Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could affect future wind power regulation

By: Rox Laird on April 1st, 2019

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Forest City April 2 in a case that raises for the first time a question about how Iowa law regulating approval of electric generating facilities applies to wind energy projects.

The argument, which is open to the public, will begin at 7 p.m. in the Boman Fine Arts Center in Forest City.

The Court will hear arguments in two cases, both of which involve Palo Alto County residents’ challenge to a plan by Palo Alto Wind Energy and MidAmerican Energy to build a 170-turbine wind farm spread over 100 square miles. Bertha Mathis and Stephen Mathis appealed decisions by the Palo Alto County District Court dismissing the plaintiffs’ lawsuits, one against the Iowa Utilities Board and a second against the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors.

In their challenge to the Iowa Utilities Board’s action regarding the proposed wind farm, the Mathises argue the board should have required the developers to obtain a certificate of public convenience, use and necessity, which would have required an extensive study of the project’s impact on the environment and affected residents. Their lawsuit against Palo Alto County, joined by five other residents, challenged the Board of Supervisors’ process for approving the project under a new zoning ordinance.

At the heart of the suit against the Utilities Board is the statutory definition of an “electric generating facility” as applied to wind farms. The Board adopted rules interpreting the statute to apply not to a wind farm as a whole but to a smaller collection of wind turbines within a wind farm that are linked to a central power substation. Under that definition, those turbines are exempt from the certification requirement. The plaintiffs believe the definition should encompass the entire 170-turbine project, which would require certification triggering environmental impact studies and other regulations.

The Mathises, in a brief filed with the Court, say they are not opposed to wind energy.

“But wind energy projects must be sited properly,” they state. “The petitioners are simply asking that the Iowa Utilities Board not shirk its duty to, as stated in Iowa Code § 476A.6(3), ensure that a wind energy project ‘will be consistent with reasonable land use and environmental policies and consonant with reasonable utilization of air, land and water resources, considering available technology and the economics of available alternatives.’ ”

How the Court decides the case involving the Iowa Utilities Board’s regulation of wind farms could have a major impact on wind energy in Iowa in the Future, the IUB argues in its brief filed with the Court. A decision against the IUB’s longstanding precedents regarding certification of wind farms “could cast uncertainty on billions of dollars in existing and planned wind energy development projects.”

“The issue whether most large wind farms, as currently designed, need to be certified by the IUB under Chapter 476A has been the subject of several rulings over the past 20 years, all coming to the same conclusion, that a certificate is not required,” comments Nyemaster Goode attorney Kathy Law. Law, who represents wind energy developers, notes that “developers have relied on the interpretation of a ‘facility’ under Section 476A.1, have invested billions of dollars in Iowa, creating good-paying jobs, a stable source of income for participating landowners, improving infrastructure in the counties in which the projects are built, and significant tax revenues from the counties from the taxation of the wind facilities.”

(Go to the On Brief Cases in the Pipeline page to read briefs filed by the parties in Mathis v. Iowa Utilities Board, et al. and Mathis, et al. v. Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors, et al.)

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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