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Joe Supervielle:

Welcome to Voices in Local Government, an ICMA podcast. My name is Joe Supervielle. Here to explain how Linn County, Iowa is helping turn a decommissioned nuclear plant into a solar farm, and the economic and environmental upside of solar energy for the public, is Charlie Nichols, Linn County's Director of Planning and Development.

Welcome, Charlie.

Charlie Nichols:

Thanks for having me, Joe.

Joe Supervielle:

Glad to have you here. This is an interesting topic.

Right off the top, I'll give that disclaimer that the nuclear plant is part of the story and an interesting part, but it's not key or critical to the solar process in general. So any city managers, planners or other local government officials out there interested in this that's saying, "Hey, we don't have that," that's not a deal breaker. Keep listening. You'll learn some interesting facts from Charlie and how this process goes.

Just to open up, can you give us a little bit of background, some interesting facts, just where this proposed solar site, how it started and where it's at right now?

Charlie Nichols:

Sure. This is Linn County. We are the second most populous county in Iowa. The city of Cedar Rapids is Linn County, again, one of the most populous cities in Iowa.

It is at the site of a decommissioned power plant, basically. You don't need a decommissioned power plant for these projects, but it's an important part, because it is a large interconnection point to the grid. That is one of the key determining factors in where utility-scale solar or wind projects can be placed. There needs to be an interconnection point, which I can touch on a little bit further into this podcast.

But yeah, that's the gist of Linn County. We're Eastern Iowa, fairly populous for Iowa, but I'm sure some listeners would still think we're a fairly small area.

Joe Supervielle:

The project itself, again, we're not necessarily going to get into every detail of the engineering stats, but the numbers are 200 megawatts, and another installation of 75 megawatt battery energy storage facility. This is all over about 1100 acres, but not necessarily a circle or a square. It's spread out a little bit.

Can you give the listeners a visual comparison or just an idea of what that means?

Charlie Nichols:

Yeah. As you mentioned, this project, the proposed project right now takes place near the decommissioned power plant, would use about 1100 acres of solar panels. That's approximately a half million of PV modules or solar panels. It's not all contiguous. It is spread out a little bit.

For conceptualizing this, if you were to start at one end of the project, and drive on a 60 mile per road, it would take you approximately five minutes of driving past solar panels before you would reach the end of the project boundaries. So it is a fairly significant project.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah, that's helpful to know. I think we'll get into a little bit about the land distribution and how the public sees that, because even though the local government's not ... the city managers, the planners like you are not there to get involved in the politics, inevitably, that is intertwined into this topic, which we'll get into.

Before we get to the starting point of the story, give us just one takeaway or how to, for someone out there, someone similar, one of your peers in that planning role, who's also interested in solar. What's the number one thing you want them to learn today?

Charlie Nichols:

Sure. I'll back up a little bit here, because I think some facts on Linn County, and how we see or how we look at renewable energy projects, especially in relation to natural disasters, how that plays out.

Linn County, in 2008, had a historic flood that destroyed over 5,000 homes. There was about $1.5 billion in damage. Many places in the county are still struggling with the after effects of that.

Then in 2020, Linn County was also the side of a derecho, which if you've never heard of that, I won't blame you for that, because we had never heard of that either until it happened. It's basically a land hurricane. There's hurricane speed winds, no water, sustained for a substantial period of time. That was in 2020. We lost about 13, 15% of our total tree canopy in the area. Again, billions of damage to homes, businesses. Total loss of carbon storage from that tree canopy is estimated at about a hundred million. Total losses just from losing that tree canopy, and cost of replacing the trees, is over 20 million.

So we have been hit with two very large, what people usually call once in a generation, disasters just in the past 15 years.

Why people working in county government should be interested or aware of utility-scale solar, utility-scale wind is because you will likely see these projects come forward in your county at some point in the future. They are the cheapest way to produce new energy now. We're not building more coal plants. We're not building more nuclear plants. When new power production facilities are built, they are wind or solar. The Inflation Reduction Act provides even more tax credits for these type of projects. It is very likely, if you are working in a county, at some point, you'll have to deal with a solar project or a wind project.

I would liken it to these natural disasters. When a project comes forward, you can't control what'll happen. You can't control the rhetoric, the controversy around it, because there's many opinions on these projects. For most areas, I know for Linn County, this kind of project was completely new. There was a lot of worry about what will our lives look like with these massive thousand acre projects.

You can't control what the reaction's going to be, you can't control what the project's going to be, but you can make sure you have a foundation in place that allows you to address public concerns, that allows you to permit and get a project that your community is comfortable with.

