Experts: Iowa’s renewable energy growth depends on better transmission

Source: By Des Moines Register • Posted: Sunday, November 1, 2020

Wind turbines spin in the breeze outside of Ida Grove in northwest Iowa.

Iowa could become an even bigger leader in renewable energy, especially if renewable hydrogen is developed and transmission lines are improved,a panel of university, government and corporate leaders said Wednesday.

James McCalley, an Iowa State University engineering professor who studies electrical transmission, said Iowa already is one of the top few states in the share of its power that comes from renewable energy, but is positioned to have far more wind and solar energy.

“The coupling between wind and solar growth and transmission is very tight,” McCalley said on a Zoom session arranged by Power Up Iowa, a renewable energy industry group.

“We are second in the nation in terms of capacity and first in terms of percent of energy from renewables,” McCalley said. “There’s very definitely potential for making more progress but that is not going to happen without a very large investment in transmission.”

McCalley said Iowa has about 10.5 gigawatts of wind-energy capacity now, and is gaining about 0.7 gigawatts a year. That could mean Iowa has perhaps 17 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 and, with solar growing, perhaps 20 to 25 gigawatts of capacity by 2040.

Or more. “If we have a game-changing step up in transmission, then we could see that level go significantly higher,” McCalley said.

That power has to have a way to get to users. That is why there is discussion of a major transmission system running north-south through the Midwest, McCalley added.

“We can continue to make sort of local investments in transmission and wind will grow, and solar will grow, no doubt,” McCalley said. “But to really reach the level that is necessary is going to take significant additional investment.”

Energy conservation could reduce the peak demand that could make it hard for wind and solar systems to keep up, McCalley added.

Brian Selinger, director of the Iowa Energy Office, part of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, said one way to capitalize more on Iowa’s wind energy and solar energy would be to use renewable hydrogen as a way to store the power. IEDA is working with a company that wants to do a pilot project.

The U.S. Department of Energy reports that the technique involved uses electricity tosplit water into hydrogen and oxygen. “This technology is well developed and available commercially, and systems that can efficiently use renewable power — for example, wind, geothermal, or solar — are being developed,”DOE says on its website.

Doug Hundt, president of industrial solutions for Vermeer in Pella, said his company makes heavy equipment that is used at wind and solar installation sites, including trenchers and post-hole diggers. “The last couple of years, we’ve really seen growth in solar,” said Hundt, adding that Vermeer is adding renewable energy at its Pella plant, which employs 3,000.

Power Up Iowa reported 11,000 Iowans now work in the wind and solar industries. Related technician and installation jobs are among the fastest growing sectors on the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Josh Syhlman, general manager of TPI Composites in Newton, said the wind-turbine blade manufacturer is the largest employer in Jasper County with 900 workers.

Iowa has 21 manufacturing facilities making components for renewable energy, including wind-turbine blades.

IEDA’s Selinger said another sign of added investments were announcements by investor-owned utilities MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy that they will be installing charging stations for electric vehicles.

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