Wind Power: New Shade of Green Dominates Iowa Landscape, Part 2

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This is Part 2 in my two-part series about the growth of wind power in Iowa. Click here to read Part 1.Walnut, Iowa, has always drawn a regular stream of visitors coming to shop in the proliferation of antique stores lining its quaintly picturesque downtown streets. But in recent months, tourists have also been pulling off Highway 80 just to get a closer look at the 102 monstrously huge wind turbines towering over Walnut. The 263-foot stem of the steel flowers surpasses the height of the Statue of Liberty's torch, with the 126-foot rotor blades extending their topmost reach closer to the heavens.

Since June, Julia Byron has sold about 80 T-shirts and a couple hundred beer cozies labeling Walnut as the "Antique City" and "Wind Mill City," with a silk-screen graphic of the turbines. The T-shirts and cozies are being produced by a local couple's small business, KDC Printing, which can use the extra commerce after suffering a decline from the recession. The man who designed the graphic was one of the 300 temporary residents in town building the wind farm. He had joined the band of traveling construction gypsies moving from one wind power development site to another after losing his job in an automotive assembly plant in Michigan.

The construction crew brought on a few unemployed local boys, who have stayed on to follow the work to the next Iowa wind farm in progress. Those construction workers who took up residence in Walnut from August 2008 until April 2009 temporarily increased the small town's population by about 30 percent. Their dollars gave a quick infusion of cash to the local grocery stores, restaurants, bars, gas stations, hotels, and residents who rented them rooms.

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For the 60 landowners who became wind farmers, the direct economic stimulus will be more lasting, which will ultimately have the secondary effect of supporting local businesses. Those who signed up to have their land surveyed for a possible wind turbine site earned $5 per acre in an initial payout from MidAmerican Energy, the largest utility company in Iowa and a subsidiary of Warren Buffet's Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway. If one's property was not chosen to host one of the 102 turbines now standing, Mid-American still pays $10 per acre annually just to reserve the option for future construction. Each turbine requires a half-acre of land, the use of which earns the owner an initial easement payment, plus a first year's rent of $3500, with a scheduled annual increase of 2 percent.  I haven't yet formed an opinion on whether the wind farmers' compensation seems appropriate when viewed in context with the profit MidAmerican can expect to gain, but I welcome readers to contribute their views below about that issue.

Leo and Jeanette Rechtenbach don't have a turbine on their own property, but do host the "met tower," which possesses all the meteorological instrumentation needed to determine wind speed and direction, acting as a computerized maestro conducting the entire farm's performance. The couple also earned a good sale price for nine acres Mid-American purchased for the substation.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses.

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