Local tours an opportunity to see solar energy’s growing role up close

Des Moines area legislators Rep. Kevin Koester, Sen. Janet Petersen, and Sen. Brad Zaun recently joined Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association (ISETA) president Tim Dwight on a tour of prominent solar installations in the Des Moines metro area.

L to R:  Rep. Kevin Koester, Sen. Janet Petersen, Tim Dwight, and Sen. Brad Zaun discuss solar energy's potential for Iowa during a press availability.

L to R: Rep. Kevin Koester, Sen. Janet Petersen, Tim Dwight, and Sen. Brad Zaun discuss solar energy’s potential for Iowa during a press availability.

The purpose of the tour was to highlight solar installations already helping local businesses and organizations take control of rising energy costs and reduce their environmental footprint.  It was also an opportunity to discuss issues facing Iowa’s emerging solar energy industry.

Organized by the Environmental Law and Policy Center and also sponsored by the Iowa Environmental Council and ISETA, the November tour follows one other earlier this year that visited sites in Dubuque and Decorah.

Covering the tour, the Des Moines Register’s William Petroski reported the legislators “went home impressed,” with what they saw.  State Sen. Janet Petersen told reporters, “It is great to see what happens when we put policies in place and actually see them implemented.”

Indeed, discussion of solar energy among policymakers in Iowa has been on the increase recently, after lawmakers created a new tax credit for residential and business solar installations in 2012 and an innovative approach to financing solar projects, known as a “third party power purchase agreement” received a green light from an Iowa District Court this spring (although this approach is on hold while opponents pursue an appeal).

Solar energy has tremendous potential in Iowa, which according to federal data has the nation’s 16th best potential for generating energy from sunlight.  The cost of solar energy technologies has fallen rapidly in recent years, making such installations more attractive than ever.

At the same time, numerous permitting and regulatory barriers in Iowa still remain as roadblocks to even greater use of solar energy. In a recent panel discussion at the Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, one solar installer, Jon Dwight of Solar Planet,  said this red tape is the “biggest barrier to us right now.”  He said in the Dubuque area, regulatory hurdles can lead to a three-to-four-month approval delay for solar projects.

Fortunately, in November, the Iowa Economic Development Authority announced the creation of the Iowa Statewide Solar Readiness Initiative, a major new U.S. Department of Energy-funded effort to reduce regulatory barriers and other “soft costs” of solar energy.  The Iowa Environmental Council and Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities are partnering on that effort.

In 2012, Iowa led the Midwest in renewable energy installations, though Iowa’s leadership primarily depends on the wind industry.  Through 2012, the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) tallied 5,133 megawatts of wind energy installed in Iowa, but only 1.2 MW of solar energy.

Legislators and solar energy experts inspect a solar array at Van Meter Inc. in Urbandale.

Legislators and solar energy experts inspect a solar array at Van Meter Inc. in Urbandale.

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