Farmers say MidAmerican reneging on promise to pay for wind turbine construction damage

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, July 8, 2020

About two-dozen farmers and landowners in western Iowa say MidAmerican Energy is failing to fully pay them for damage caused when building an 81-turbine wind farm in Ida County.

It’s another point of tension in the relationship between rural residents and the Des Moines company, which has made Iowa a national leader in wind generation, building about 3,000 turbines across the state.

The group filed a complaint with the utility, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett, saying the company has failed to keep its promise to pay farmers and landowners four times the crop damage they experienced when MidAmerican built its 202-megawatt wind farm.

“After a contract was signed, MidAmerican decided, no, that’s too much, and unilaterally cut it,” said Colin McCullough, a Sac City attorney who’s representing the farmers and landowners in negotiations.

Utilities pay farmland owners annually to lease the acreage the wind turbines sit on, but they also pay for damage such as soil compaction caused when a wind farm is constructed.

Construction crews build temporary roads and paths across fields that are used to move massive cranes, trucks and other equipment needed to construct the wind turbines. The work compacts the soil and makes it difficult to grow corn, soybeans and other crops, potentially cutting future revenue.

MidAmerican’s Geoff Greenwood said settlement offers sent to the Ida County landowners included a miscalculation “far exceeding payments required under the easement agreements.”

“Soon after learning of the error, we sent follow-up letters correcting our mistake and issuing revised settlement offers,” Greenwood wrote the Register.

MidAmerican will pay four times the crop damage, the company said, if significant soil compaction is demonstrated. That hasn’t happened yet, although the utility has asked the farmers’ attorney to provide more information.

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Farmer Dan Kluver said the settlement letter MidAmerican initially sent to landowners represented the contract that landowners had signed and was not an error.

MidAmerican proposes paying him, his parents and uncle $25,000 instead of the $200,000 promised in their initial contract with the utility, said Kluver, who agreed to host two turbines on his family’s farmland.

The increased compaction will hurt crop yields for several years, he said. “We depend on that crop every year, and with prices the way they are, we need everything we can get,” Kluver said.

MidAmerican says it restores soil fertility after construction, returning topsoil that might have been removed and deep-tilling fields. “We value our relationships with our participating landowners and commit to reimbursing them for any and all actual crop losses,” Greenwood said.

MidAmerican has reached new agreements with about half the landowners, Greenwood said, and is working with the remaining property owners “to find a solution and meet the commitments we made with them in our easement agreements.”

McCullough and Kluver said the landowners who signed the new agreements didn’t read their original contracts.

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Farmer Richard Younglove said he agreed to let MidAmerican build a turbine on his farm. His land wasn’t chosen, but he found out later that the company had cut down a large portion of his corn crop — a 100-foot-wide swath a half mile long — to build a path across his land.

MidAmerican says it had permission to build the path under its initial agreement with Younglove. He disagrees, and said MidAmerican wouldn’t initially acknowledge that it caused damage.

“I said, ‘You’re the only ones out there doing work,’ and finally they admitted it,” Younglove said. “I asked how they would compensate me, and they said they would only pay me for one year’s corn, instead of four.”

Younglove said MidAmerican denied he experienced significant soil compaction. But he and other farmers in the area have worked with an Iowa State University expert to assess the damage.

“Compaction is a real factor,” Kluver said, and “it can really cut your yields.”

“It’s like trying to get your crop roots through bricks,” he said. “There will be significant yield damage. It could take four or five years of remediation to get this damage resolved.”

McCullough said he believes that MidAmerican will want to resolve its dispute with western Iowa farmers. The utility has invested nearly $12 billion in wind energy. Iowa ranks third nationally for wind generation and gets the highest percentage of its power from the renewable energy source than any other state.

MidAmerican wants to generate enough renewable energy annually to equal 100% of the power consumed by homes and businesses in Iowa. MidAmerican said in May it had reached 61.3% of its goal.

MidAmerican said it’s helping farmers, paying rural landowners $30.9 million in lease payments last year.

As wind turbines have proliferated, some rural Iowa residents have raised concerns about noise, the flickering effect of the spinning blades and other issues.

Madison County, where MidAmerican has an installation, last fall placed a temporary moratorium on new wind energy development, and Adair County, home of another MidAmerican site, capped the number of turbines it would allow, effectively stopping new construction.

The American Wind Energy Association reported in April that wind had become the largest single source of electricity in Iowa. It is second only to Texas in its wind energy generation capacity.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457.