Solar lines drawn

Tama Co. residents, TED Renewables address draft ordinance at public hearing

Tama County landowner and Sergeant Bluff resident Terry Kucera speaks during the Tuesday, May 9 public hearing on utility scale solar energy in Toledo. Tama County supervisors Curt Hilmer, Bill Faircloth, and Dan Anderson are visible in the background. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

TOLEDO — Utility scale solar energy and whether such systems should take root in Tama County was the topic of discussion during a subdued 90-minute public hearing held Wednesday evening in Toledo by the Tama County Board of Supervisors.

Just after 6 p.m., Supervisor Bill Faircloth stepped up to the microphone in the Reinig Center conference room to briefly provide a rundown of how the public hearing would proceed – registered speakers would be allowed no more than three minutes and board members would not be responding to questions during the hearing.

Twenty-eight individuals – mostly from Tama County – then made their way one by one to the microphone to speak as their names were called by assistant auditor Karen Rohrs who operated a digital timer.

Many of the speakers elected to specifically address the recently released draft version of the county’s Utility Scale Solar Energy Ordinance, an ordinance that defines such energy generation as “interconnected solar panels/arrays with the primary purpose of wholesale or retail sales of generated electricity.”

Such solar projects, the draft version states, must be 25 megawatts or less – which as defined would limit the size to roughly 250 acres or less – and cannot be constructed on land with a Corn Suitability Rating (CSR) of 60 or more.

Members of the public listen and queue in the Toledo Reinig Center conference room during the solar energy public hearing held on Wednesday, May 9. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

Solar lines drawn

Speakers fell into roughly two camps – those in favor of utility scale solar development and those against such development in Tama County.

Many of those who elected to speak were Tama County farmers and/or landowners including representatives from the coalition Tama County Against Turbines (TCAT).

There were also three representatives present from the Kansas-based solar energy company TED Renewables which is currently in the early stages of developing a commercial solar array on roughly 960 acres east of Traer – land that is owned by Sergeant Bluff resident and North Tama High School alumnus Terry Kucera.

Kucera was also in the audience Wednesday night and elected to speak, as was Lynn Cizek who lives in Clark Township adjacent to Kucera’s land.

Bill Keeney, CDO of TED Renewables based in Kansas, speaks during the utility scale solar public hearing held this past Wednesday in Toledo. TED Renewables is currently developing a commercial solar array on 960 acres of land located east of Traer. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

Many of the evening’s comments addressed the draft ordinance’s CSR inclusion including comments from rural Toledo resident and landowner Rob Wobeter who raised concerns with using CSR as a determiner and not CSR2.

The Corn Suitability Rating System was updated in 2013 to use CSR2 values. A single farm could have two different numbers, Wobeter said, and it was important to be specific in the ordinance.

Elias Toshiro, a project development manager with TED Renewables, was the third speaker of the evening. He told the supervisors his company was in the early stages of development – year one of a two to four-year development phase.

“We believe a good solar ordinance will benefit not only the county but also the project [itself],” Toshiro said.

Lynn Cizek was the evening’s fifth speaker, speaking on behalf of herself and her husband Jeff. The Cizeks have resided on their rural Traer acreage for over 30 years.

“This 900 acre proposed solar complex will completely surround our home to the west, the north, and to the east, with thousands of black solar panels, aluminum grid, and underground electrical systems,” Cizek began. “Needless to say, this is not what we envisioned for our neighborhood.”

Cizek went on to say that the county “is vulnerable right now” and needs a “strong industrial solar ordinance to protect Tama County citizens and their families.” She then made several recommendations in regard to the draft ordinance including lowering the maximum number of acres across which a utility scale solar array could be constructed. While she agreed with the CSR of 60, she asked for setbacks to be “at least one-half to one mile from any rural acreage landowner.”

Cizek ended by stating, “Rural acreage landowners have rights, too. We matter. We count. We pay our taxes. We support our schools, our small businesses, our towns, our firemen, our policemen, our ambulance services. We count, we have a very strong voice.”

Justin Wills, a development analyst with TED Renewables, followed Cizek. Wills said TED filed comments on March 17 with the county on “best practices seen in solar ordinances throughout the Midwest” including a provision requiring a decommissioning plan and a road use agreement.

Wills then addressed Kucera’s project and how specific aspects of the draft ordinance would make such a project “unworkable” and deter “good faith [solar] investment in Tama County.”

