Wind Farms Generating Energy and Jobs in Iowa
In recent years, public perception of wind-generated power has shifted from a research and development project to a realistic source of electricity. Iowa has taken advantage of this new growth and is now seen as one of the national leaders in wind energy.
But how has this industry become such a mainstay in Iowa, and how have corporations taken advantage of new opportunities?
A Modern Manufacturing Destination
Companies have flocked to Iowa to establish plants that would, in effect, supply the Wind Belt with turbines and jobs. One of these companies is TPI Composites, which built a plant in Newton in 2009 and has already tripled their staff to over 500. According to spokeswoman Marcia Scott, TPI's Newton plant is contracted to produce turbine blades for GE Energy. GE then distributes the finished turbines throughout the country.
Clipper Turbine Works' manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids produces the generators and hubs for wind turbines. Bob Gates, Clipper's senior vice president for commercial operations, noted that Clipper has a good working relationship with the Iowa government, and that their continued support of wind energy development -- including tax credits -- has helped Clipper grow.
"There is a workforce culture oriented toward manufacturing of precision equipment," he said. "Cedar Rapids is part of [that], the heartland of America for manufacturing, so to speak."
Gates said that one of the reasons wind energy has become so successful in Europe is support from governments. The state of Iowa has followed in those footsteps.
Pete McRoberts, a spokesman for Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, said that Iowa has harnessed wind energy and its position in the center of the Midwest Wind Belt. The office believes the only way to achieve energy independence is through natural and renewable resources.
"Iowa has embraced both the energy production element of wind power, but also the economic development angle in terms of literally building the towers, blades and turbines here in Iowa -- creating jobs, while producing clean, green energy," McRoberts said.
Since many local manufacturing jobs have gone overseas recently, Clipper has been able to provide jobs to a base of experienced manufacturers, many without leaving town -- Clipper's current factory used to build newspaper printing presses.
Clipper started production in 2006, building nine turbines at its start. By 2008, the factory produced an annual record of more than 300 turbines. Demand has dipped, though, and Clipper is currently on schedule to produce 150 turbines this year.
Bob Loyd, a 35-year veteran of heavy manufacturing, is the plant manager for Clipper's Cedar Rapids operation. Although he never worked with wind turbines previously, his expertise in heavy manufacturing allowed for a smooth transition.
"In this state, looking at wind turbines isn't something new," he said. "I've always, personally, been intrigued by them. The chance for me to get on building a product that I think is really neat and the country really needs -- it helps us with our energy supply issues without a carbon footprint, it has the possibility of getting us away from foreign oil -- that's exciting."
Eight other companies have started production in the state, including Siemens in Ft. Madison and Heartland Energy Solutions in Mt. Ayr.
By bringing these companies into the equation and building strong support from the state legislature, Iowa's wind-generated power industry has grown quickly. According to the American Wind Energy Association, 14 percent of Iowa electricity is provided by wind -- an astounding figure that rivals Denmark and Germany.
"It seems to be very welcome," said Rick Tucker, the production supervisor for tooling, fixturing and new equipment installation for Clipper. "If you're out in society and people ask you what you do and say, 'Well, I work for a wind turbine company, we build wind turbines,' everybody gets really excited about it. I see a really big swing in green."
The newest generation of wind turbines -- Generation IV -- have been in use since 1996. With towers reaching some 200-300 feet in the air, these turbines can produce up to 2.5 megawatts (MW) of electricity. The units can cost up to $2.5 million, which seems reasonable when considering that one current turbine equates to 23 of the Generation I-era turbines. It also is $1 million cheaper than the previous generation of turbine that produced four times less power.
In order to get a wind turbine on your land, development companies set up meteorological towers that log wind velocity for one year in order to determine the placement of the turbine and the land's potential for wind-generated power. If the data checks out, then private companies work with farmers to set up the turbines.
