Wind Takes Iowa by Storm

The winds that sweep through central Iowa’s corn and soybean fields are a powerful force—as I almost found out the hard way.

“You might want to hold on to that door,” cautioned Bill Sutton, a laconic middle-aged farmer dressed in jeans and a plaid button-down, speaking to me from the driver’s seat of his pickup truck. I was blithely opening the passenger door to get out after we had parked on a dirt service road in the middle of a cornfield. Next to us loomed our destination: a 400-foot-tall steel wind turbine.

His warning came too late, and my mistake almost cost me my fingers: The door slammed back at me, propelled by the roiling winds outside.

Take two: I got out more gingerly and, shirt flapping in the gusts, I walked with Sutton to the base of the behemoth before us. I stood a moment to take in the whooshing blades, the droning motor, and the vertiginous tower. It was the first time I had been this close to a wind turbine.

Photo By Erik Lorenzsonn
<i>Photo By Erik Lorenzsonn</i>

Sutton was giving me a tour of his brainchild, the Junction Hilltop community wind farm. A few miles down the road stood another wind farm that Sutton had a hand in developing. The two projects—the fruit of a decade’s worth of planning, lobbying, financing, and pure doggedness on the part of Sutton and his partners—are the first wind farms of their kind in Iowa: utility-scale, yet locally owned. But while these two projects are unprecedented, they aren’t surprising. They were developed by farmers from Iowa, a place where open-minded and entrepre­neurial figures like Sutton have quietly turned their state into a leader of wind power generation.

California and Texas have more total installed wind power capacity than any other state. But the numbers show that Iowa—ranked third in total installed capacity—is an unassuming leader. Approximately 25 percent of its generated power comes from wind, more than in any other state. It also leads the country in wind-related jobs, with more than 6,000 people employed in the industry. What’s more, Iowa shows no sign of lagging. In mid-May, Governor Terry Branstad announced the largest economic development investment ever in the state’s history: One of the state’s two utilities plans to spend $1.9 billion to construct 656 new turbines.

Because of the crisis of global climate change, the need for renewable energy has crystallized, and wind energy—a cost-effective, dependable, and scalable resource—remains at the fore of the discussion. In Sutton’s concise words: “It’s clean, it’s reliable. It just makes a lot of sense.”

To understand how Iowa got to where it is, start with those potent gales. Simply by its geography, Iowa is an ideal place to harvest the wind—something farmers have been doing since the 1880s.

“There are a lot of people who grew up, or their parents grew up, with wind power—providing water pumping for their livestock, in many cases power for their radio and lights before the Rural Electrification Administration was established,” says Harold Prior, the director of the Iowa Wind Energy Association. “Every time they walk to their mailbox they’re reminded of their history of wind power.”

The seeds of the modern wind industry, however, weren’t planted until 1973, when the OPEC oil embargo caused fossil fuel prices to soar—and subsequently, demand for alternative energy to soar, as well. Iowa wind power got a boost when the state legislature passed the country’s first renewable portfolio standards in 1983. And in 1992, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley got Congress to pass a production tax credit at the federal level—a policy that today has become the industry’s lifeblood.

While politicians fostered wind from the top, early innovators in the industry drove growth from the bottom. Entrepreneurs began to develop not just turbines for individual property owners, but fully fledged wind farms. “We’ve had a lot of entrepreneurs that have gone out and made the deals,” says Mike Bergey, an Iowa retailer of small turbines. “Putting together these wind farm projects, particularly in the early days, was a heck of a challenge.”

Iowa’s wind portfolio grew at a steady pace through the ’80s and ’90s. Then, in the mid-2000s, it picked up speed. The federal production tax credit was renewed, Iowa passed its own production tax credit, more powerful turbines were hitting the market, fossil fuel prices were rising, and, for the first time, Iowa’s two big for-profit utilities began to invest heavily in wind.

In 2008, about 7 percent of Iowa’s energy came from wind power. Now that share has almost quadrupled.

Photo By Erik Lorenzsonn
<i>Photo By Erik Lorenzsonn</i>

A common denominator throughout Iowa’s growth has been strong public support for wind development. Poll numbers show that Iowans overwhelmingly favor wind power development, largely due to the jobs it provides and other economic benefits. Even more remarkably, Iowa does not have the groundswell of resistance to wind turbine construction that has emerged in other states.

Take Wisconsin, its neighbor to the northeast: The Badger State’s wind portfolio is nearly stagnant, due not only to unreceptive political leaders but also to groups of citizens that fundamentally oppose wind farm construction.

Some critics of wind turbine construction around the country raise some serious objections. The birds and bats killed from flying into turbines, for example, represent a very real problem. Wind turbines kill thousands of birds every year, from songbirds to (especially in California and other western states) raptors. But as wind developers become more mindful in where they site turbines, and as turbine technology improves, the rate of deaths has decreased. Wind advocates also counter that the damage caused by fossil fuels to animal populations far outweighs the damage wrought by turbines, and note that power lines, buildings, and car exhaust kill more birds by an order of magnitude.

Another argument against wind turbines is an aesthetic one. Homeowners in Cape Cod famously cried foul at offshore wind development in the late 2000s, partially because it tainted their view of the ocean. The aesthetic argument also arises in the Midwest. (Although an Iowa State University professor, Lulu Rodriguez, speculated to me that farmers may generally appreciate the “high-tech look” turbines give their cornfields.)

