Last summer, powerful winds from a derecho took Iowa’s only nuclear power plant out of commission. Because it was already slated for closure just two months later, the facility’s owners decided not to bring it back online, and it’s been sitting idle since last August. But there’s a plan to breathe new life into the Duane Arnold nuclear plant, resurrecting it as a massive renewable energy project.
NextEra Energy first announced the plans to construct a $700 million solar farm where the nuclear plant once stood in a meeting with nearby landowners last week. While the eastern Iowa nuclear plant generated 619 megawatts of power—almost 8% of the state’s power generation and enough to power 600,000 homes—the new solar project would produce 690 megawatts and also be home to 60 megawatts of battery storage, allowing unused energy to be captured when demand is lower. The firm says it could also create about $41.6 million in tax revenue and result in $50 million in payments to the landowners where it is built. Building it would also create up to 300 construction jobs.
NextEra wants to move quickly on this. The company plans to negotiate leases for the 3,500-acre proposal with landowners this coming summer and begin construction by winter 2022. If it can win necessary local and state permits, the project could begin operating by the end of 2023.
The company first announced plans to retire the nuclear power plant in 2019, telling the local paper the Gazette that it no longer fit the needs of Iowa’s energy portfolio. Compared with other nuclear reactors, the plant was generating energy inefficiently; other similar plants of its size tend to generate between 200 and 300 more megawatts of power, “so our costs are spread across fewer megawatts,” its director told the outlet.
The plans to close the plant weren’t agreeable to everyone, and raised eternal questions about whether or not nuclear power should be considered a clean energy source. Though nuclear power is itself carbon-free, the material used to generate energy, uranium, is not renewable and has historically been extracted in ways that disproportionately hurt disadvantaged communities. The process of generating power from nukes also creates toxic nuclear waste. In the 1990s, exposure to waste from the Duane Arnold plant was linked to increased rates of cancer. And though inspectors deemed it safe more recently, the derecho still managed to do damage last year. It has also continually been falling into disrepair, and nuclear plants are notoriously difficult to fix.
Replacing it with a solar farm would mitigate much of the toxic waste generation and risk of a public health disaster (pretty sure we’re not going to see a solar spill or meltdown anytime soon). And Iowa has a pretty good track record on renewables, becoming something of a leader in the Midwest. In 1983, it became the first state to pass a Renewable Portfolio Standard to set clean energy goals. According to federal data, the state currently obtains 42% of its energy from its 5,100 wind turbines, which is the highest wind power share for any state. Iowa is also home to six grid-connected solar farms that produce 110 megawatts of energy, and has 850 more megawatts already under construction. Last year, the capital of Des Moines became the first city in the state to pass a resolution to reach 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035.
But the state still has a ways to go to completely decarbonize its electricity sector. A 2020 analysis from the Iowa Environment Council suggests that the state would still need a minimum of 5,000 megawatts of solar power to provide provide 100% carbon-free electricity to all state residents. If the new solar farm produces more energy than the old plant did, that could bring the state that much closer to getting off oil and gas. And if it can produce energy more efficiently than its nuclear predecessor, that could translate to savings on Iowans’ energy bills, which is something everyone can get behind.