Waukee is close to allowing ground-mounted residential solar energy systems — but only at homes on large plots of land.
The change would not allow the same kind of flexibility that other homeowners in the Des Moines metro have to decide what kinds of solar panels work best for their homes. But it still would be a first for Waukee and part of a growing trend across Iowa in homeowners who choose solar energy.
For the owner of what could be the first ground-mounted residential solar panels in the city, it’s about lowering his electric bill.
Ron Grubb has lived on five acres of land in Waukee for about 25 years. He has a large home with a pool and a pool house that runs up his electric bill.
Grubb said he wants to eliminate that bill and has turned to solar panels as the solution. But while Waukee allows roof-mounted panels, Grubb, a homebuilder and owner of Jerry’s Homes, said he “would never encourage anyone to drill any holes in their roof.”
So he went to the city to request a change in its code. The Waukee City Council will consider an ordinance Monday to allow ground-mounted solar panels in backyards in three zoning districts: agricultural land intended for future urban development, agricultural areas tabbed for large-lot residential development, and single-family residential areas.
However, the change would not make all homes eligible for having ground-mounted solar panels, according to Andy Kass, the city’s community development director, because the code would require them on larger lots.
“The minimum required acreage is two acres and there aren’t that many single-family lots that large in our community,” Kass said.
Yet allowing both options gives homeowners more flexibility in choosing alternative energy sources, said Kerri Johannsen, energy program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, an environmental advocacy nonprofit. Some roofs may be too shaded, have an odd shape or are not structurally sound for panels, she said, “so allowing ground-mount systems could make it feasible for some who wouldn’t otherwise be able to make it work.”
“Allowing ground-mounted systems is a more flexible option and definitely restricting to roof mount only can cause people to lose out,” Johannsen said.
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Where ground-mounted solar panels are allowed in the Des Moines metro
Most cities in the Des Moines metro allow for both ground-mounted and roof-mounted solar panels on homes, according to city officials, though laws vary:
- Altoona — Roof-mounted panels can be placed on homes, garages and other structures so long as building and electrical codes are followed. Ground-mounted panels must be placed in an area that allows for a clear view of the sky.
- Ankeny — Solar panels are allowed in any zoning district so long as there’s a building permit and all code requirements are met.
- Des Moines—Panels are allowed in five kinds of residential zoning districts that primarily are for one- and two-household homes. There are code requirements for building-mounted or freestanding panels that must be met.
- Grimes—Solar panels are allowed in all zoning districts so long as building code and zoning regulations are met.
- Johnston — Solar energy systems must meet code requirements.
- Urbandale — Solar panels are allowed for residential and non-residential properties but must have building permits. Ground-mounted systems must meet the minimum setbacks and maximum height regulations for accessory structures.
- Windsor Heights — Building and electrical permits are required before work on installation can begin.
- West Des Moines — Solar panels are allowed for all single-family residential zoning districts in the city. Rooftop systems can be as large as the available roof area minus any required setbacks or fire access paths. Ground-mounted systems are considered accessory structures and must meet relevant code requirements.
There also may be specific rules of homeowners’ associations.
Ground-mounted systems are not allowed in most residential areas of Clive, according to city spokesperson and assistant city manager Pete De Kock. A special use permit is required for ground-mounted solar panels where they are allowed in commercial and some residential areas, he said.
The share of solar power capacity in Iowa from homes grows
Most new installation of solar energy systems in Iowa through last year continued to be driven by utility companies, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
But the power-generating capacity added in the state by new residential solar panel installation has been growing since 2018. In 2022, home panels surpassed the capacity added by newly installed panels on commercial properties, according to the association.
Prices for residential installation of an average 5 kilowatt or 6 kilowatt system can run up to $20,000 or more, according to various industry and news sources.
Scott Prohaska, executive vice president of 1 Source Solar — the Ankeny-based company Grubb is working with for his home — said Grubb’s prospective 28 kilowatt system could cost between $68,000 and $70,000, before deducting a federal tax credit.
The federal government last year extended a tax credit for home solar installation through December 2034 and increased the credit to repay 30% of installation costs.
Johannsen said the federal tax credit helped contribute to a jump in solar panel installation between 2021 and 2022. But there’s also been a “big uptick” in Iowa that started in 2020 when Iowa passed a law that allows for meter netting — when any excess power is sent back to the grid and credited to the customer. MidAmerican Energy Co. And Alliant Energy both provide net metering.
Johannsen said that higher electric rates make solar energy more economical because it means faster payback on the cost of a system.
“This law provided certainty that policy would be stable and favorable for customer-owned solar in Iowa for years into the future,” she said.
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Phillip Sitter covers suburban growth and development for the Des Moines Register. Phillip can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.