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Jo. County gives wind green light

JOHNSON COUNTY– On Aug. 4, Johnson County supervisors gave the green light to a new ordinance that allows commercial wind farms.
PNE Wind, which consulted on the ordinance with the county planning and zoning department, is currently negotiating leases with property owners between Solon and Morse. The proposed 30-megawatt farm will have about 20 turbines stretching across 3,000 acres.
Chicago-based PNE has also begun discussions for sale or rental property in Solon to house an operations maintenance center. The local energy office will be the headquarters for a five-person team of wind workers.
Keith Kurtz, PNE’s Greenfield Developer for the project, said, “If everything goes perfect, by late next year all towers will be operational.”
Although not yet sure who will purchase the power, Kurtz said the energy will be sold locally and those negotiations have just begun.
Kurtz also said his company would await further wind data from their meteorological test tower before pinning down a supplier for turbines.
The company started a bat study in August using a sensor on the tower that listens for bat chirps. Other wildlife studies, including avian, raptor and migratory flight paths analysis, are also required and will be implemented– with wind and other atmospheric data, for proper siting of each tower.
The county stands to collect $1,000 per turbine in permit fees, plus an advance deposit for the end-of-life cost of dismantling the towers when they’re retired.
The ordinance will require towers to be set back from property lines by 1,000 feet.
Mike Carberry, a wind energy consultant and director of Green State Solutions, said an increased setback, which was discussed at the supervisors’ meeting, would have scuttled the deal. “One thousand feet is the industry standard,” he said.
He also said “There is no such thing as ‘ice throw,’” another fear raised at the board of supervisors meeting. Carberry explained that turbines shut down when iced and, “They will not start again until the ice is gone.”
The board passed the commercial wind energy facility ordinance unanimously.
The new ordinance covers large-scale, commercial wind operators like PNE, but county planning and zoning has also begun to consider additional code for private and residential wind.
Josh Busard, Assistant Planner in the Johnson County Planning and Zoning Department, said commercial farms that sell energy on the market wholesale are designated as “off-site” energy producers but further language to permit “on-site” wind production hasn’t yet been determined fully.
Currently, a small wind-turbine owner must go through a conditional use permit process that can take months. Busard said the planning and zoning department is deciding whether a simpler permit could be issued for small wind projects, much like a building permit with some extra, wind-specific rules.
Unfortunately, according to Carberry, “unless you have a really big acreage in the city,” it’s unlikely wind will payoff in city residential areas anyway because of turbulence near buildings, trees and other barriers. The difficulty, coupled with the low return on lower towers, makes small wind power generators a largely rural pursuit.
Before PNE began looking for wind farm sites in the area, Carberry approached some Johnson County supervisors last summer asking them to start writing a county wind ordinance.
“We need to start putting wind farms in places other than northwest Iowa because it’s reached a capacity (on the electrical grid),” he noted.
Much of the northwest corner of Iowa is considered the most favorable wind farming area in the state but, with less population density, the demand for electricity isn’t as great as in eastern Iowa.
Across the US, local zoning has been cited as the biggest obstacle to small wind generation. Carberry said he hoped the county would lower the fee for private wind operators. “One thousand dollars is too much for a private wind farmer,” he suggested.