negative effects such as glare from a solar farm and weed containment.

Solar panels are designed to absorb light, so there is little glare, Foss said.

“Glare comes from light being reflected and that light being reflected is lost energy,” he said. “They have solar panel arrays at airports. So it’s not something that is going to stop a project ... the technology is there to reduce that.”

One problem some residents have with solar farms is the loss of agricultural land, Foss said. It is a trade-off for farmers of usable ag land versus a steady source of income from the easements for a solar farm.

There are several ways to contain or prevent weed growth under the panels, Foss said. A low-growth pollinator mix can be planted that does not require maintenance. Other solar farm groups have brought in goats to keep the weeds under control. The goats are moved from site to site as needed.

Supervisor Dennis Brown addressed the issue of government subsidies versus regulations, asking Foss if Alliant is more affected by the “carrot or the stick.”

Alliant met its Iowa renewable energy standard 10 years ago, Foss said, and is focusing on wind and solar energy for the benefits to its consumers. Unlike traditional generators, once a wind or solar farm is built, it is much less expensive to operate because there is no cost for the fuel - air and sunshine.

Currently wind energy is the lowest cost option and solar can balance it due to the differences in when they are available. Solar power is available during the peak energy needs in the daytime and wind tends to be most readily available in the evenings and nights, Foss said. At this time energy must be created when it is needed for usage. It cannot be stored in large amounts.

Alliant, along with other energy corporations, is working on the idea of large batteries to store the energy, but that technology has not developed far enough to be feasible - although it may have made gains by the time this proposed project is completed, Foss said

Supervisor Dennis Brown asked how much waste is created when building a solar farm.

Alliant Energy strives for sustainability — avoiding depleting natural resources — in its building practices as well as its energy sources, Foss said, The Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, whose practices they follow, looks at how a project is built when it rates the sustainability. Alliant and its parent companies have won awards from ISI for their sustainable energy production.

After the discussion with the board, Foss, McClellan and Vollmar responded to questions from residents who were at the meeting. Leslie Wurster, who owns property in Highland Township — part of the area being studied, voiced concerns about the cost of electricity and government subsidies that essentially require companies to build expensive wind and solar projects.

Foss replied that Alliant Energy is “not being forced into this” by regulations. Instead, it is building wind and solar farms to complement the efficient natural gas generators that are still being built.