Renewable energy working in Iowa

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The windmill graphic on my Iowa driver’s license is a fitting symbol for the energy revolution sweeping the state.
When conventional fuel prices spiked years ago, Iowa leaders became concerned that vast amounts of money were leaving the state to buy oil, natural gas and coal. Iowa may lack petroleum, but it has incessant wind and plenty of sunshine. Harnessing these limitless resources seemed prudent and governments, utilities, environmentalists, manufacturers and nonprofits converged to position Iowa into its current leadership role in renewable energy.
“We had strong public policy and leaders like then-governor Tom Vilsack (now U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) who were interested in making it happen and worked with people to get it done,” said Rob Hogg, an Iowa State Senator. “Wind manufacturing was a target for economic development. We added renewable energy training at community colleges and passed production tax credits to encourage small-scale, locally owned wind and solar projects.”
Today 31 percent of Iowa’s electricity comes from the wind and sun. It will likely reach 40 percent by 2020, propelled in part by declining costs of renewable installations. In 1983 it cost 55 cents to produce a kilowatt of wind electricity. Today it’s a nickel. Photovoltaic costs, although higher than wind, are also tumbling.
Iowa’s renewable energy boom arrived with little controversy. Farmers receive royalty payments for each turbine on their property and about 6,000 Iowans are now employed in the wind industry assembling turbines, constructing and maintaining wind farms, and providing equipment to support the industry. So strong has employment grown that Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids erected a massive turbine that produces 24 percent of its electric consumption and offers an associate degree of applied wind maintenance.
“Our graduates have been hired by many utilities and are now maintaining turbines all over the world,” said Tom Kaldenberg, associate vice president of the school.
Van Meter Industrial is a wholesale electrical supply distributor. “Five years ago we had one employee serving the photovoltaic market,” said Brad Duggan, Van Meter’s Renewable Energy Product Manager. “Now we have five. At least 47 Iowa companies are involved in the solar energy supply chain and at least 680 Iowans are employed in installing, marketing and supplying the solar industry.”
Renewable energy isn’t perfect and won’t completely replace conventional power generation. Calm occasionally envelops usually gusty Iowa and the sun refuses to shine at night. Wind turbines kill birds and bats, but this threat has diminished. Some people simply don’t like windmills, although I’ve heard few Iowans express this.
Wind and solar reduce the negative impact of burning fossil fuels. Once in place these renewables release no emissions to the atmosphere and don’t pull water from rivers or the ground. There’s no need for dams to block fish movement and no concern about a nuclear catastrophe or mercury and acid raining down into lakes and the oceans.
There are significant economic and legal differences between wind and solar electricity. Massive wind farms are owned by utilities and, like coal or nuclear plants, the utility produces and sells the power. To a consumer there isn’t any difference between buying electricity produced at a coal plant or wind farm. In contrast, photovoltaics and the electricity they produce are owned by individuals.
Wind often blows all day and night, while the sun only works the day shift. To completely rely on solar electricity a homeowner needs a stand-alone system to charge batteries when the sun’s shining and yield electricity when it’s not. Battery systems are expensive and normally only cost effective if a home is a long distance from the grid.
Increasingly common are grid intertie net metered systems where electricity flows both ways through a meter. There is no power storage. Essentially the grid acts as a battery. When a home is producing more electricity than is being used, power flows outward to the grid, running the meter backward. At night electricity is pulled in and the meter runs forward. At the end of the month the utility bills the customer for the net amount used.
Over 20 years ago, while director of the Indian Creek Nature Center, I acquired photovoltaic panels that Jimmy Carter erected on the White House and Ronald Reagan later removed and put in storage. I wanted to create Iowa’s first net metered photovoltaic system, but there was no legal mechanism for a grid intertie. Fortunately my utility, Alliant Energy, was cooperative and helped legally and technically connect the system with their grid. This led to a permanent legal mechanism that enables property owners to net meter either wind or solar generated electricity.
Although small, our system cut the electric bill by 41 percent and the Nature Center is now constructing, with Alliant’s help, a new building that will produce more electricity than it consumes, a concept that can be incorporated into many structures.
Because utilities don’t produce home or business generated solar electricity, they face a dilemma somewhat akin to electric cars, where the owner uses roads but does not pay gasoline taxes needed to maintain them. Utilities must sustain their grid but can’t sell electricity they don’t produce. Essentially net meter customers have free access to the grid. Utilities are likely to eventually charge a grid access fee.
Economics is driving renewable energy expansion, at least in Iowa. Cedar Rapids based Paulson Electric recently prepared a bid to place a photovoltaic system on our home. For a cost of $13,150 a new system will produce 93 percent of our electric consumption. We will receive state and federal tax credits of about $6,312, reducing our cash cost to $6,838. The payback on investment is about 11.2 percent. That’s far more impressive than the microscopic interest we receive from our traditional investments.
Renewable energy isn’t pie-in-the-sky. In Iowa it has created significant employment while reducing environmental threats caused by hydro, nuclear and fossil fuel. It is a model that is expanding across the country and holds great promise for a cleaner future. ♦
— Circle of Chiefs articles are written by those who have received the Circle of Chiefs Award for conservation reporting and coverage. The Circle of Chiefs are considered OWAA’s conservation council and policy spokesmen. The article reflects the opinion of the author. If you’d like to add to the discussion, please send a letter to the editor.
For the past four decades Rich Patterson has pioneered techniques of energy efficiency and renewable energy generation at the Indian Creek Nature Center and his home. He is a past OWAA board president and can be reached through his website

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