August 04, 2021

Board of Supervisors holds preliminary discussion on solar ordinance

The Union County Board of Supervisors heard Monday from representatives of Mid-American and Alliant Energy companies about bringing more solar power into the county. Supervisors are preparing a solar ordinance for a project to accommodate participating and non-participating Union County landowners.

Justin Foss, of Alliant Energy, has developed both wind and solar farms across the state and heard from the supervisors last fall.

“When it comes to the life cycle of a solar facility, you see a lot of similarities with wind, but also with general power plants in general,” Foss said.

Foss said Alliant examines the amount of electricity needed for an area and its infrastructural capacity when beginning a project. Alliant must work through Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO,) which runs the power grid in the Midwest between Canada and Texas. The project is submitted to MISO, where the spot for the project is analyzed, and between three to five years, the upgrade costs for the prospective area are assessed.

“Each project is unique and some projects, they’ll say, ‘that amount of upgrades is reasonable, we will move forward with that,’” Foss said, “some projects will say, ‘that amount of upgrades is not reasonable, we will no longer move forward with it and will exit the queue.’”

Once Foss’s team have made a decision based on this response from MISO, the project will be proposed to the county and the Iowa Utilities Board. Foss added he wanted a Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) included in the ordinance should they decide to move forward with the project.

Foss said he’s seen a lot of community support from landowners in the Creston area for a project that will be connected to the substation. He added MISO has so far assessed strong support and reasonable cost for the project, but they are still awaiting a final response.

Foss added the project could take between one to two construction seasons and expects a lifespan of 30-year leases plus 10-year extensions, since that is the expected lifespan of the panels

Union County could undergo a 50-megawatt project in which five acres per megawatt would be leased. Foss said Alliant is looking at 300 to 500 acres for the project.

Matt Ott, of Mid-American Energy, said their end of solar projects concern distribution systems, focusing on to three to seven megawatts of power. However, Ott said that Mid-American currently has no foreseeable plans for Union County, but attended the meeting to participate in the discussion.

“It’s a little different, still the same general benefits, both projects obviously, it’s clean, renewable energy, produced locally, it kind of helps spread out your generation, which helps grid reliability,” Ott said. “Our projects, you know exactly where the power’s going, it’s going to the homes and businesses of that distribution network.”

Setbacks

Supervisor Board Chair Ron Riley asked the representatives how their respective companies handle property setbacks.

“So, if they have setbacks throughout the county or city, most times they utilize whatever zone you’re in,” Ott said. “So if you’re in the Ag district, and if there’s a 50-foot front yard setback, that’s what your setback is.”

Foss gave an example based on his experience with other projects.

“What we’re seeing is a 20-foot setback for solar solar equipment from property lines of non-participating landowners,” Foss said, ” What we’re seeing work well in Wisconsin is no setback from property lines of participating landowners.”

Foss added he would propose a 150-foot setback from inhabited structures, including access roads and fences.

Ott added solar systems will use single-access tracking that will make sure the panels follow the sun from east to west. The panels themselves are also bifacial, which means there is absorbing material on both sides to make sure sunlight isn’t bouncing off of the panels, thus maximizing the amount of power generated.

Land maintenance and emergency plans

Foss expects to have a road use agreement and decommissioning plan for the project.

“The landowners want to have that assurance and we know the county wants to have that assurance.”

Riley and Rick Friday asked about land maintenance and emergency plans they would have break out on a landowner’s property. Ott assured the board there is not a lot of combustable material to the panels as they are made of plastic and tempered glass with aluminum trim. The energy companies would be responsible for maintaining vegetation and laying down perennial grass covering, Ott said.

“You may have to have some cover to get seeded in there just to get the native grasses established,” Ott said.

Foss said the maintenance Ott had talked about applied more to small-scale projects rather than the project Alliant is considering.

“We’re really trying to advance the native plants and the pollinator because we understand that once we’re done with the land, we want to return it to what the landowner wants to do with it.”

Foss added Alliant wanted to advance native plantings and pollinator to save costs on maintenance.

Vice Chair Dennis Brown asked Foss about the measurements of the panel in regards to potential grass combustion on land.

“The thing I’m thinking about is, if you’ve got something that’s three feet tall, and if you plant native stuff, and that’s great, but chances are, about November or December it turns brown and it’s real combustible, February to March, it’s real combustible, if you have a fire start underneath there, how far apart are these things so you can get to that fire?” Brown asked.

“They’re definitely far enough apart that you can run a Gator between them,” Foss replied.

Foss added that a fire protection study and monitoring showed full-size vehicles would be able to tend to a grass fire.

Utility Replacement Tax

Both Ott and Foss said their respective companies worked with the Iowa legislature to change the utility replacement tax law to have a $1 million and above threshold redistributed locally. This law would be changed from a $10 million and below threshold.

Foss stressed the kind of relationship he wanted between Alliant and Union County.

“We want to have a strong partnership, that’s what it really comes down to and so we want to have something that people can feel great about, understanding that that we’re going to stand behind what we do and what we say,” he said.