Survey: Iowans Prefer Electric Suppliers Invest in Solar over Wind, Nuclear, Fossil Fuels

Hongli Feng, Economics, 515-294-6740;
Nathan Cook, Communications, 515-294-3809;

March 22, 2024

Ames, IA – In 2022, wind power accounted for 62% of Iowa’s electricity net generation, according to the US Energy Information Administration. In fact, Iowa’s wind power industry has grown so much that only one state—Texas—produces more of its own electricity from wind.

However, despite Iowa’s growth in wind power, a new survey reveals most Iowans prefer that electricity suppliers invest in solar energy in their communities in the future.

“Solar energy can help diversify Iowa’s renewable energy portfolio. While Iowa leads the country in the share of wind electricity generation, solar energy currently contributes only a small fraction of the total electricity generation,” said Dr. Hongli Feng, an economist at Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development.

Feng was responsible for the survey, which drew on responses from public officials and the general population to find what leads to local communities supporting, or not supporting, new utility-scale solar arrays. How local communities perceive the challenges and benefits of these projects is a key consideration, as the projects often rely on public support.

Feng said the survey shows Iowans support electricity suppliers investing in solar energy over fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, or oil), wind, nuclear, and "other" types of electricity generation—39% of respondents picked solar as their first choice, with an additional 37% and 15% choosing it as their second and third choice, respectively.

Overall, over 70% of respondents expressed either moderate, strong, or extremely strong support for their communities hosting a utility-scale solar project. “I am somewhat surprised by this finding, given not-uncommon headline news in recent times about moratoriums on solar energy projects,” Feng said.

Respondents, both public officials and the general population, say local benefits such as reduced electricity bills (72%), increased resilience during electricity-disrupting disasters (62%), and, reduced carbon and other air pollutant emissions (59%) are crucial in their attitudes toward adopting utility-scale solar projects within their communities.

While the survey didn’t ask why Iowans don’t support solar projects within their communities, it did ask them to rate the potential challenges associated with those projects. Key concerns included lack of favorable public opinions (37%), high initial investment costs (44%), and land use—mostly a loss of farmland (51%).

Iowans concerns about land use are specific to solar energy projects. “Non-renewable resource-based power plants, such as coal, require less land per unit of energy production and the land does not have to be in sunny flat spots.” Feng said. “Both (productive) agricultural land and land suitable for solar farms typically feature flat terrain, sufficient sun exposure, and few obstructions, which means solar competes with agriculture for land.”

The survey focused on utility-scale solar projects and did not consider agrivoltaics—using land for both solar energy and agricultural production. However, dual use projects could possibly garner more support.

“Given its potential to mitigate concerns about agricultural land use, agrivoltaics will likely enhance the acceptance of utility-scale solar projects among the public,” Feng said.

According to 39% of public officials, differing opinions on zoning is the primary challenge to adopting regulations for utility-scale solar projects. The survey results point to setbacks as one possible point of disagreement among community members. Only 24% of respondents agreed on the most popular answer—a 101–200 foot setback from a non-participating parcel to the solar array. The second-most popular response was a setback exceeding 300 feet, which only garnered support from 21% of respondents.

“We've heard from respondents who commented in the survey that clear setback regulations are crucial to safeguard private property rights, particularly for non-participating individuals,” Feng said. “Some respondents expressed worries about negative aesthetic impacts on neighbors, and simply personal dislike of utility-scale solar projects due to alterations to the current landscape in their communities.”

Despite the disagreements over zoning specifics, more than half (57%) of public officials expressed strong support for having a utility-scale solar zoning ordinance.

However, Feng noted, support for a zoning ordinance should not be interpreted as support for local solar projects in a community. “Public officials may desire clear zoning ordinances while simultaneously imposing strict regulations against utility-scale solar projects within their jurisdiction,” she said.

Lastly, a self-reported lack of knowledge about utility-scale solar projects could hinder development. Among respondents, 59% of public officials and 85% of the general population reported a low level of knowledge about utility-scale solar systems.

“Public officials are likely more knowledgeable about utility-scale solar projects and zoning regulations due to their closer involvement in the making and implementation of ordinances. They are also more likely to be aware of the needs and benefits of more clarity in regulations,” Feng said. “The general population may not be as informed also due to the limited presence of utility-scale solar projects in Iowa.”

For over 60 years, the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University has conducted innovative public policy and economic research on local, regional, and global agricultural issues, combining academic excellence with engagement and anticipatory thinking to inform and benefit society.