AMES, Iowa — It was one of the biggest games of the still-young 2011 college football season and the hottest ticket in town.
The undefeated Iowa State Cyclones hosted the undefeated Texas Longhorns in the Big 12 opener.
Seizing on the chance for some publicity, the American Wind Energy Association , or AWEA, dubbed the game “The Wind Bowl” as the contest matched the state that produces the most wind energy (Texas) against the one that gets the highest percentage of its power from wind (Iowa).
Some of AWEA’s top organizers came in from Washington D.C., set up a red-and-gold topped tailgating tent in parking Lot C6 just across the street from Jack Trice Stadium and catered in game-day fare.
There, under a clear October sky, the lobbyists chatted with VIPs such as Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds about wind power, what it has meant to the state and what the association’s members feel needs to be done to keep turbine blades turning.
The game was a blowout. Texas 37, Iowa State 14. But the lobbyists were able to get their point across. The production tax credit — a key government subsidy to wind power — is set to expire in December 2012 and the association wants some help to keep it going beyond that.
Thirty years ago, Iowa’s wind industry was little more than a smattering of windmills dotting the rural landscape. Now, propelled by advances in technology, government support, the instability of the foreign energy market and the cachet of clean, renewable energy, it’s a multimillion-dollar behemoth.
It supports more than 3,000 Iowa jobs worth a combined payroll upwards of $70 million a year, according to association figures, and landowners make roughly $12.6 million a year in lease payments hosting turbines on their land. Currently, the state’s 2,800 wind turbines can pump out 4,375 megawatts at maximum capacity — second in the nation behind Texas’ 10,000 megawatts and ahead of California’s 3,100 — with a goal to increase that capacity to 20,000 megawatts by 2030.
“The story in Iowa can be held up as a great case study on how to do it right,” said Elizabeth Salerno, director of data and analysis for the AWEA. The association is the premier wind power advocacy group in the nation, having raised more than $32.8 million in 2009 and $22.5 million in 2008 to support its lobbying efforts, according to tax records.
But why is Iowa a case study as compared with any other state in the union? Why not Nebraska, Oregon or Maine? Salerno gives four reasons.
“Iowa started early and it has great wind resources,” she said. “It has available land, and farmers see having a turbine as just having a different type of crop. Fourth, Iowa has taken a lead in attracting companies that manufacture components.”
First in the nation
There’s a north-south wind tunnel that cuts the country in half. Stretching from the Canadian border in North Dakota down to the northern half of Texas, it covers most or large parts of South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, Wyoming and Iowa.
At 262 feet above the ground, wind speeds in this tunnel average about 20.1 mph. In much of the rest of the country, wind speeds at the same elevation run at 8.7 mph or less. As a result, Iowa is known as the seventh-windiest state in the country.
The wind speed rank alone makes Iowa — particularly the northern and northwestern parts of the state where it is windiest — one of the best places to attempt to harness wind. But it wasn’t until 1983 when the state developed its Renewable Electricity Portfolio Standard which required that utility companies purchase — at a fixed price — power from renewable energy resources, that the industry got its toehold here.
“We’re in the farm crisis, this was a mechanism to provide some additional income for farmers at a time when they critically needed it,” said Gov. Terry Branstad, who signed the Renewable Electricity Portfolio Standard into law during his first term as Iowa governor.
Iowa’s law was the first of its type in the nation. It requires that investor-owned utilities in the state buy a combined total of 105 megawatts of renewable energy produced in the state. The law was not fully implemented until 1997 because of legal challenges, and a 2003 amendment allowed utilities to purchase or generate their own portion of the standard.
But back in 1983, it provided the first guaranteed market for wind energy.
“My recollection is it was a group from northwest Iowa that were the first people that were involved in this,” Branstad said. “The idea was to have this wind-generation standard that would provide some basic assurance to the people that build these wind generators that they would have a market for the electricity that was produced.”
Since then, the portfolio standard has been copied in 29 states. Texas, for example, requires 5,880 megawatts of generation by 2015, while Missouri requires 15 percent of its energy be renewable by 2021 and Illinois has a 25 percent goal by 2025.
“It was ’98 or ’99 and I remember being in Storm Lake for the dedication, there was another project going on in Lake Benton, Minnesota at the time; it was really those two projects that represented the change in the industry,” said Randy Swisher, who headed the AWEA from 1989-2009.
The first Storm Lake Wind Power Facility turbines went up in September 1999 in Alta. The wind farm now boasts 260 wind turbines which can generate 193 megawatts, or roughly enough to power 48,000 homes.
In Swisher’s view, Storm Lake was the first big push by utilities to replace fossil fuel generation with renewable generation.
“The mandates you had before that didn’t really work because the technology wasn’t ready for prime time,” he said. “(Wind energy) was still seen as something a farmer would use and maybe sell off what he didn’t to the power company.“
The technology was aided by a federal tax credit championed by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. Grassley helped shepherd the Wind Production Tax Credit through Congress in 1992.
