Common Good Iowa

The Des Moines Register | Facts support solar and wind development

July 6, 2021

By David Osterberg

Palo Alto County zoning board chair Dean Gunderson's attack on wind and solar development (“Commercial solar and wind projects harm Iowa counties,” June 27) is short on facts, short on vision, and simply wrong on the value of these clean industries to Iowa's economy.

Wind and solar developers — rather than “circumventing our county governments” as Gunderson claims — actually are following the rules in place for zoning and land use. This is true especially in counties like Linn that have strong ordinances to make sure these developments are compatible with the local environment.

Counties with vision can plan for solar and wind projects, contrary to Iowa’s sad experience with livestock confinements. Animal feeding facilities have real consequences to the health and enjoyment of neighbors, but the Iowa Legislature has expressly exempted them from local regulation. 

Gunderson makes an outlandish claim that converting farmland to solar electric production risks a loss of local government revenue. A solar farm built on average farmland in Iowa would generate six or seven times as much property taxes as the land did when it was farmed. A 100 MW solar farm would occupy about 500 acres and would generate about 154 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, after taking full account of average down time and cloudy days. The utility excise tax on that generation (six-hundredths of a cent per kwh) would generate about $92,000 per year for counties and schools.

In contrast, the average property tax on 500 acres of Iowa farmland is about $14,000. For the most recent year, property taxes on ag land totaled $844.9 million statewide, and the census of agriculture shows 30.6 million acres of farmland in production.

Gunderson is concerned about taking up “fertile farmland that feeds the world,” but much of Iowa’s prime farm ground is already used to produce energy — ethanol or biodiesel. Why not electricity, where there is no worry about too much fertilizer being applied and running off solar panels or wind turbines?

Plus, after 25 or 50 years, the land could be used for crops again if that was a need.

Finally, let's get some perspective. About 24 million Iowa acres produce corn and soybeans. The biggest solar project so far proposed in Iowa is 3,500 acres.

We all would do better to see the solar industry for the opportunity it presents, and the constructive uses that it can provide, when crops are not always the best use for Iowa’s good land.


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David Osterberg is a senior researcher at Common Good Iowa, a nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy organization with offices in Des Moines and Iowa City. Osterberg is a former Iowa legislator and is professor emeritus in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. Contact:

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