A capricious Mother Nature, brandishing weapons of deluge, drought, scorching heat, and frost, has long possessed a power to destroy the livelihood of farming families populating small prairie towns like Walnut, Iowa. In a state where more than 85 percent of the land is devoted to agricultural purposes, talking about the weather represents a culturally-ingrained aspect of discourse. But these days the focus of that conversation is changing in Walnut, home to the state's newest large-scale wind farm.
"The conversation when you're out for coffee now is: 'You think the wind is blowing enough to get 'em going today?,'" Leo Rechtenbach says, referring to the 102 wind turbines that sprouted from fields and pastures of his rural community in the past year. Leo and his wife, Jeanette, belong to a growing population of Iowa wind farmers. These people don't actually have to perform any kind of sunburnt backbreaking toil resembling traditional farming; they just have to rent small parcels of their land to an energy company, then sit back and watch as the modernistic windmills shoot up from the earth like albino sunflowers hybridized with Jack's beanstalk.
The power of wind represents the fastest growing energy source in the world, and the United States has been nurturing the fastest growing market for it over the past few years. The Department of Energy's target to have wind power producing 20 percent of the country's energy needs by 2030 is a distant goal--the proportion currently stands slightly below 2 percent--but in terms of megawattage, the numbers doubled from 26,589 mw in 2006 to 52,026 mw in 2008. While so many industries have been crippled under the economic weight of the recession, wind power has continued to enjoy a rapid expansion.
Iowa has been on the leading edge of the industry's growth, as the scattered patches of wind turbines now dotting the state's landscape can attest. According to the Iowa Utilities Board, in 2006 wind power represented 5 percent of the energy produced in the state, but now has reached 15 to 17 percent. When it hit the 2,791 mw capacity in late 2008, Iowa surpassed California's ranking as the second-most wind power-producing state. It has a distant target to catch Texas, which produces more than 8,000 mw. The latest figures from June 2009 indicate Iowa has now increased to 3,043 mw, which show a slight slowdown in the industry's growth, primarily resulting from the recession's credit crunch tightening the available investment capital energy companies need to develop new projects.
Money allocated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has not yet reached a point of implementation that would re-charge the industry's growth, but the wheels are turning in that direction. The application process just began for $3 billion worth of grants to be distributed by the Treasury Department and $8.5 billion in loan guarantees by the Department of Energy designated to help underwrite renewable energy projects, now that private investors have stopped purchasing the tax credits that helped fund new development in better times. The state of Iowa received $40.5 million worth of stimulus money for grants and loans to assist smaller-scale renewable energy projects. Sean Bagniewski of the Iowa Office of Energy Independence hopes they'll be announcing the awards next month, and says the number of new jobs a project will create "is the number one thing we're looking at" in assessing proposals.
The Department of Energy has $93 million of ARRA funds to finance mostly research and development projects devoted to making wind turbines more productive an efficient and advancing wind power technology. The stimulus package has also designated $20 billion in spending and loan guarantees to develop a bigger and more efficient or smarter grid, which will be a critical component to making full use of wind power's potential in the United States--an undertaking some have likened to the construction of the East to West Coast railroad, or the nation's highway system.