The main benefit of the law is a 2.1-cent-per-kilowatt-hour rebate for the first 10 years of a renewable energy facility’s operation.
The effort earned Grassley the affectionate moniker “Father of the PTC” among wind energy types, and the senator has pushed for the tax credit extension each time it has lapsed. The next expiration is set for December 2012.
“The leadership in Iowa has always been very supportive,” said Swisher, who grew up in Atlantic and is a University of Iowa graduate. “There are people like (former Gov.) Chet Culver who would come to our industry trade shows and walk the floor, encouraging companies to locate in Iowa. He didn’t just give speeches.“
Culver, who began a wind power consulting business after losing his 2010 re-election bid, also started the $100 million Iowa Power Fund during his administration to underwrite alternative energy research and development projects in 2006.
At the time the fund shut down on June 30, 2011, it had committed more than $13.8 million in direct support and another $43.3 million in matching money to wind projects.
The funding helped attract turbine manufacturers such as Acciona in West Branch and Clipper Windpower in Cedar Rapids. The money has helped create an underground energy storage “park” in Dallas Center and underwritten labs at state universities where researchers are trying to make next-generation components.
But Culver’s most visible legacy to the wind industry in Iowa may have come in early 2009 when he sent word to the Department of Transportation committee working on the new drivers’ licenses about some of the elements he’d like to see incorporated into the design.
Every license issued since April 2009 includes sketches of an urban skyline, a rural farm and a wind turbine.
The next 30 years
“I am just really passionate about renewable energy,” Culver said as a way of explanation. He believes the push for wind power is “following in the footsteps” of Iowa’s own Norman Borlaug, whose development of disease-resistant wheat helped feed Africa.
Culver is one of a small army of consultants, investors, scientists, manufacturers and speculators placing their bets that wind will continue to take up a greater part of Iowa’s generation.
Iowa gets roughly 20 percent of its energy from wind. That’s about 8 percent more than second place North Dakota. But how far can it climb?
“I think 25 to 30 percent is a reasonable goal,” Branstad said.
Swisher, the former AWEA director, believes the states can look across the Atlantic for more ambitious plans.
“The Danes have a goal of 50 percent by 2030,” he says.
The prospect is certainly enticing.
“Each time you see that blade turn, the sound is ka-ching,” says retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, former commander of the United States’ Third Fleet, who now advocates for renewable energy from a national security standpoint.
It’s an argument that has gained traction among the Republican candidates for president. As former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich says in his stump speeches in Iowa, “I’d rather go into Iowa than Iraq. I’d rather go to South Dakota than Saudi Arabia.”
The main knock on wind energy is the blades only turn when it’s windy. That’s why, advocates say, the work of people like Iowa State University aerospace professor Vinay Dayal is so important.
Dayal and his colleagues are developing techniques to eliminate imperfections in the turbine blade manufacturing process at a lab supported with power fund money at ISU.
Specifically, Dayal is trying to work out the problem of placing a flat cloth on a curved surface in a uniformly smooth way.
“When you put on your clothes, they wrinkle because of the contours of your body. It’s similar in the manufacturing process of a blade,” Dayal explains. “The less imperfections, the longer the life of the blade.”
While Dayal’s work won’t make the wind blow more frequently, it will make the blade more efficient, and therefore, more productive and cost-effective.
There’s enough confidence the technology will continue to make wind a more viable alternative to fossil fuels that some believe the biggest issue facing the industry is not how to generate power, but how to get it from point A to point B.
Clean Line Energy is one of a handful of groups across the country in the power line building business. Just as the railroad builders of old raised private capital to construct transportation lines to the west, the power speculators raise money to build privately owned, high voltage wires stretching out of the windy Midwest to the coasts.
Hans Detweiler, former deputy director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, where he administered the state’s renewable power programs, now serves as director of development for Clean Line. The company is raising capital for four transmission projects, including one they’ve called the Rock Island Clean Line that would run from O’Brien County in northwest Iowa to Morris, Ill., west of Joliet.
Total cost: $1. 7 billion.
The idea is to move the excess power from wind farms in the northwest part of the state — some which haven’t been built yet — and get that power onto the grid that serves major metropolitan areas like Chicago.
Illinois utilities, after all, have to have 25 percent of their power coming from renewable sources in a little more than a decade.
Power generators will pay to have the line carry their power to market where they can sell it at higher prices. Clean Line makes its money by charging the toll in exchange for building and maintaining that line.
“There’s an enormous job impact,” Detweiler said. “There are the construction jobs; there are the jobs that would come from building the wind farms once the stations at each end of the line are built. We believe there will be 500 permanent jobs just at the generation stations.”
He says the potential is in the billions.
To Branstad, who first helped nudge wind power along with the wind energy mandates in 1983, there’s a really clear picture of how the industry has evolved in the state — if you can get the right vantage point.
“What’s amazing is how it’s grown since then,” he says. “You fly over Iowa at night and you can see all the red lights (attached to turbine towers and blades). It’s really interesting to see that.”