from the Iowa District Court for Palo Alto County, Nancy L.
appeal a district court order affirming a declaratory order
issued by the Iowa Utilities Board.
Wallace L. Taylor of Law Offices of Wallace L. Taylor, Cedar
Rapids, and John M. Murray of Murray and Murray, Storm Lake,
I. Wright II, Assistant General Counsel, and Emily Willits,
Assistant Attorney General, for appellee Iowa Utilities
A. Dublinske and Brant M. Leonard of Fredrikson & Byron,
P.A., Des Moines, for appellees Palo Alto Wind Energy, L.L.C.
and MidAmerican Energy Company.
K. Tipton and Haley R. Van Loon of Brown, Winick, Graves,
Gross, Baskerville & Schoenebaum, PLC, Des Moines, and
Peter C. Hart, Palo Alto County Attorney, for appellee Palo
Alto County Board of Supervisors.
case we are asked to review a longstanding Iowa Utilities
Board (IUB) legal standard for when a series of wind turbines
constitute an "electric power generating plant or
combination of plants at a single site" within the
meaning of Iowa Code section 476A.1(5) (2017). The statute
itself does not provide an obvious answer. Each wind turbine
on its own generates energy, but wind turbines are often
combined into "wind farms" or "wind
projects" dispersed over a wide geographic area. So what
is "a single site"?
1997, in over twenty separate proceedings, the IUB has
provided a consistent middle-path answer. It has ruled that
for wind energy purposes all turbines connected to a single
gathering line shall be considered a "single site"
or "facility." Turbines connected to separate
gathering lines are treated by the IUB as different sites or
facilities. This ruling means that a large wind project may
avoid the need for a certificate of public convenience, use,
and necessity because it does not meet certain minimum power
output requirements, although the IUB has authority to waive
that requirement in some circumstances in any event.
landowners in Palo Alto County are challenging a large
170-turbine wind project. They contend the IUB should have
exercised jurisdiction over it by treating it as one
facility. The IUB declined to require a certificate for the
facility because, under the common-gathering-line standard,
it did not exceed the minimum power output requirements. This
meant that the County, rather than the IUB, had primary
oversight over the project. The district court upheld the
review, we conclude the legislature has not clearly vested
the IUB with authority to interpret Iowa Code section
476A.1(5). Nonetheless, after reviewing the chapter as a
whole and considering other factors relevant to statutory
interpretation, we cannot find fault with the IUB's
interpretation of an inherently ambiguous term. For this
reason, we affirm the judgment of the district court
upholding the IUB's declaratory order.
Facts and Procedural History.
case involves a wind energy project in Palo Alto County
consisting of 170 wind turbines. Each turbine has a capacity
of two megawatts; the overall capacity of the project is up
to 340 megawatts of energy.
Alto Wind Energy, L.L.C. (PAWE) submitted a "site
plan" to the County for the project. The project extends
over a wide swath of farmland-approximately 50, 000 acres
(about eighty square miles) in four separate townships.
turbine would have a hub height of 95 meters and a rotor
diameter of 110 meters. Thus, from the ground to the tip of
the rotor would measure 150 meters.
and Stephen Mathis live in Palo Alto County. On December 5,
2017, they filed a petition for declaratory order with the
IUB. The Mathises sought a ruling that the project was a
"facility" within the meaning of Iowa Code section
476A.1(5) for which a certificate of public convenience, use,
and necessity from the IUB was required before the project
could go forward.
Code section 476A.1(5) defines a facility as
any electric power generating plant or a combination of
plants at a single site, owned by any person, with a
total capacity of twenty-five megawatts of electricity or
more and those associated transmission lines connecting
the generating plant to either a power transmission system or
an interconnected primary transmission system or both.
Iowa Code § 476A.1(5) (emphasis added).
1997, in recognition of the "single site" language
in the definition of "facility," the IUB has
consistently taken the position that a wind project
comprising multiple turbines and extending over a geographic
expanse does not constitute a single "facility."
Rather, in the context of a wind energy project,"
'facility' refers to the wind turbines connected to a
common gathering line." Zond Dev. Corp., Docket
Nos. DRU-97-5, DRU-97-6, at 6 (November 6, 1997). Thus, in
Zond, where the wind turbines were dispersed over 20
square miles (for one project) and 15 square miles (for
another), but the subset of turbines connected to a common
gathering line never exceeded twenty-five megawatts in power
capacity, the IUB concluded that there was no covered
"facility" for which a certificate of public
convenience, use, and necessity was required. Id. at
5, 6. It is not disputed that the IUB has followed
Zond in approximately twenty different regulatory
proceedings since 1997.
December 22, 2017, the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors
(Board), MidAmerican Energy Company (MidAmerican), PAWE, the
Environmental Law & Policy Center, and the Iowa
Environmental Council were granted leave to intervene in the
Mathises' declaratory order proceeding. Later, Interstate
Power and Light was allowed to intervene.
February 2, 2018, the Iowa Utilities Board issued its
declaratory order, finding,
The Board has ruled on the issue presented by Petitioners on
several prior occasions, beginning with its order in Zond
Development Corporation, Docket Nos. DRU-97-5 and
DRU-97-6. In Zond, the Board found that
"facility" "refers to the wind turbines
connected to a common gathering line." Zond,
"Declaratory Ruling" (November 6, 1997). On
multiple occasions the Board has confirmed the gathering line
standard as its interpretation of "facility."
See e.g., MWW Holdings, LLC and Storm Lake Power Partners
I, LLC, "Order Granting Waiver," Docket No.
WRU-2015-0001-3700 (February 6, 2015) ("[I]f the
capacity of turbines connected to a single gathering or
feeder line is less than 25 MW of nameplate capacity, there
is no facility as defined in Iowa Code §
476A.1(5)."); MidAmerican Energy Company,
"Declaratory Order," Docker No. DRU-03-3 (June 6,
2003) ("[T]he term 'facility' refers to the wind
turbines connected to a common gathering line at a single
The Petitioners request that the Board reconsider its prior
decisions on this issue and find that the Project meets the
definition of a facility even though it will have less than
25 MW of capacity on any gathering line. However, Petitioners
have presented no compelling justification to overturn this
well-established Board precedent, nor have Petitioners
distinguished the facts and circumstances surrounding the
Project from any of the other wind energy projects that the
Board has considered when finding that the term
"facility" refers to the wind turbines connected to
a common gathering line at a single site. Further, the Board
issued the Zond decision on November 6, 1997. Since
that decision, the Legislature has not taken action to modify
the statutory language or otherwise addressed the Board's
interpretation. Nor has any court addressed the issue.
For the foregoing reasons, the Board reaffirms its
longstanding determination that the term "facility"
is measured by the nameplate generating capacity of the wind
turbines connected to a single gathering line.
February 5, the Mathises filed a petition for judicial review
pursuant to Iowa Code section 17A.19 in the Iowa District
Court for Palo Alto County. The IUB, PAWE, and MidAmerican
answered. Subsequently, the Board intervened and answered as
3, the district court entered a ruling affirming the
IUB's declaratory order. It concluded,
[T]he IUB's interpretation of the meaning of
"facility" under Iowa Code § 476A.1(5) as
referring to the wind turbines connected to a common
gathering line at a single site was well within the grant of
authority made by the legislature to the Board and the Court
does not find substantial evidence or reason in this record
why it should not give deference to the IUB's
interpretation. Further, as is discussed herein below, on
this record this Court is unable to conclude that the
IUB's actions or decision have been irrational,