More than half of Iowa’s power now comes from wind, as state nears 6,000 turbines

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines register • Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2021

The proportion of Iowa’s energy coming from wind surged to nearly 60% last year, the most in the nation, as a growing number of turbines came online, U.S. Energy Information Administration data show.

Despite the global pandemic and recession, Iowa utilities and developers added about 540 turbines last year, pushing the total close to 5,900, the American Clean Power Association says.

Iowa’s total operating capacity climbed to 11,660 megawatts in 2020, up 13% from 2019, when 44% of Iowa’s net energy generation — already a nation-leading proportion — came from wind, the federal data show. The 2020 proportion was 59.6%.

Wind generation is an even greater source of power in some parts of the state, including much of the Des Moines metro. MidAmerican Energy, Iowa’s largest power provider, told the Des Moines Register that wind supplied more than 80% of its energy, “which is up substantially from 2019 at 61% and is far ahead of most investor-owned utility companies.”

Iowa has become a national model for tapping renewable energy, the Iowa Environmental Council says.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan calls for allocating $100 billion over a decade to build a “carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.” It would invest in the nation’s transmission lines and energy grid, expanding renewable energy and storage and workforce retraining, among other initiatives.

The clean power goal would put the nation on “an irreversible path to a net-zero economy by 2050,” the president’s plan says.

Iowa’s achievement of reaching nearly “60% wind generation at this point in time tells us that the 100% renewable goal by 2050 is attainable,” said Steve Guyer, the environmental council’s energy and climate policy specialist.

With the Biden administration also pushing a national conversion to electric cars, trucks and other vehicles, Iowa would need to at least triple its wind energy capacity — and increase solar energy generation six-fold — to be powered by 100% renewable energy by 2050, an Iowa Environmental Council report shows.

“Transportation will dramatically increase Iowa’s need … for more electricity,” Guyer said.

Already, solar is slated to take a big leap forward in Iowa, with seven large projects under development or recently completed. They would add about 1,740 megawatts if they’re completed, nine times more solar capacity than now exists, filings with the Iowa Utilities Board show.

Wind, however, has become Iowa’s chief source of net electricity generation. It surpassed coal in 2019, the Energy Information Administration says. Coal, which provided 71% of the state’s energy needs in 2010, had dropped to 22% a decade later.

The Iowa Environmental Council, Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Sierra Club have pushed MidAmerican Energy and other utilities to retire even more coal-fired plants while upping investments in renewable energy.

The groups argued in December that Des Moines-based MidAmerican, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, would save $92 million if it retired two coal plants near Sioux City by 2023.

“We should continue to take advantage of opportunities to add more low-cost wind and solar resources to replace uneconomic, dirty coal plants,” said Josh Mandelbaum, a Des Moines City Council member and an attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

More:Des Moines sets ambitious targets to lower greenhouse gas emissions, go carbon-free by 2035

“If we take these steps, consumers will benefit from lower rates; local governments will benefit by broadening their tax base; our economy will add jobs, and we will be part of creating a more sustainable future,” he said in an email to the Register.

Alliant Energy, Iowa’s second-largest utility, announced in October that it plans to retire its Lansing coal-fired power plant in northeast Iowa over the next two years as it shifts to more solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. The plant’s retirement is part of Alliant’s broader goal to eliminate coal from its power generation system by 2040, the company said.

Opposition to turbines growing in Iowa

Proponents say wind farms bring needed tax revenue to rural counties, cities and schools as well as to farmers. Last year, the wind industry paid $69.5 million in state and local taxes and about $78.5 million in lease payments to farmers and landowners, the American Clean Power Association said.

More: Is wind power saving rural Iowa or wrecking it?

But opposition to wind development has been growing in Iowa. Some neighbors of wind farms say the turbines’ noise and spinning blades cause headaches, nausea and interrupt sleep, among other problems. And they say the landowners benefiting from wind lease payments often don’t live near the turbines and don’t suffer their effects.

In January, Madison County supervisors approved wind development setback requirements that opponents say amount to a ban on turbines. MidAmerican, which has a wind project planned in the county, is challenging the ordinance in court.

In 2019, the Madison County Board of Health recommended that turbines be built farther from homes. The board said then-current commercial wind turbine distances were “inadequate to protect public health.”

Jeff Danielson, a former Iowa state senator and Clean Power Association’s central region director, said residents always have “strong opinions” about building energy infrastructure.

“When wind farms are proposed, and there’s an open and transparent conversation about both the benefits and the cost of that, most Iowans agree that that’s what we should be doing now. And we should be doing more of in the future,” said Danielson, who represented part of Black Hawk County in the Statehouse for nearly 15 years.

Other Midwestern states also are investing heavily in renewable energy, he said. Wind last year provided 43% of Kansas’ energy needs; 35% of Oklahoma’s; and 31% of North Dakota’s. Texas, with almost 10 times Iowa’s population, has the most installed wind energy capacity, but in 2020 got only 20% of its power from wind.

The statistics for other states include electricity generation at commercial and industrial facilities. A comparable percentage in Iowa would be 58% last year and 42% in 2019.

Record growth nationally in generating capacity

Nationally, a record amount of wind generating capacity was installed last year, the Energy Information Administration says, driven by the expected loss of a production tax credit. But in December, Congress extended the tax credit for wind development for another year — and for solar development, two years.

Biden’s infrastructure proposal calls for credits for clean energy development, storage and transmission lasting 10 years. Guyer said the credits under Biden’s proposal also would be “more attractive,” providing direct payment upfront.

Iowa lawmakers are considering a bill that would double to $10 million the amount of money the state sets aside each year for solar power tax credits. With Iowans installing more solar panels, there is a years-long wait to receive payment for the credits.

Costs for renewable energy now undercut those for fossil fuels, and Danielson said utilities like MidAmerican see renewable energy as a way to keep costs low for consumers. MidAmerican said its power costs are the 13th-lowest in the nation.

Danielson also said clean energy is attractive to companies that include Google, Facebook and Microsoft, all of which have large data centers in central Iowa.

Those tech companies see “that access to clean energy is important, not only for their bottom line, but their long-term sustainability,” Danielson said.

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