Common Good Iowa

Linn solar plans deserve sensible rules

Posted on January 17, 2022 at 5:21 PM by David Osterberg

Jan. 17, 2022

By David Osterberg, Senior Researcher, Common Good Iowa

Common Good Iowa staff have produced and contributed to reports investigating health effects of new economic development changes in the countryside. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and health of neighbors was covered in our 2017 report, “CAFOs and the Diminished Defense of Public Health.” [1] An academic report on wind turbine sound or infrasound and health was released in 2018, “Wind Turbines and Health.” [2] We have reported adverse health effects to neighbors living next to hog facilities. We could find none specifically caused by either sound or the very low infrasound from wind turbines.

It is also generally known that there are health effects to neighbors from many industrial facilities, including power plants. Among the list of health effects is asthma in children. Sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) cause health problems. Specifically, the release of mercury from coal-fired power plants makes some neighborhoods unhealthy.

One question addressed in the current solar proposals by Clēnera and NextEra is whether solar panels — lots of them — cause health effects to neighbors. Common Good Iowa has not done a formal study of this issue, but the recent scientific literature finds little evidence of adverse health effects for neighbors from solar panels. The following are among the findings of a quick review:

  • “The most important dangers posed [by large solar projects] are increased highway traffic during the relative short construction period and dangers posed to trespassers of contact with high voltage equipment. This latter risk is mitigated by signage and the security measures that industry uses to deter trespassing.”[3]
  • “Analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, both affiliates of the U.S. Department of Energy, estimates the health-related air quality benefits to the southeast region from solar PV generators to be worth 8.0 cents per kilowatt-hour of solar generation. This is in addition to the value of the electricity and suggests that the air quality benefits of solar are worth more than the electricity itself.” [4]

If a PV solar farm presents health effects to neighbors, these effects should be reduced or mitigated. However, they are likely to be small compared to the very small risk that neighbors — and all of Linn County — accepted by living within 30 miles of a nuclear power facility.

Requiring setbacks from the energy or industrial site is one method of assuring health and safety. For CAFOs the setback requirement for facilities holding one animal fewer than 500 animal units is too small. However, as this is set by state rule, no county in Iowa can do anything about that. Wind turbine energy sites generally have a setback requirement. Very tall turbines could fall or a blade could be separated. Most requirements of up to 1,000 feet or so reduce the risk of such an event and also, by our findings, in the report cited above, take care of any health issue caused by sound.

Originally Linn County required a 300-foot setback for the Coggon solar project. Quadrupling that distance seems to be for aesthetic reasons at best — not health and safety — since there seems to be no documented risk to neighboring properties or public rights of way. The originally proposed 300-foot requirement for the distance of solar panels from other private or public property should be restored as a requirement for any large solar array in Linn County.


David Osterberg is professor emeritus of public health at the University of Iowa. He is a senior researcher at Common Good Iowa, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research and advocacy organization formed by the 2020 merger of the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines and the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. Contact:

[1] David Osterberg and James Merchant, Iowa Policy Project, “CAFOs and the Diminished Defense of Public Health,” March 2017.

[2] Peter Thorne, David Osterberg and Kerri Johannsen, “Wind Turbines and Health,” University of Iowa Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, Iowa Policy Project and Iowa Environmental Council,” January 2019.

[3] NC Clean Energy Technology Center “Health and Safety Impacts of Solar Photovoltaics.” 2017

[4] Ryan Wiser, Trieu Mai, Dev Millstein, Jordan Macknick, Alberta Carpenter, Stuart Cohen, Wesley Cole, Bethany Frew, and Garvin A. Heath. “On the Path to SunShot: The Environmental and Public Health Benefits of Achieving High Penetrations of Solar Energy in the United States.” 2016 Golden, CO: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Accessed March 2017.

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