Wind Power: New Shade of Green Dominates Iowa Landscape


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.

windpower.JPGA recent study of wind patterns in the Great Plains, conducted by Harvard University and published in Proceedings, determined that the swath of land from North Dakota down to Texas has the potential to produce 16 times the average amount of electricity consumed by the entire country. But the current electrical grid could not handle the transmission of that kind of power from the heartland to the coasts. With a better grid in place, I like to imagine Iowa, Oklahoma, and Nebraska becoming like the Iran, UAE or Saudi Arabia of wind power--minus the authoritarian regimes, abuse of women, and financing of religious extremists. For a variety of reasons, Iowa has fared relatively well during the recession, as compared to other areas of the country. They never had the kind of real estate bubble that has led to a sharp crash in many areas. The manufacturing sector--which just edges out agri-related business in proportional terms of the state's economy--has taken a hit, the primary cause of the roughly 2 percent increase in unemployment. But still, currently at 6.2 percent unemployment, Iowa ranks sixth in the country as the best place for jobs.

I would never try to argue that the growth of the wind power industry in Iowa has been the sole factor protecting the state from ill-effects of the recession. In fact, readers may have noticed that I am not even plying in various projections regarding the number of green jobs stimulus money will help create. Every faction putting forth estimates on that subject has a motivation to adopt either an overly rosy or overly pessimistic perspective. Considering the number of factors that could come to play in the long-term outlook, I don't actually believe it possible to assess that figure with any reasonable degree of accuracy. However, jobs will inevitably be created by the expansion of any new industry--particularly one that taps into the vision of that inevitable future in which fossil fuels will increasingly become an anachronism.

For Julia Byron, owner of Old Tyme Quilting in Walnut, the prospect of job growth isn't the biggest reason why wind farms benefit the nation: "We should be tapping into our own resources in this country, instead of relying on other countries." Her friend Elaine Snedden barely looks up from working on the double wedding ring quilt between them to add her own comment: "Yes. Wind, water, and sun."

Unlike those who advocate expanding US oil exploration, Julia and Elaine understand that domestic production of a global commodity does nothing to achieve real energy independence, and ignores a wide range of dire environmental consequences. Compared with fossil fuels, wind power is pristinely clean. Barring any Armageddon-like environmental catastrophe, the supply won't run out. Since wind power can't be bottled and shipped overseas, the domestic market will grow insulation against price fluctuations caused by wars halfway around the world.

To dial this back down to the micro view, in Walnut, Iowa--a small town of 900 residents--it's clear that the arrival of a new green industry has had more far-reaching effects than simply the number of jobs directly created by the wind farm.

To read more about how the new wind farm has affected life in Walnut, come back tomorrow for Part 2 of the Iowa Wind Power series.