The Register’s Editorial: Iowa must overcome obstacles on wind energy

Source: By Des Moines Register Editorial Board • Posted: Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The view from atop a MidAmerican Energy wind turbine

Such a huge increase would probably be unrealistic, but Iowa is blessed with the ingredients to continue rapid expansion of wind energy for the foreseeable future.

Iowa had nearly 5,700 megawatts of installed wind generation at the end of last year, a tenfold increase over just a decade and enough to power 1.6 million homes. A new report produced for the Iowa Wind Energy Association released this week shows Iowa well positioned to substantially grow even more wind power.

Iowa is nearly halfway to meeting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s goal for reducing carbon emissions by 2030, which is good news for the environment: Those emissions are from carbon-intense power plants that burn coal and natural gas. And it could export that power to neighboring states, which is good news for utility consumers, taxpayers and Iowa’s economy.

Iowa has several advantages on wind, including wide open spaces for windmills and more wind to power them than many other states. High Plains states to the west may have stronger wind, but Iowa is closer to population centers in need of clean, renewable sources of electricity.

Gov. Terry Branstad made wind a top priority more than 30 years ago. That has continued through successive administrations, and the Legislature and the Iowa Utilities Board have created favorable regulatory and tax policy. Federal tax breaks have encouraged investment in wind, but Wind Energy Association Executive Director Mike Prior estimates that the industry is within three years of attracting investors without tax incentives.

By the end of this year, Iowa utilities will have invested more than $10 billion in wind energy, which has spawned a new industry building and installing towers and generators. Land owners receive $16 million in yearly payments for tower leases, and Iowa counties will be collecting property taxes on the $2.6 billion value of turbines when assessments are fully realized.

Limits stand in the way of this growth, however. Towers must be set back from homes, farm buildings and other structures, and too many windmills will inevitably create turbulence among neighbors. There are legitimate and growing concerns about siting wind farms to avoid creating deadly obstacles for bats, eagles and migratory birds.

Then there is the challenge of getting the power from the wind farms to homes and businesses. Utilities move wind-generated electricity through the existing power grid. Existing transmission networks have to be upgraded, however, which is neither inexpensive nor free of controversy. Meanwhile, Clean Line Energy Partners plans to build a high-voltage direct-current transmission line from northwest Iowa to Illinois.

The $2 billion Rock Island Clean Line will need right-of-way easements for overhead lines strung across 500 miles of Iowa, which has generated heated opposition from some landowners. That is the most efficient means of moving electricity across long distances, however, and the project backers estimate it would trigger a $7 billion investment in wind energy farms in the northwest corner of the state.

Iowa has the opportunity to continue be a national leader in clean and renewable energy, but there will be hurdles to clear. State and national leaders should be prepared to help the state get over them.