That goes back to disaster preparation too. You can't control when and where a natural disaster happens. You can control the mitigation or the foundation you have in place to respond to it.

That's what I would urge anyone working in county government. You might not have a solar project, a wind project on the horizon. It is likely, at some point, you will see it. Battery energy storage is now proliferating too. We're going to see standalone battery energy storage sites more often as well.

So I would encourage anyone to examine what is your code on these projects, and look into what could be points of contention, controversy, and really make sure you have a robust comprehensive code, so that when you do have a project come forward, you have a strong foundation from which to address it.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. Getting a head start and not waiting. You said the solar and wind projects are, you didn't use the word inevitable, but maybe it's going to happen.

The natural disasters that happened in Iowa, that's also somewhat inevitable, unfortunately. Doesn't matter where you are, it's not just about hurricanes or fires on the coast. Just about anywhere is going to have to deal with some version of this, one way or another, eventually.

Charlie Nichols:

Right. We are unfortunately seeing more and more extreme weather. On the topic of solar and wind, I recently went to a national planning association conference, and this was a topic. People around the country are seeing more of these projects come forward. It might not be inevitable, but the chances are certainly much higher than they were, even five years ago, that you'll see a project like this come forward.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. Even if it's not literally inevitable, it's the responsible thing to do to plan for it as if it's going to happen, not just pretend or hope that it won't.

Charlie Nichols:

I would certainly recommend it.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. On this particular project, the timing is a little tricky because it's not complete, it's not fully approved, and we don't have to get into every news item of that process, but it is part of the story. We're going to walk through it, but just to put that out there from the beginning, that this could also change a month from now, even by the time this publishes.

Can you start at the beginning? How did it eventually take off or get that initial approval to move forward? How did the planning and the local government side get involved early? What was your role from the get go?

Charlie Nichols:

Sure. There's a lot that goes into answering that question, Joe, but you made a comment earlier that the process and the politics are intertwined for these projects. That's definitely been the case.

Our Board of Supervisors approved a utility-scale solar project in Northern Linn County last December. It was about 750 acres. They're currently reviewing a project at the site of the decommissioned nuclear plant, which they'll have a third vote on that.

We first had inklings that these projects would be coming forward back in, I think, 2020. At the time, we had code on the books for utility-scale solar and wind. But it was code that was written 10, 15 years ago, and a lot has changed since it was first implemented.

So the first thing we did, when we had an idea that we might see some of these projects in Linn County, is looked at our code and change it to be more suitable to this process.

Previously, these projects were permitted with a conditional use permit from a Board of Adjustment. Your listeners might be familiar with that process. The Board of Adjustment is appointed by the Board of Supervisors. They're not elected. They typically do things for commercial businesses and agricultural areas, variances, one off things.

But we felt that a project of this scale, that would be hundreds and hundreds of acres, are better addressed by and discussed by elected officials. So the change we made back in 2020 was to move the approval from a conditional use permit to a rezoning.

We permit these through an overlay zoning district. Project has to apply to rezone an area where they want to place panels or wind turbines. It goes to the Board of Supervisors, and they treat it like a rezoning, so they have three meetings. I think that has been very helpful.

It hasn't made things any easier really or less cumbersome, because the board meetings are very ... Our first meeting, to put this into perspective, on this project, last week, went from about 6:00 PM to 11:30 PM. These are very long meetings. Many people show up. We actually ...

Another change we made back in 2020 was increasing our fee for solar projects and wind projects. Our typical zoning fees are $1,000 and a couple of hundreds, max. But for these projects, there's so much involved, and we don't really have staff capacity or expertise to review things like decommissioning plans, [inaudible 00:11:14] glare studies, just really integral stuff to these projects. So we increased our fee as well, to allow us to hire some third party consultants to assist in the review process, and also to allow us to book offsite venues.

Our typical Board of Supervisor chambers cannot hold the crowds we're seeing for these meetings. So we are booking ... Gymnasiums in the community is where these projects are occurring. We're hiring audio visual teams to live stream the meetings, so people can participate remotely. Just having these meetings that they're so much larger, and the scope is so much larger than our typical business, we've had to really adapt our process specifically to address this.

I kind of rambled, and I'm not sure if I answered your question, Joe, but if you have any follow up ...

Joe Supervielle:

No. Yeah. That's good background.

