Iowa's population, geography are the perfect combination for wind power
ELDORA, Iowa -- For Randall Nichols, wind energy is not just so much hot air. It's money. And not just for Nichols, superintendent of the Eldora-New Providence School District in Iowa, which since 2002 has generated much of its own electricity wi...
ELDORA, Iowa -- For Randall Nichols, wind energy is not just so much hot air.
And not just for Nichols, superintendent of the Eldora-New Providence School District in Iowa, which since 2002 has generated much of its own electricity with wind turbine that it built next to the high school.
Wind power is generating a lot of excitement across Iowa, which, state and utility officials note, has population and geographic advantages to push it along.
"The state is primed because the Iowa Department of Economic Development has laid the groundwork for this in the state of Iowa," says Tom Wind, owner of Jefferson, Iowa-based Wind Utility Consulting.
Each year, Wind conducts a projection on the growth of wind power in the Upper Midwest for the IDED.
"I see the handwriting on the wall out there and know we're going to have to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and about the cheapest way to do it is wind power," Wind says.
In 2008, the state has added as much as 1,000 megawatts -- enough to power about 300,000 homes -- to its electrical grid through wind-generated power, Wind estimates. In 2009, he projects, another 700 megawatts will power up.
The right stuff
Iowa is ranked No. 3 among states in wind power, and it's climbing, Wind says.
"We may pass California here in a year or so," he says.
Iowa has an ideal combination of population -- it passed 3 million residents this year -- and geography for wind power to flourish, Wind notes.
"Iowa is not the windiest state in the Upper Midwest, but it has enough people and enough electricity needs that it's a good combination of wind speed and the need for electricity, and we have two utilities, in MidAmerican and Alliant, that believe in wind power."
The Eldora-New Providence district has been ahead of that curve for some time.
In 2002, the district built a 160-foot tubular tower with a 750 kilowatt NEG Micon turbine at a cost of $800,000, paid for by a $550,000 loan from Hardin County Savings Bank in Eldora and a $250,000 interest-free loan from the Alternate Energy Revolving Loan Program at Iowa State University.
The turbine generates about 1,300 megawatts yearly, or enough electricity to power around 8,500 homes.
The system already has paid off the Hardin County loan and is well ahead of the 10-year schedule to pay back the AERLP, says Nichols, the district's third-year superintendent.
And, the school district, located about 40 miles southwest of Waterloo, Iowa, is only beginning to see the savings -- and profit -- that wind power generates, he says.
"How much depends on the year, but my first year here, between what we produced and got credit for, the excess we sold was around $110,000," he says.
The system costs about $12,500 a year to maintain.
He says the district likely would realize about $110,000, between what it generates for its own use and the power excess power it sells.
"We had three months in a two-year period that ended in September 2007 in which we did not have excess to sell," he says.
Other school districts across the country regularly inquire about the feasibility of building their own wind-generation plants, he adds.
As for individual consumers planting turbine towers in their backyards, the time is not yet quite ripe, Wind says, adding that it likely would cost about $12,000 for "the cheapest" turbine that would supply "most" of the electrical needs for a single home.
"The economics aren't too favorable now for individual wind turbines," he says. "They can work in the right spots and that would be more likely in a rural area, where there are few trees around and exposure to the wind is uninterrupted and where the customer may be paying a high rate for electricity."
But consumers already are benefiting from a rapidly increasing number of wind turbines across the state, says Tom Budler, general manager of wind development for MidAmerican Energy Co., which says it now has online 1,284 megawatts of wind generation that it owns and operates.
"We have not had a rate increase since 1995, and this is one of the ways we've been able to bring that value to our customers," Budler says.
It's becoming a standard philosophy among utilities, at least in states like Iowa, Wind says.
"I think MidAmerican recognizes the long-term value of wind power because it's clean power, and the price of power is stable," he says. "There's no fuel cost, so the price of wind power is primarily the cost of financing and paying back the stockholders and bonds for investment, and those are fairly fixed over time. Over the 25-year lifespan of a wind turbine, the cost is pretty level."
There also are peripheral benefits to the growth of the wind industry, Wind notes.
He pointed out that Newton, a town that was devastated by the closure of its Maytag headquarters and plant in October 2007, is adapting to that jolt by embracing the industrial side of wind energy. TPI Composites built a plant in Newton to manufacture blades. Trinity Structural Towers also plans to manufacture turbine towers in Newton, Iowa.
"They have good trained work force there, so it was a good place to do it," Wind says. "They employ several hundred, and that's expected to grow."
Iowa is home to five companies that manufacture parts for wind turbines. The state also has nine major wind farms, with more on the way.
"I think, with all utilities, you're starting to see a lot more wind development," says Steve Schultz, spokesman for Alliant Energy, which serves part of Iowa and is building the Whispering Willow East wind farm on 92,000 acres near Hampton.
"Alliant is certainly committed to renewable energy, although you can't completely rule one thing out," Schultz says. "But definitely, renewable energy is where the business is going. The wind regimes in this part of the country are all in the top 20."
Nichols says he's a believer.
"I do think we're going to see in the next dozen years or so some real benefits in the district controlling some of its energy costs," he says. "After (the second loan is paid off), I believe the anticipated life of the turbine is 25 to 30 years."