Then there’s “wind turbine syndrome,” a widely publicized phenomenon in which people who live near turbines say they develop headaches, nausea, and a spate of other symptoms (more than 200 have been catalogued). Medical research, however, does not support the idea that living near wind turbines has negative health consequences.

“If you believed all that stuff, you’d think people’d be dying in droves in Iowa,” says Paul Gipe, an author and wind energy advocate from California. “They’d be lying in the street, and you’d have to pick them up and take them to the sanatorium.”

In Iowa, it’s common to encounter robust debate over where specifically a turbine should be sited, or to occasionally encounter kvetching over aesthetics. But aversion to wind turbines on principle seems pretty invisible. Citizens seem generally enthusiastic for wind farm development. Says Bergey: “If someone in Iowa came out and said, ‘Wind farms are bad,’ it’s likely they’ll be run out of town.”

Why the exceptional support for wind in Iowa? It’s difficult to say with certainty, but there are theories.

In Iowa, the areas with the best wind resource are rural and sparsely inhabited, which may lead farmers to more easily recognize distributed benefits from wind, since wind turbines represent an economic boon that can be easily constructed near them, whereas a coal plant, for example, could be in only one central location. A thinly spread population could also mean that landowners don’t mobilize to object to wind turbines.

Another reason that Iowa enjoys such a glowing public perception of wind energy could be the state’s history—that same legacy of early farmers availing themselves of the wind to pump water and power their radios. “It’s kind of a part of Iowa’s history and fabric,” says Bergey. “A lot of Iowans see it as a part of their legacy.”

Gipe would caution against attributing Iowa’s success to an ingrained set of values. “It’s also what the Danes say,” he says. “‘We’ve always used wind energy. Period. End of discussion.’ But that’s oversimplification.” He does say, however, that states that don’t have a familiarity with wind might be more susceptible to anti-wind arguments. Since Iowa does have that familiarity, wind may not seem like such a threat.

Iowa’s public and political support for wind development is also notably bipartisan: The industry enjoys substantial support from both the right and the left. Consider Congressman Steve King, the outspoken fiscal conservative and Tea Party darling. He vehemently espouses renewable energy. In fact, his support for the production tax credit earns him scathing rebukes from fellow fiscal conservatives.

But bipartisanship over wind energy seems to dissipate outside of Iowa. Other state GOP-led governments aren’t as supportive of wind (In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has been downright hostile). Bipartisanship can at times seem distant at the federal level too. While on the campaign trail in 2012, Mitt Romney won the favor of coal mining communities when he declared, “You can’t drive a car with a windmill on it.” (Governor Branstad didn’t mince words in response to Romney: “He needs to be educated as to how important this is.”)

Bill Sutton, for his part, is a proud conservative, fiscally and ideologically. (When he introduced me to his family, he mentioned that my magazine’s readership was largely liberal. His wife and son shook their heads in dismay.) He also lobbied for the passage of a production tax credit at both the state and federal level, and received a grant through President Obama’s stimulus package.

How does he reconcile his fiscal conservatism with wind subsidies?

“It’s a dilemma,” he told me, while cracking a wry grin as we drove away from Junction Hilltop. But in the case of wind energy, Sutton’s belief in the benefits of wind trumps his usual opposition to government meddling in markets.

Luther College, a small liberal arts school in the somnolent northeastern Iowa town of Decorah, is not the most obvious home for a utility-scale turbine. That’s not for lack of wanting: For years, theology professor Jim Martin-Schramm and a coalition of environmentally minded students dreamed of such a machine to provide clean energy for their already energy-efficient institution.

But to actually get one installed was a long shot: If you aren’t a large, for-profit corporation with a big tax liability or resources readily available to build a turbine, pursuing anything more ambitious than a small machine to help pay electricity bills is a tall order.

Martin-Schramm was cruelly reminded of this once when attending a wind energy conference. He was handed a small model of a Vestas machine by a company representative.

“And at the end of the show, he tells me, ‘That’s probably the only Vestas turbine you’re ever going to get.’ ”

But since 2011, a General Electric turbine has been obstinately sitting atop a hill near campus, towering over the college. The machine, visible from miles away as one drives into Decorah, has come to define the community’s landscape. “Certain students say they’re just mesmerized by it,” says Martin-Schramm. “They just sit and look at it.”

And they know it has an impact: The machine provides a third of the college’s consumption.

At the beginning of 2013, the production tax credit expired, and even though it was renewed by Congress a few days later, the wind industry ground to a halt—contracts were put on hold by the major developers, and hundreds of Iowans lost their jobs manufacturing turbines.

Says Martin-Schramm, of the on-again, off-again nature of the tax credit: “It’s just patently stupid. For the life of me, I don’t know if it’s the power of the fossil fuel industry to get legislators to do this yank-the-rug kind of thing, but it’s just dumb.”

One day, Martin-Schramm took students from his energy policy class on a field trip to a coal-burning power plant outside Decorah. When they arrived, they found the plant had shut down for the day—it was not generating any power.

“Why are you shut down?” Martin-Schramm asked one of the plant’s supervisors. “Who’s making electricity?”

“The man pointed and said, ‘Well, look at that flag.’ And there was a flag flying nearby that was—whoosh—totally straight out,” MartinSchramm recalls. “You see, every turbine within 270 miles was operating at full capacity.”

Erik Lorenzsonn is an editorial intern with The Progressive, an online producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, and a freelance journalist who lives in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. He is the creator and host of Movement, an upcoming podcast that explores social mobilization. Follow him on Twitter @eriklorenzsonn.