I think even just mentioning those crowd sizes, that's the other side of that coin. Local government wants more engagement and input from the community up front, instead of just maybe unsatisfied or complaints on the back end. But that's not easy to do. It sounded like some resources had to be allocated. You had to maybe hire some vendors, had some external resources to actually make those logistics happen.

That ties into the actual communication to the public. How did that go? What was the plan? Were you working with the Linn County communications team to make sure facts were out there, and to try and keep it as apolitical as possible? How did that go?

Charlie Nichols:

Yes. This has taken a lot of communication, and again, is communication above and beyond what we would typically do. The important part there that you mentioned is apolitical. When we communicate about these projects, we're communicating about what our standards for approval are, what is the footprint of the project. We are not making statements about whether these projects are good or bad. We are presenting the information we have, and giving information on our process, so that people can attend, people can look at what is happening and make their own decisions.

But we held a series of public meetings, this again I think was back in 2020, before we had our first application for a solar project, to explain what the process of approval would be like. We held these out in the rural community, in the communities where solar projects were being discussed.

We went through, so when we get an application, these are the set of meetings that we'll hold. This is our website where we'll put all the materials from the application. This is the standards of approval that the Board of Adjustment will use to vote on the project.

Our communications team has created webpages specifically for each solar project. There's the Coggon Solar project, the one that was approved last year. There's a webpage for the Duane Arnold solar project, which is being evaluated right now.

If any of your listeners are interested, you could probably just Google Linn County, Duane Arnold Solar, find that webpage, which you'll find all of the application documents for that project. You will find my PowerPoint and staff reports. You'll find videos from our public meetings. That six and a half hour or six hour public meeting on Monday, if you want, you can watch that whole thing and see what was discussed.

There is so much information out there that it's very difficult to communicate all of it, but what we can do is make it available and communicate where people can find it. That's been helpful. It's been really a team effort on Linn County's part.

Joe Supervielle:

Shifting to the finances of it, even communicating to the public, are there independent studies and/or projections trying to give the general public, who they're not experts necessarily in this field, a good faith here's the pros and cons economically, not just on solar can do X, Y, and Z, but the cost opportunity of not doing something else, whether it's more farmland or other choices that people might say, "Why do we need solar? Even if this plant's gone, the nuclear plan, we have other choices."

Where does the county get that information, in terms of the financial projections?

Charlie Nichols:

There are financial projections in terms of tax revenue, jobs created, revenue that will go back into the community from either temporary construction jobs or permanent jobs. Those are in the documents put together by the applicant. That is not something that I hit on when I present these projects, or that we really hit on when we talk about these projects from the county perspective, because we do not use tax revenue, we don't use property value in our standards for approval.

So there is plenty of information out there that's put out by both the applicant, which is obviously favorable in terms of property value and economic terms, and then information that is put out by skeptics and opponents of this project. Both sides are involved.

We don't use our county webpage to highlight either of those sides. There is some of that information contained just in the applicant submittal documents. We try and stay away from that as much as possible though, because it's not part of our decision making process. We're not going to approve a project because it might decrease property values. On that flip side, we don't approve projects because they might increase property values. There's plenty of that information out there. It's just not part of our process here at the county.

Joe Supervielle:

Okay. One question we always ask on this podcast is how is it paid for. In this case, that gets tricky, because it isn't even officially happening. It is also divided into these different areas. There's also private energy companies involved.

I guess just even from the beginning, all those resources you already mentioned on just getting the initial wave of information out there, and the codes updated, how is that budgeted for? How are you covering just that first wave of expenses?

Charlie Nichols:

The initial changes to our code, we just used our own staff to do it. We're pretty comfortable making code changes. But there have been many more costs associated with this project.

I mentioned earlier, we increased our permit fee. I don't remember what it is exactly, but if you look at our webpage for these solar projects, it's on there. I think for the Duane Arnold project, our permit fee ended up being around 30, 40,000 just for the application.

That has allowed us to pay for offsite venues, it allows us to pay for third party experts to help look over some of the studies they're submitting. It also allows us to pay for, and this is really the nuts and bolts that doesn't get discussed, but we hired deputies through the county, because these meetings are controversial, and sometimes people do imply or make threats. So we hire deputies to attend these meetings. We hire the audio visual team to live stream it. There's a lot of costs that are involved.

So far, our fee structure has been able to cover it all. So I think that getting that right in the first place will really help counties, especially if they don't have as much staff. Hire the help to move these projects along and through the process.

Now there's also a lot of questions about what's the impact to the county if this project is constructed, in terms of ongoing maintenance and end of life. Similar to what you might see for wind projects, we do have a road study is required.

