Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
AINSWORTH — A meeting hosted by the Iowa Utility Board (IUB) at Marr Park Monday night drew dozens of community members with questions, comments and concerns about the planned Goldfinch Solar Project north of Ainsworth.
The roughly 2,000-acre, 200 MW project is plotted out with easement agreements on farmland around a substation close to Highway 218, where developers said solar panels would generate power for 30-50 years.
IUB Chair Geri Huser said the meeting had a bigger crowd than most of its kind.
“The Iowa Utilities Board did not anticipate the number of people that are in attendance today,” she said at the start of the meeting, after staff printed extra info handouts for the excess of people in the room. “I’ve got to tell you, it’s the first time I’ve had to do that.”
Advocates on behalf of the project — owned by Bechtel Corporation, and developed by Conifer Power Company — pitched it as an economic boon for the community.
“Over the life of this project, we’re looking at a little over $10 million in additional property taxes,” said Conifer Power Vice President of Development Chad Little. “We’re looking at about 228 new local construction jobs during construction, and that’s about a year period … of long-term jobs, we’re looking at local impacts resulting in about 10 local, long-term jobs in Washington County.”
Company representatives said the solar farm would not effect local electricity prices.
“I don’t think there’s an impact to utility bills,” Bechtel Director of Construction Bernie Krantz said. “We don’t know who’s buying the power yet.”
Developers said they had signed easements with 15 landowners for the project, paying them a combined total of roughly $2 million year for the 2,000-acre project. Those who signed the agreements said they had carefully considered the plan.
“It was something that took months of thinking to decide,” one landowner at the meeting said. “It was not something we took lightly … I believe that we need alternative energy, I think this is a good project for that. And, I see it as putting our black soil to bed for 30-some years. It’s not going to be blowing away in the wind or going into a stream.”
Little said developers were committed to minimizing the project’s downsides, saying they’d add pollinator-friendly plant cover to the area, and make plans to sign “good neighbor agreements” with around 40 landowners adjacent to the project.
“We also reached out to neighbors within a half mile of the project, and have begun talking to them,” he said. “We are trying to be a good neighbor to those that live out in that community … our key design objective is to minimize impacts to our community and neighbors.”
Conifer Power Co-owner Bob Bergstrom doubled down on that rhetoric after a question about liability for property damage for construction.
“You’re not going to have to take our word for it, we’ll put it in writing,” he said. “My boys will work with you, we’re going to get it right. If it doesn’t get right the first time, we’ll get it right the second time. But we will keep on until we get it right, I promise you.”
Several in the audience, however, were more skeptical.
Molly Hartzler, who lives near many of the lots signed into easements, said development could be problematic for residents in the area, even if it worked well for farmland.
“There will be some (devaluation of property) because nobody wants to live by one of these,” she said. “How will that be compensated? Because the $10,000 that’s being offered as part of the good neighbor policy isn’t going to touch that.”
Developers said they were still looking into effects on property depreciation.
“We are completing a property valuation of our own for our very specific community,” Little said. “It’s not been completed yet, and it’ll be filed in our docket. What we can tell you is there are many communities that have solar projects and there are many interviews with appraisers … and it’s shown that it does not have that impact.”
While developers touted figures showing 50% of the property tax revenue would go to schools in the county, one audience member said that revenue wouldn’t boost education budgets.
“What it really means is the tax base goes up by that much,” he said. “There’s a difference between a school district … getting $100,000 a year and the tax revenue going up by $100,000 a year, which basically just means everybody’s taxes drop a few cents or a dollar.”
The fact was confirmed by school and county officials after the meeting.
“My understanding is school districts get funded by student population, not by the surrounding tax base,” County Supervisor Marcus Fedler said at a regular meeting the next morning. “What it would do is lower the taxes for everybody else … unless they actually write a check to Highland school district, I don’t see how they’d get any more money.”
Others criticized the project’s trade off with agriculture on the farmland leased for its development.
“This is free enterprise, and I don’t begrudge people that lease their ground, that’s their privilege,” said one audience member who did not identify himself during his comment. “But why do we have to keep using this class-A farmland for these types of projects? Why can’t we use some extra ground, or non-productive ground? It’s a crying shame.”
Company advocates said that was the choice of those owning the farmland, not an effort on the developers’ part.
“The landowner has made the decision to give that ground a break for the next 30-40 years,” Little said. “For whatever reason, in their decision-making process, they have decided that this is the best investment for them and their family.”
Little added that land used by the Goldfinch Solar Project was not permanently out of commission.
“The land is not out of production forever, it’s not a subdivision,” he said. “It is a very temporary … project that will be there, and then it will go back to the way the land was before that.”
Questions about subsidies also proved contentious.
“You talked about a $250 million investment, I want to know if any of that is subsidized by grants, or tax credits, or offsets, state or federal,” County Supervisor Jack Seward Jr. said. “Are you actually putting $250 million into it? Or is that money coming from the government, which is our tax money?”
Conifer Power Director Eric Bergstrom said the company planned to pursue avenues for tax credits and grants, but didn’t know how much money to expect from those avenues yet.
“Every form of energy in the United States is subsidized in one fashion or another,” he said. “There’s a couple variations of tax credit a solar project could receive … I don’t think we have a final number in regards to what it would be.”
One member of the audience who said he lived in the Haskins area said that lack of information was a red flag.
“You guys know exactly how much tax is going to go to the local school districts and the county, but you don’t know how much tax … is coming from state and federal,” he said. “It’s not a solar farm, it’s a tax credit farm.”
Despite the range of public criticism, project representatives said the event went well.
“Bechtel and Conifer Power were pleased to see so much interest in the Goldfinch Solar project at our first Public Information Meeting,” Chad Little said in a written statement the following day. “This meeting was the first step in the IUB review and approval process, and the Bechtel/Conifer team is looking forward to an ongoing dialogue with the community, answering questions, and gathering feedback from residents as dedicated community partners.”