Solar power grows in Iowa: Taking the long view

Drive around Iowa these days, and you’re likely to see more evidence of solar power.

Policy analysts say it gives the state’s clean energy portfolio more strength. But along with the benefits comes a need for long-term planning.

All of Iowa’s 99 counties now have solar projects installed, and Heidi Kolbeck-Urlacher – senior policy associate with the Center for Rural Affairs – said there are projections for more growth in the coming years.

She noted that these installations have a life span of 25 to 35 years. While most are still a ways off from that point, she said local governments should have plans in place about what to do when that time comes.

“Decommissioning sets expectations,” said Kolbeck-Urlacher, “spells out responsibilities and obligations and provides reassurance that development is done in a way that meets the needs of the community and that we’re not just talking about the present day.”

She said planning now might give the public a better sense of how this infrastructure will be managed, especially when it comes to rural landowners with solar units on their property.

The Center is out with a solar decommissioning guide designed to help counties adopt ordinances (https://www.cfra.org/publications/decommissioning-solar-energy-systems). The group says local plans could factor in cost estimates, technology and the recycling of components.

Charlie Nichols is the director of planning and development in Linn County. He said permits often address the projected timeline of solar farms.

But he agreed that local governments should be more aggressive in setting out a path.

“There’s 99 counties in Iowa and many of them are smaller,” said Nichols. “They don’t have as big of a professional staff.”

In addition to the new guide, he said he hopes local governments in need of support can reach out to Linn County to model their approach. He said having a long-term plan that’s flexible helps balance opportunities with the growth of solar power and managing land resources.

“And these projects do take farmland out of production for 25, 30 years,” said Nichols. “So, how we tried to balance that as a county is by requiring robust vegetation plans that build soil health under the panels over the life of the project.”