If the applicant's approved, they have to identify the routes they'll use for construction, because they'd be bringing in half a million solar panels that you might damage public roads, you could damage culverts. So they have to take a survey of the condition of all the roads to be used, work with our secondary road department, and then if any of the roads are damaged during their construction, they're responsible for repairing it. At the end of the project, another survey is done of road conditions, and any damage identified is repaired by the applicant. That's one way that we are mitigating any cost to our road department from this project is with this agreement that they sign as part of their approval.

Another big concern from the public is these projects last 30, 35 years, but solar panels degrade over time. What would happen if, say, the company who owns it goes bankrupt, and now these solar panels are here. Who would remove that? Is that the county's responsibility? Is that the landowners who signed up?

One of the tools that we've required, and that many communities require, is a decommissioning plan, where the applicant states, "At the end of the project, this is how we will remove it. This is our process for taking out the panels, the piles, the transformers or inverters." There's a cost with that too. Then we require them to put up a bond for the full cost of decommissioning. So if they were to walk away for some reason, or go bankrupt, we have this bond with a financial institution that the county could redeem to then do decommissioning ourselves, and return the land to its original state.

That's one of the things we hire third party experts for is to help review that decommissioning plan. Because I don't have staff here that can make the call. Is this $12.2 million figure accurate? We can't make that call here, but we can hire consultants, and we have, who will review the plan and then tell us, "It looks like, based on comparable projects, they're short," or, "It looks like they are accounting for all their costs."

Then tax revenue is always a big question. If this project's approved, what kind of tax revenue could the school district, the county, any other taxing jurisdiction expect?

That's really state specific. In Iowa, the tax code for renewable energy projects specifically was rewritten a couple of years ago. So it's based on energy produced and not the tax rate set by each individual county. I think the state did that so that energy companies could have more fixed costs, and they could know what to expect.

But as the county, as a school district, any other taxing entity, you're not going to know how many tax dollars you will receive from these projects until the end of the year, when they report how much power they produced and where it was sent to, and then they run it through a formula and send you back tax dollars. It is more than you would get for egg land. But we don't know yet what that final amount will be year to year. It will probably vary year to year.

Joe Supervielle:

Needless to say, a lot of planning goes into it. It sounds like you all have done ... the county has done a good job of protecting themselves and the public financially, both on what it costs to get it moving, and then also just long term, like you said, with the bond. So those are key takeaways right there.

The site itself, the nuclear plant has these transmission lines, so that makes sense. But were there concerns or issues or red flags or ... Again, not an engineer, but when nuclear's involved, it can get a little dicey maybe, even if it's decommissioned. How did that work? What are the pros and cons of that site?

Charlie Nichols:

Sure. That's a good question.

I'm also going to bring up something else I think that's important for your listeners to know. That nuclear power plant, I think I mentioned this before, but it is an interconnection point to the grid. The nuclear power plant was producing 600 or so megawatts of energy. Now that it is offline, there is this gap in energy production in our area that they're trying to fill with solar.

So if your listeners are thinking, "Where might we expect solar project in the future?" If there is a coal power plant in your area that is going to be decommissioned in the next few years, you could expect to see a project there. Also, the interconnect point is very important for these projects. So take a look around your county. Where there's substations, those are where you could see applications coming forward.

But specifically on the nuclear plant, the panels are not actually proposed within the boundaries of this old nuclear plant. They are on land owned by the company that owns the plant. They have transmission lines going into the plant, so that interconnect point. But the footprint of the site itself has not been proposed for panels yet.

There is nuclear waste stored on site there. I assume that's why there's no panels placed on that site. There's still quite a bit of area dedicated to that plant that needs to have some sort of long term reuse plan figured out.

Another thing to keep in mind here is that panels themselves, the inverters, everything associated with these projects, don't really need a lot of infrastructure like water and sewer. It's important to have some available, just in case there's workers that need to do repair work on site. So having this plant, with facilities and services, helps the project in that sense.

But the big gain or the big positive of that plant is the interconnection point, which it's fairly substantial.

Joe Supervielle:

Okay. So the existing infrastructure to essentially transfer that energy created to the grid, that can then get it to where the energy is needed, is the key. But is it fair to say that that's also not necessarily a deal breaker? If there are other rural areas out there that do not have coal, nuclear or anything that's going offline, just wide open spaces to be reused, that infrastructure can still be built. But that's also where maybe the private business comes in, to give those calculations and those projections on how it still makes sense financially.