Wills recommended removing the project size restriction entirely, stating, “[Kucera’s project] represents less than half a percent of all agricultural land in Tama County.”

Wills also asked that the section regarding CSR be removed.

“A rule like this only penalizes private landowners for owning high quality land – land which won’t be degraded by hosting solar,” Wills said.

A couple of speakers later, rural Clutier resident and landowner Judy Kopriva spoke on how her son has installed solar panels “on top of an old chicken house.”

“Tama County has a solar ordinance for personal residential and farm use. And I think that’s great. But I am against industrial solar projects,” Kopriva said before later adding, “We are subjecting our prime farmland as prey to big industry.”

Following Kopriva, eight more speakers took the mic including TCAT leaders Richard Arp and Jon Winkelpleck.

Winkelpleck, a rural Dysart farmer and rancher, stated in part, “I, along with my entire family, oppose any industrial solar or wind projects placed on ag farmland with a CSR2 of 60 or greater. … [Tama County’s] highly productive farmland was meant to produce food for the ever-growing population we have. All – and I mean all Tama County residents – need to be considered when developing these ordinances.”

Several speakers later – who, again, were mostly not in favor of utility scale solar projects taking up residence in the county – Bill Keeney, Chief Development Officer with TED Renewables, made his way to the microphone.

Keeney began by reiterating much of what his colleagues previously stated.

“We do believe this project will be a great business opportunity for Tama County,” Keeney said. “We’re projecting this project to be over $150 million of new capital that will be on private land. No use of eminent domain at any time. We will have a significant impact on the tax revenue of Tama County as well as the funding for North Tama School District.”

Overall, Keeney said his company supports the draft ordinance as written, but like his colleagues, would like the project size restriction and the CSR requirements changed.

After Keeney, Mike Carberry with Bright Future Iowa, an organization that advocates in support of both wind and solar development, addressed the supervisors, bluntly stating as part of his remarks that a “CSR limitation really is a poison pill.”

“If you don’t want any solar in your county, then you put a CSR limitation in it. If you don’t want any solar or wind in your county, you putting really long setbacks. This is a way to get rid of projects.”

Perhaps the most important comments of the evening came next from Terry Kucera – the individual whose signed easements with TED Renewables kicked into gear the entire process.

“When I made the decision to sign this agreement, I thought about it a lot,” Kucera said. “I wanted to make sure you’d be able to sit out at night in your front yard and not have to look at flashing lights or hear noises … I wanted to make sure there was going to be a perennial crop under there so that when it comes out of production, it’s going to be better than it is today.”

Kucera then praised Carberry’s comments before turning his comments to the ethanol industry in general.

“As a farmer, we’re here to harvest the sun and we need to do it the most efficient way we can. The ethanol industry has been a great industry for us as farmers. But when you actually look at the benefits that goes along with the ethanol industry, we’re only about 15 percent efficient … as people said, we need to be using this land for food production.”

Several more speakers later and just shy of the meeting’s end, Keeney again took to the microphone to state that TED Renewables was not seeking to ink any further easements with landowners – “we signed up our lease [with Kucera] and have not been active.”

Keeney also addressed the agreement with Kucera, stating, “Part of the reason we selected this project site was it has an existing 161-kilowatt Alliant [Energy high-power transmission] line on the site, so there’s no need for any additional transmission.”

One of the final speakers was Lynn Cizek who returned to the mic to provide parting thoughts.

“[N]obody wants to live next to these industrial solar farms,” Cizek said. “I haven’t heard one person tell me that they would enjoy living next door to a 900-acre solar farm. … I don’t want to live next to one.”

“I’m ok with some solar, but not what you’re proposing for Tama County,” Cizek further stated, casting her glance to the far left of the room where the three TED Renewables representatives were seated.

Cizek ended by firmly declaring, “And I hope to God our board of supervisors are courageous and show strong leadership to protect all of our citizens here because that is what we need.”

Following the hearing, Tama-Grundy Publishing asked Supervisor Dan Anderson what the next steps would be in the process. While Anderson declined to go into specifics, he said there was no clear end date for the process to finalize a new Utility Scale Solar Energy Ordinance but that the board’s work would continue.

Anderson also said an additional public hearing in the near future on the draft proposal was possible.

Tama County’s draft ordinance can be viewed online here: https://www.tamacounty.org/Documents/2023/BOS/TAMA%20COUNTY%20UTILITY%20SCALE%20DRAFT.pdf