For a quarter-acre piece of land, companies pay farmers $5,000-7,000 per month for the real estate -- more money than a quarter-acre's worth of crops. Plus, after the installation, the farmers can turn the installation areas back into farm land.
"Most of the stories I've heard is that farmers are usually going to meetings and wondering why they don't have more," Loyd said.
There is some opposition to wind turbines, though. Environmental groups are concerned with the number of birds that fall victim to the wind turbines. However, with the new required "pre-construction avian study," bird deaths are now a rarity on wind farms. In fact, wind turbines only cause three out of every 100,000 bird deaths, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
Colleges have also developed wind energy programs. The Iowa Wind Organization -- comprised of University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University, University of Iowa, DMACC, Kirkwood College, and Iowa Lake Community College -- has created curricula aimed at educating wind energy technicians.
Harold Prior, the president of the Iowa Wind Energy Association (IWEA), was the president of the Iowa Lakes Community College until 2009 and worked closely with the wind energy and turbine technician associate's degree program. When he started, the program had 35 students and two faculty members. Today, it enrolls 165 students and has a waiting list.
The IWEA's purpose, Prior said, is to take a broad look at all of the interest holders in the wind industry and see how to promote the power in the state. Prior also said that the IWEA also spends a great deal of time lobbying at the state capitol.
Where Wind Will Take Us
After a 50 percent loss in wind power development from 2008 to 2009, funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped create 9,922 MW of new wind-generated power capabilities last year. This expanded the country's wind-generated power by 39 percent, according to a report by the American Wind Energy Association.
President Barack Obama has called for 20 percent of the country's energy supply to come from wind-generated power by 2030. If the U.S. reaches that goal, nearly 500,000 "green collar" jobs would be created in areas like manufacturing, equipment service, and design. The power that would be generated through wind would equate to taking 140 million vehicles off the road.
The next step for American wind power is to move turbines off shore. Because these winds are less turbulent than ones on land, and there isn't anyone to complain about the sound they create, two-blade turbines can run faster than on land, producing more electricity. In fact, President Obama approved what will be the first off-shore wind farm on April 28. The 130-turbine farm will be off the shore of Cape Cod in the Nantucket Sound. Since then, environmental groups have filed the first lawsuits against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for what they say are violations in federal laws that protect migratory birds and whales. Administration officials have dismissed the charges, citing a thorough evaluation of the wind farm's environmental impact.
However, before companies start adding turbines off shore, experts are calling for an updated power grid system. The current grid is over 50 years old, hindering wind electricity producers from getting their product out to American homes. Currently, after the power is generated and transferred to the substations, the electricity is sent to the power grid, but the transmission lines are nearly maxed out by the combination of old and new sources of energy.
The 2030 mark is ambitious, but Clipper's Bob Loyd thinks if states start reevaluating where they get their energy and understand that some of those sources will be unreliable in years to come, the goal is not beyond reason.
"I think the state of Iowa shows it can be done, and it can be done pretty quickly," he said. "I think there's other states that are waking up. I think people are getting serious about it and I think it is realistic."
For now, wind energy seems to be promising for the country, especially in Iowa, where, according to the AWEA, 3,188 MW of power capacities are currently under construction. That is equivalent to providing electricity for 3,188,000 homes. As a nation, the U.S. is also showing promise, topping the charts of total installed capacity (just above Germany), and in new capacity (above China), according to the Global Wind Energy Council.
Instead of looking toward less efficient and clean energy sources, Tucker said, the U.S. should harness wind's proven clean power.
"Sure, I'm in the business here, it helps me because it's my job," he said. "But the end result is it will help all of us in the long run. We need to try to get away from the fossil-burned fuels and the import of oil to support electric energy. We've got the fuel here. It's called wind. Let's use it."
For now, those in the wind business will be monitoring the recent complaints against the Nantucket wind farm. If the project proves a success, factory managers like Loyd will see a boost in production output as wind continues to develop into a major U.S. energy source.