Friday, May 10, 2013

Iowa invests in more wind

Regular readers know that of all the forms of green energy, wind is by far my favorite.  I spent part of my childhood in NW North Dakota.  I really need no further excuse.  But I have one.  I learned how to sail in my 20s and grew to truly love it.  It is a fascinating subject with a vast literature because for most of recorded human history, sailing was the best way to get around—by far.  The people who went to sea funded an astonishing amount of scientific and technological research.  And at the very center of all this heavy thinking was question #1: How do we harness the power in the wind?

At the height of their powers, the sailors had figured out the glorious clipper ships.  Make no mistake, being a sailor was a cruel and hazardous life but when those clippers were pushing forward at 22 knots, it was also one of the great rushes known to human experience.  Just remember, sailors these days do it for fun!  Humanity actually has quite a bit of experience using the wind.

Iowa may seem an odd place to find wind enthusiasts—being about as far from the seas as is humanly possible.  But it actually makes a lot of sense.  Iowa's population includes a bunch of Hollanders (plus plenty of Nordics.)  Ever since Rembrandt made a practice of including in his paintings the windmills that powered much of the prosperity of the Dutch Republic, this is a clan that understands the issues of wind power in their bones.  It's deeply cultural—almost religious.

Iowa is also a welcome place for really smart folks.  Their luminaries include James van Allen and Norman Borlaug.  James Hansen, the finest mind in climate science was a small-town Iowa boy.  Robert Noyce, the genius behind integrated circuits learned everything important growing up on the campus at Grinnell.  The reason this is important is that working with wind is a difficult problem precisely because it doesn't blow all the time.  Powering a society designed to run whenever the switch is thrown with a variable power source is probably not impossible, but it will be damn difficult.  Nice to have smart folks around who actually enjoy solving hard problems.

Iowa's wind position is not like North Dakota's, but it has plenty of good wind sites.  Even better, Iowa has a capital city in Des Moines, but it doesn't really have a central city.  Instead, there are medium-sized cities distributed throughout the state.  This is an open invitation for a technology that works better if the collected energy doesn't have to be shipped very far.  Oh and then there's that little matter of once you invest in the technology, the fuel is free.

What extra charming about this article is how excited Iowa folks are over a $1.9 billion project.  On Wall Street, this isn't even a rounding error.  In Iowa it's a big deal.

MidAmerican's wind energy project is $1.9 billion windfall for Iowa

Des Moines Register  May 9, 2013

MidAmerican Energy Announces $1.9 billion investment. MidAmerican Energy Company announces plans to add 1,050 megawatts of wind generation, with up to 656 new wind turbines in Iowa by 2015.

Written by
William Petroski,

MidAmerican Energy Co.’s $1.9 billion investment in wind energy in Iowa will help hold down customers’ electric bills, make the state more attractive to companies looking for greener energy, and create good jobs, state and utility leaders said Wednesday.

The MidAmerican Energy project becomes the biggest single economic investment ever in the state, said Gov. Terry Branstad. “We’ve made that announcement a few times lately,” he said.

Over the past year, the companies taking the lead have switched off: First, Orascom Construction Industries said it would build a $1.4 billion fertilizer plant in eastern Iowa, then CF Industries said it would invest $1.7 billion in its fertilizer plant near Sioux City. And then Orascom recently said it would boost its investment to $1.8 billion. Unlike those projects, this one will receive no state incentives.

MidAmerican Energy, a utility serving 714,000 customers in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota, said the project would create 460 construction jobs over two years and 48 permanent jobs, primarily workers needed to maintain the 656 wind turbines the utility will build through 2015.

The permanent jobs will create $2.4 million annually in pay for workers, MidAmerican said. The construction workers will take home $30 million, said Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. “That’s over 500 Iowa residents who will bring home a paycheck to provide for their families,” she said.

The project will add 1,050 megawatts of wind generation, pushing the utility’s total to 3,335 megawatts of energy. As a result, MidAmerican expects that about 40 percent of its power to Iowa customers will come from wind.

“That is marvelous news,” said Harold Prior, executive director of the Iowa Wind Energy Association. “MidAmerican is one of the top utilities in the country as far as embracing wind energy.”

William Fehrman, Mid­American Energy Co.’s chief executive, said the project would hold down power costs for consumers. “The reality is that you’re avoiding any kind of increase,” Fehrman said.

The company said the project would “be built at no net cost to the company’s customers.” The added wind generation is expected to cut consumer rates by $3.3 million in 2015 and grows to $10 million annually by 2017, the company said. “This is real money back in the pockets of Iowans,” Reynolds said.

Branstad and Fehrman said green energy has been critical to attracting companies like Facebook, the social networking giant that last month announced it would build a $300 million data center in Altoona. State leaders expect Facebook to push its investment to nearly $1 billion over six years.

Facebook has pledged to get 25 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2015. Ferhman said renewable energy was critical during negotiations with the California company. Facebook even explored the possibility of owning its own wind farm, state leaders have said.

“This sends a larger message to the nation that Iowa is cutting edge, Iowa is innovative,” Reynolds said.

Prior, the wind association leader, agreed the move could attract new development. And the project will keep Iowa on track to generate 10,000 megawatts of wind power by 2020, and will help support jobs at turbine-component businesses and blade manufacturers, he said.

The company’s new investment pushes Mid­American Energy’s investment in wind to about $6 billion. Fehrman said the company has purchased turbine blades from Siemens Energy in Fort Madison and towers from Trinity Structural Towers in Newton. Fehrman said a new turbine costs about $2 million.

The company has already erected 1,267 wind turbines, many in western and north-central Iowa. The company declined to say where the new wind farms would be located. “If you look at a good wind map, you’ll probably get a good feel about where we’ll be targeting,” Fehrman said, adding that location decisions will be made in a couple of months.

MidAmerican is not seeking state assistance for the project, but it will receive federal wind production tax credits.

Ferhman said the one-year extension of the tax credits helped the project. “Without that, the environment for doing projects of this magnitude and this size would not be possible,” he said during a news conference at the Capitol.

The company expects to pay landowners $3.2 million annually for the rights to use their land for the turbines, and to generate more than $360 million in additional property tax revenues over the next 30 years.

“This is a tremendous deal for farmers and the tax base of these rural counties,” Branstad said.

Nathaniel Baer, who follows energy issues for the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council, said MidAmerican’s announcement is encouraging, but there is room for far more wind energy in Iowa than the utility proposed. He added that he hopes MidAmerican will make it easier for Iowans to install their own wind turbines in the utility’s territory, by paying more for the power.

“I think it is a welcome development for wind energy, the Iowa environment and the economy,” Baer said of MidAmerican’s wind-energy expansion plans.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said he felt everything about MidAmerican’s announcement was positive for Iowa’s economy and for future job growth. “This is home-grown energy coming from right here in Iowa. It is renewable, it is clean, and that is all a good thing for Iowans,” he said.

The utility’s project will boost Iowa’s overall wind generation, from all sources, to 6,000 megawatts from 5,000 megawatts currently, Baer said.

The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that Iowa would have to boost its production significantly to help the nation meet environmental groups’ goal to have the country produce 20 percent of its power from wind by 2030.

Baer said Congress should extend the production tax credit long-term to help make that happen.

MidAmerican Energy began building wind projects in 2004. The expansion needs approval by the Iowa Utilities Board, officials said.

MidAmerican Energy is No. 1 nationally for ownership of wind generation capacity among rate-regulated utilities. more

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