Charlie Nichols:

Yeah. In that case, they would use a substation. The project approved by Linn County last year, in Northern Linn County, is not near any sort of power plant. It is next to a substation. That substation has been there for 30, 35 years. Just now, they're using it to connect the project into the grid.

So you don't need power plants. If you look around your county, where there are substations, those are potential interconnect points, and places where you potentially see projects.

My understanding is it gets much more expensive to build and operate these projects the further you are from a substation, because then you need to build more robust transmission lines that will carry the power to that substation. So the closer you are to an interconnect point, whether it be a substation or an older decommissioned power plant, the more efficient the project is. That's what both of our projects we've seen have been right next to an interconnect point, a substation and a power plant.

Joe Supervielle:

On lessons learned, Charlie, you've already covered a lot of the key points, but what did you not know going into it that you now know? Or if you had that way to message yourself, to maybe save that headache, what would you go back and tell yourself that you can now tell the audience, because maybe they are starting from the beginning, that they can know right now? What are those lessons learned?

Charlie Nichols:

It has definitely been a learning process. We are still learning a lot. We will be changing and updating our code in the future with lessons learned. The advantage your listeners have is they can start looking at their ordinances now, before they get a project in.

What we have found out is that once a project applies, it is very hard to evaluate the project and also evaluate your code. So the big takeaway or the big thing I want to impart here is take a very hard look at your code. Take a very hard look at what's important to you and your citizen in your county. See if the code aligns with that. Because once a project comes forward, there will be a lot of pressure from all sides, and it's going to be hard to make changes.

Something we did when we had a project come forward last year was we went and visited communities in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, that have utility-scale solar projects. We spoke with the developers. We spoke with the community members there about what's gone well, what's gone wrong, what could be done better, to find out how we can improve our code.

We also, for some of those projects, took members of the community who live near our proposed projects with us. That's a big thing that we have tried to do throughout this project is loop the community in, and make sure that as we're learning, they're learning alongside us.

What I would encourage anyone to do is to look at projects near you or in neighboring states, evaluate what's gone well for them.

There are many resources out there now for communities. I think you might talk about the Solar@Scale Guidebook, but the American Planning Association in partnership with the ICMA has published a guidebook for communities on how to evaluate and permit these projects. It's a great resource, especially for counties that might not have a large staff that can do a whole bunch of research. This guidebook has done it for you, and put it in a pretty digestible format that you can also share with your citizens.

So lesson learned, in a nutshell, is get your code airtight. Get your code emphasizing the things you want from these projects well before any project applies. Everything will go a whole lot better for you if you can do that up front. Get your foundation in place. Again, the storm analogy. You can't control everything that happens once a project comes forward. But you can control your code, your foundation, your process you have in place to handle that when that comes up.

Joe Supervielle:

Right. The guidebook, we'll link that on the podcast webpage, and Apple, wherever you get your podcast, will link it right there, so you don't have to go search it for it. Charlie has also appeared on ICMAs webinar series, Solar@Scale. We'll link to that. There will also be multiple sessions at the ICMA annual conference on solar, other energy topics. Even if you're not able to attend in person, those will be available on demand through December 31st, 2022.

I want to thank ICMA's Gabe Russ for coordinating this topic, and Mr. Charlie Nichols for sharing your expertise.

Charlie Nichols:

Thanks, Joe. It's been a pleasure.


Episode is sponsored by

Guest Information

Charlie Nichols, director of planning & development, Linn County, Iowa


Episode Notes

Charlie Nichols, director of planning & development, Linn County, Iowa joins the show to explain the planning and process needed to turn a decommissioned nuclear plant into a solar farm.

  1. Why the county was interested in solar, and how the project started.
  2. The time and resources needed during the application process, and how that was accounted and paid for.
  3. How to best communicate to the public and remain a-political on a controversial topic.
  4. Lessons learned that other locations can benefit from on their own current or future large-scale energy projects.


ICMA's Solar@Scale Guidebook

Linn County's solar project webpage. An example on collecting and communicating all the relevant information to the public.

Acknowledgment: This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) under the Solar Energy Technologies Office Award Number DE-EE0009000. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Energy or the United States Government.

More on Sustainable Communities:

Technical Assistance to Brownfields Communities: Free technical assistance and workshops (in-person or digital) via ICMA in region four, or find your representative organization on the resources page.

Brownfields Conference, August 8-11 in Detroit

Brownfields University, a foundational pre-conference training program, free with registration for Brownfields 2023 conference. 

ICMA Brownfields topic page, for the basics all the way through advanced studies and resources.


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