Opinion: Solar project information in Linn County
Updated: Nov 3
Josh Framel, right, discusses a map of potential solar farms with Linn County residents during a meeting of the Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission earlier this month. (Roger Sims/Linn County Journal)
By Josh Framel
The solar industry would like to come to Linn County! After decades of hosting the La Cygne coal-powered plant the county has an opportunity to diversify its energy industry and strengthen its tax base in a pollution-free way.
Linn County has significant advantages over surrounding counties when it comes to solar energy development. These attributes include: proximity to Kansas City, the very significant electric infrastructure already in place, the qualified workforce in the community, and the proven history of being one of the most business-friendly counties in the state. For these reasons Linn County is poised to see a significant investment over the next five years.
If the projects that are proposed move forward it will result in an increase in local investment with the county, including local construction employment and long-term, highly skilled operations and maintenance jobs.
Perhaps most importantly, new solar projects do not use any direct or indirect county or state resources (no new roads, sewers, bridges, schools or other improvements) so there’s no question they are a net financial benefit to the county.
Recently a letter has been circulating in the community that asks Linn County to modify it’s recently approved Solar Energy Regulations based on a number of incorrect assertions. Solar energy developers are not unfamiliar with concerns about a new type of development, and we are eager to listen to the people in the communities in which we work.
The development of a solar project takes many months of collaboration between the developer and the community and there are times when there’s disagreement, but within that public conversation it’s important that all parties have a common understanding of the issues that are factual versus the issues that are opinion.
In the letter that is circulating in Linn County the assertions that are factually inaccurate are worth addressing now so the public, county leaders, solar developers and other interested parties can focus on discussing the more subjective issues inherent to the development process.
Claim No. 1 – Threats to Wildlife and Habitat Disruption:
Solar farms have been known to disrupt natural habitats and displace native species due to their large-scale construction. The loss of wildlife corridors and intrusion on wildlife refuges can have severe ecological consequences for our local biodiversity.
Solar projects actually protect natural habitats for native species. The installation of a solar project allows for long term soil regeneration that would otherwise never be possible with conventional farming. Further, solar projects allow significant natural grass/prairie growth under the panels which encourages fauna development that is not possible when the land is used for traditional farming.
Claim No. 2 – Air Pollution Concerns:
Contrary to popular belief, solar farms are not entirely environmentally friendly as they contribute significantly towards air pollution during their manufacturing process. These installations require extensive mining activities for raw materials like silicon and rare earth metals which release harmful pollutants into the atmosphere.
Furthermore, studies have shown that prolonged exposure to high levels of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by solar panels may have adverse health effects on humans and animals alike. While there are conflicting opinions on this matter, it is crucial that we err on the side of caution when considering potential health risks associated with living near these installations.
Silicon is the second most abundant element on Earth. The manufacture of solar panels is a benign activity that’s taken place for over 60 years.
Electromagnetic radiation (EM) occurs with all electrical circuits and small amounts of electromagnetic radiation surround us in everyday life.
Any EM radiation from a solar project is not created by the solar panels but instead comes from the inverters which convert the electricity from direct current to alternating current (which is what is distributed to our homes). EM radiation degrades very quickly as it moves away from its source. At 150 feet, electromagnetic radiation from electric inverters degrades to a level below that of the ambient level of EMF.(1)
The Linn County siting ordinance sets extensive set back requirements for any solar project from neighboring properties (500 feet). Inverters are located in the center of the project which means they will be many hundreds, if not thousands of feet, away from any neighbors. There is no risk from electromagnetic radiation from this solar project.
Claim No. 3 – Fire Hazards:
Solar panels are highly flammable when exposed or damaged during extreme weather conditions such as lightning strikes or wildfires. Improper installation or maintenance has led to electrical malfunctions or fires at solar farm sites. These incidents pose a significant threat not only to nearby properties but also endanger lives within close proximity. Inadequate regulations regarding fire safety measures in close proximity with residential areas pose an unnecessary risk that must be addressed urgently.
The fire risk posed by a ground mounted solar project is negligible and completely addressable with normal firefighting protocols. The flammable components of PV panels include the thin layers of polymer encapsulates surrounding the PV cells, polymer backsheets (framed panels only), plastic junction boxes on rear of panel, and insulation on wiring. The rest of the panel is composed of non-flammable components, notably including one or two layers of protective glass that make up over three quarters of the panel’s weight.(2)
Claim No. 4 – Noise Nuisance:
The constant humming noise generated by panel inverters and zero regulations imposed for the inverting stations at solar farm sites can become a significant nuisance for nearby residents who deserve peace and quiet in their own homes.
Solar projects create virtually no noise. The energy is generated silently as photons pass through the panel and are converted to energy. Inverters emit a low hum between 60-70 decibels measured at 3 feet however, sound dissipates very quickly over distance and many studies have found that at 150 feet, inverter noise is the same as background noise.(3)
As noted, Linn County regulations require 500 foot setbacks from neighbors. There is no noise from a solar project at night.
Claim No. 5 – Property Devaluation:
Numerous studies have shown that living near solar farms can negatively impact property values. This devaluation can have severe financial consequences for homeowners who have invested their hard-earned money into their properties.
The definitive study on this issue was recently completed by the Dept. of Energy’s Lawrence Berkley Lab and it found that there’s no impact on property sale prices for properties located within a mile of a renewable energy project.(4)
Claim No. 6 – Lack of Setback Regulations:
The absence of proper regulations on setbacks with residential homes and inverting stations poses a direct threat to the safety and well-being of nearby residents. It is crucial to establish clear guidelines that ensure an adequate distance between these stations and residential areas.
The Linn County Board has established stringent setback standards for solar projects from neighboring properties. A solar project must be set back 100 feet from a road and 500 feet from a neighboring residential property.(5)
Claim No. 7 – Intrusion on Historic Sites and Scenic Byways:
Solar farm installations proposed would surround or encroach upon historic sites, scenic byways, and other culturally significant areas, diminishing their value and destroying the visual appeal that attracts visitors to our county.
Linn County has already passed a solar ordinance that prevents any “encroachment” on historic sites, scenic byways, and other culturally significant areas with extensive set backs and screening requirements for solar projects.
Claim No. 8 – Ineffective Code Enforcement:
The county's current inability to enforce codes set for solar farms raises concerns about the overall effectiveness of these regulations. It is essential that we address this issue promptly to ensure compliance with necessary safety measures.
Good businesses prefer effective regulation because it assures the public that the law is being met and enforced. Solar developers are no different and code enforcement is something we happily deal and look forward to working with the public and Linn County officials on code enforcement.
Josh Framel is a senior manager of development for Clearway Energy Group, a San Francisco-based company that has been working to develop solar energy in Linn County.