Will Iowa win over Trump on wind power?

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 21, 2016

Iowa is a wind power state. It is also a Donald Trump state, with nearly 52 percent of voters casting ballots for the Republican presidential candidate last week, compared with 42.2 percent for Hillary Clinton.

So what does it mean for Iowa — which receives more than a third of its electricity from wind energy and claims more than 6,000 workers in the wind energy sector and related industries — if the new president shifts the nation’s energy priorities away from renewables?

The question is more than watercooler talk in the Hawkeye State. It is a material issue for the state’s largest utility, MidAmerican Energy Co., which has pledged to meet 100 percent of its Iowa consumers’ electricity generation renewable resources, mostly wind power.

It is a kitchen table issue in places like Fort Madison and Newton, where roughly 1,300 Iowans tend to the design and construction of advanced turbine blades for Siemens AG and TPI Composites Inc., two of the state’s largest wind industry manufacturers.

It is also on the minds of hundreds of Iowa farmers who derive sizeable portions of their annual income from lease payments made by wind energy firms whose turbines are interspersed with the corn and soybeans planted across much of Iowa.

But elected officials and industry leaders in Des Moines and Washington, D.C., say the state should retain its position as a wind energy leader under a Trump administration, even though the future president’s statements on renewable energy have been inconsistent, undermining and in some cases misinformed.

“Wind is not a red or blue source of electricity. It is a national source of electricity. And it happens to be very cost-effective and widely available in places like Iowa and many other rural states,” said Susan Williams Sloan, vice president for state policy at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

So the Trump transition team is “smart to look at all of their options, to recognize wind’s importance to rural America and to see that this business has greatly enriched rural economies,” she said.

Trump has called wind and solar power “very expensive,” “very problematic” and “not working on a large scale.” He has also blamed wind power for the deaths of “hundreds” of eagles — which scientists say is an exaggeration (ClimateWire, Oct. 27).

In the midst of a battle to build a golf course in Scotland, where the government had licensed an offshore wind farm that Trump believed would ruin views from his property, the real estate mogul tweeted that wind farms are “disgusting looking” and unhealthy.

Branstad has told Trump ‘the importance of wind’

Yet Iowa may be uniquely positioned to make the case for keeping wind power at the center of a Trump administration energy policy, even if it requires competing head on against the nation’s mining and fossil fuel lobbies that also carry significant weight with the Trump energy transition team.

Among other things, wind energy advocates can point to the 66 percent drop in the cost of producing electricity from wind since 2010, as well as the tens of billions of dollars being invested by developers, utilities and corporate power purchasers seeking to bring more clean energy to market.

Wind energy also aligns well with Republican politics, as more than 80 percent of all U.S. wind farms are operating in congressional districts represented by GOP lawmakers. That includes deeply red districts in Iowa and neighboring states, according to data collected by AWEA.

For Iowans, there may be no more persuasive voice for wind power among Trump supporters than Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who openly embraced Trump’s candidacy last May, and whose 40-year-old son, Eric Branstad, served as Iowa state director for the Trump campaign.

Ben Hammes, a spokesman for the governor, who was traveling abroad this week, said that “Gov. Branstad and Mr. Trump have had conversations in the past on the importance of wind energy to the state of Iowa and the thousands of jobs created by the industry.”

So far, however, Branstad has not been asked to help shape energy policy by the Trump transition team. That is being led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence and the campaign’s close advisers, family members and — at least for now — a handful of lobbyists in D.C.

While speculation has run high about what a Trump energy policy would look like, almost nothing has been set in place yet beyond promises to revive the U.S. coal industry and roll back regulations targeting power plant emissions.

That uncertainty could play to the advantage of well-established GOP governors like Branstad and Sam Brownback of Kansas, both Trump loyalists who also have witnessed economic expansions in their states fueled partly by wind energy.

“Trump and his colleagues really don’t have a good understanding of what an extraordinary economic development tool wind and solar energy have been for many, many states,” said one renewable energy leader who spoke on background.

“If their whole campaign is about creating jobs, gutting the renewables sector would have the exact opposite effect,” the source added.

Grassley seen as a bulwark

Josh Mandelbaum, a Des Moines-based attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which advocates for clean energy policies in nine Midwest states, said it is difficult to predict where the Trump administration will come down on renewable energy once in office.

He said the president-elect has wooed Iowa voters with pledges of support for wind and biofuels, only to backpedal or contradict those statements in other venues.

But, Mandelbaum added, “I know what hasn’t changed is that renewable energy, and wind in particular, has had broad bipartisan support in this state for years, and many of our strongest wind advocates are still in government and are still making critical decisions” about the future of the industry.

Among the lawmakers expected to provide a stopgap to legislative efforts perceived as damaging to the wind power industry is Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the former chairman and now a senior Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee who has long championed wind power. During the campaign, he challenged Trump to dare mess with the Iowa industry.

“If he wants to do away with it, he’ll have to get a bill through Congress, and he’ll do it over my dead body,” Grassley said in August (Greenwire, Sept. 1).

Grassley was an original author of the 1992 production tax credit that has helped the industry grow into the largest non-hydro renewable energy sector in the United States by megawatts installed. The PTC, which provides a 2.3-cent-per-kilowatt-hour credit for wind energy producers for 10 years, is on a path to be phased out by the end of the decade, and a number of experts have suggested the Trump administration would allow the program to run its course.

Jill Gerber, a Grassley spokeswoman, said in an email that, “If needed, Senator Grassley will continue to work to maintain the long-term extension and phase-out of the wind energy production tax credit that Congress passed because job creators like those in the wind energy industry need certainty in tax policy.”

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) has spoken favorably of wind energy, but she also has voiced support for an “all of the above” energy policy that includes greater reliance on fossil fuels like natural gas.

Wind energy executives also yesterday praised the selection of first-term Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner (R) as the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan noted that Gardner “has seen wind power’s success story firsthand,” and that his elevation to the GOP leadership post will put “a leading voice in the Senate to keep wind power’s American success story going.”

Like Iowa, Colorado is one of the nation’s leading wind energy employment states, led by Vestas Wind Systems A/S with roughly 3,700 workers at three manufacturing plants in the state.