Linn County prepares for utility-scale solar facility

Similar project in the works for Johnson County

Rick Smith
Published: February 20 2014 | 6:00 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:58 am in

CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County planners are preparing for a first of its kind for the county — a utility-scale solar installation designed to produce electricity solely for profit and feed it into the power grid.

The county’s preparatory work for the pioneering solar facility — still relatively small in scale — is being driven by Geronimo Energy,  based in Minneapolis, which has secured a subsidy in the form of renewable energy tax credits from the Iowa Utilities Board to build a 2.5 megawatt solar facility in Linn County.

Dan Swartzendruber, manager in the Linn County Planning and Development Department, on Thursday said the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission this week approved an amendment to the county’s development code to address issues such as grading, buffering, fencing and setbacks for a utility-scale solar installation.

The Linn County Board of Supervisors is slated to take up the amendments next week.

Nathan Franzen, director of solar development for Geronimo Energy, on Thursday said his company is "very excited" about its Linn County proposal. But he noted it can’t happen unless the company succeeds in negotiations to have a power company buy the electricity produced by the solar facility.

Franzen said a 2.5 megawatt solar installation would consist of 10,000 solar panels, 3-by-5-feet in size, on 5 to 17 acres. Such an array will produce electricity for about 325 homes, he said.

In Linn County, Geronimo’s proposed project would do business as Five Seasons LLC.

Franzen said the company also is hoping to build a similar-sized project in Johnson County, doing business as Old Capital LLC. For now, though, the Johnson County project has secured renewable energy tax credits equal to 1.9 megawatts, he said.

The proposed projects likely would sit on flat land near an existing electrical substation, Franzen said. Iowa, he added, is an excellent place for solar energy.

"There’s really no difference between Iowa and Georgia," he said. "Iowa has long summers, where we make most of our money."

Rick Dvorak, Johnson County Planning and Zoning Department administrator, on Thursday said he was aware that Old Capital had obtained tax credits for a proposed project in Johnson County, though he pointed out representatives from the company had not yet contacted his office.

Dvorak said Johnson County last week approved a 3,000-panel array — about a third the size of the Geronimo plan — for a site south of Frytown in Johnson County.

In Linn County, Swartzendruber said the proposed Geronimo solar installation is pioneering for Linn County because it differs from small solar arrays that primarily provide power on site for an individual business or property owner.

He said his department learned of the Iowa Utilities Board’s tax credit award for a solar project in Linn County in November, then set about to modify the county’s development code before the project took shape.

The Utilities Board approval calls for Geronimo to have the Linn County project up and running by Jan. 1, 2015.

Swartzendruber said Linn County studied ordinances in Minnesota and North Carolina as it was designing amendments to the county’s development code.

"We want to support it," Swartzendruber said of solar power. "We are for alternative energy resources, and we’re trying to make it not too onerous to get these things done here."

He said relatively reasonable energy rates in Iowa have worked against solar projects unless there are development incentives such as renewable energy tax credits to help cover capital costs. At the same time, the technology is improving and the price of it is dropping, which may fuel more solar development, Swartzendruber said.

The proposed Linn County code amendments require that the developer provide a major site development plan and obtain a conditional use permit.

The amendments also call for "reasonable efforts" to place all the utility connections from the solar installation to run underground.

"The main thing is we don’t have an eyesore, and I don’t think that’s going to be a problem," Swartzendruber said.

Geronimo’s Franzen said solar panels will stand at angle less than 10 feet in height.

"Generally we are looking for sites that are compatible with surrounding land uses," he said. "Once the corn is up, you usually can’t see them."

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