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Discussion: Iowa Infrastructure - Planes, Trains, and the Internet

posted on February 26, 2008 at 11:30 AM

At the core of tonight's conversation are these questions. What will it take to move all the new energy sources onto the grid or into the pipeline? Is it time to pair back Iowa's extensive road system? What can replace roads and what will that cost be? And how can Iowa's communication system be ramped up to world class speed and capacity.

Thom Hart is the state's new infrastructure guru. After a lengthy career in the Quad Cities as Davenport Mayor and most recently Director of the Quad Cities Development Group he is now with the Iowa Department of Economic Development.

Yeager: Question for you, we come out of hearing from the Governor today talking about energy conservation, 25% by 2025. With you and your role and we just saw about wind energy what does that mean for what Iowa has to go to get to 25%?

Hart: Actually I think the 25% was alternate energy sources by 2025. And what that represents -- I think what the Governor is talking about is what Iowans are talking about and that is taking the more green approach to energy generation and use. So, it's trying to put some of that generation off into other forms like wind and to be careful about how much we consume.

Yeager: We talk about wind energy, it's in northwest Iowa, the population of the state is not there, the population is in other regions. How do you get the energy generated there or generated in other spots to the consumer need?

Hart: The transmission of energy or electricity is much like roads. So, you've got big roads that we call Interstate and then you've got primary roads and then you've got ultimately collector streets and neighborhood streets and transmission lines are just like the road system. And the trick is to get the electricity from where it's generated to where it's consumed. Well, if you look at the transmission lines in Iowa and really in every other state they are between urban areas because that is where they shift power. Historically that is where we generated electricity pretty much near urban areas. So, if you look at them in Iowa you've got them going between Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Des Moines, Waterloo, Dubuque, Quad Cities, Iowa City and the other lines in rural areas are much smaller but not the big transmission lines. The challenge with wind is you don't generate wind in the urban areas, you generate it where the wind is which is in northwest Iowa which is predominantly rural. So, the challenge is getting that to consumers and you've got to redo the transmission lines to do that and that's going to take some very significant multi-million dollar investment to do that.

Yeager: Well, then who foots that bill? Because you have different companies that are doing it does the state get involved in that? How are those questions that you wrestle with ...

Hart: Well, that is exactly what they've asked me to do is figure out the infrastructure challenges for the future to match the economy of the future. So, if you look at the infrastructure of the past or the current infrastructure it may not be what is necessary five, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. And I'm to identify that and try to figure out solutions. In electrical wind energy it is especially complicated because there are different layers of regulation. The Iowa Utility Board is responsible on one level, that is cost recovery. But the federal, it also is very much under the control of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which regulates this transmission of electricity between states and there is a fourteen state compact, MISO it's called, the Midwest compact that controls it in the region. So, working through that whole process, again, to get it from where it is generated to where it is consumed is a multi-jurisdiction, multi-state, federal government challenge that we've just got to work through.

Yeager: And it sounds like it does have to be state and maybe not private business generated or organized.

Hart: There are companies willing to do that, willing to invest but they, of course, need a return on investment. So, it's a matter of matching their resources with the needs of what is going to come online in the next number of years, an enormously complicated issue. One of the things that I heard today that kind of underlines how complicated -- if you took everything that is on the books that is going to be generated and you put it through the current process assumed deadlines are accurate for the current process this would all be decided by 2062. I don't think we have that kind of time here to wait. So, we've got to figure out a way to short cut this.

Yeager: Have you been able to identify any things that can get you down that path? Or is it going to have to be in stages? Or is it just one big thing?

Hart: Well, I think it's all of the above. But the real challenge is in the wind. Governor Culver has said he wants 25% of this by 2025 to be alternate sources. Our best alternate source is wind so we're putting emphasis on that and the next challenge is we've got to figure out how to get the generation to the consumers and we'll do that.

Yeager: And one thing the Governor talked about when he ran, when he was in the election cycle was if we're going to be alternative energy let's build the things here, let's build the wind turbines here. We're building some of them in Fort Madison, at Keokuk but we're trying to get them to northwest Iowa. We see them go down the road now but is our current infrastructure, our current road system going to be able to handle all of this?

Hart: It's a challenge and, of course, most of those are such a size that they don't fit in with the current rules and regulations. So, actually the Iowa DOT is working with haulers and manufacturers in figuring out how to accommodate those. Now, in Europe they have been doing this for a number of years and they actually put wheels on the back of some of these contraptions and steer them like the old ladder fire trucks. But it takes the cooperation and the empowerment of the state and DOT is doing just that to work with the haulers to figure out how to get these from the point of manufacturing to the point of use. And the biggest challenge is often the last mile or two, it's not only turning radiuses but how do you get them down a gravel road and how do you get them from the gravel road into the farm field where they have to put big cranes and blades and towers. So, multi-challenges.

Yeager: You talk about roads and that seems to be a challenge too. Are we thinking that the future of our economy is going to be through our highway and road system? Is that where we build a bridge here or we build a road here is that going to make the difference? Or do we need to renovate what we have or close what we have?

Hart: Well, I think all of that and that is a process that has been going on for a number of decades. If you look at the road system of 50 years ago there certainly were more roads, more miles of roads. A lot of those have been downgraded, ones that are kind of turned into dirt lanes, into many of the counties their class B roads, not highly utilized. I know that from my time on the board of supervisors 30 years ago that we downgraded a number of those. But obviously there is continuing huge demand on roads, that's how we get around. We're a much more mobile society. We travel on the whole much farther than we did for our jobs a generation or two ago. So, roads continue to be very, very important and need reinvestment.

Yeager: But the problem is right now I'm paying $3 a gallon for fuel, it's $100 a barrel. Do we think the future of the renewable energies or the cost is going to push us to make some tough changes whether it's I'm going to have to start riding the bus or maybe we need to see a rail expansion? Is that do you think what is going to get us in the next direction?

Hart: Well, and realize we already have changed. We don't often know that but the cars we drove as teenagers probably got a third of the gas mileage than the ones that we drive today. So, to think that a car would get 22 or 23 miles to a gallon 30 years ago was really revolutionary. That will continue. But we are changing not only in what we drive but how we design roads. That will be ongoing. I do think that there are some other changes as we may well be headed to $4 or $5 a gallon gasoline. I don't think any of us really know that. It is certainly $5, $6, $7 a gallon in Europe now. And we have kept it artificially low in this country. But as that changes and if the market pushes it to that we have seen more use of transit. We have seen more use of rail. And I think those will be trends that will continue.

Yeager: You talk about rail and your time in the Quad Cities Development Group. I know you made a lot of trips to Washington to try to lobby to expand train. Illinois has said they would like to see it go from Chicago to the Illinois Quad Cities. How long do you think it could be? And do you think it's possible that we'll see rail to Iowa City, to Des Moines, to Council Bluffs?

Hart: I do think it is possible. In fact, we were in Chicago last week talking to Amtrak and Illinois DOT with Iowa DOT about that subject. This is an initiative driven primarily by Illinois DOT. Illinois DOT spends almost $30 million a year on rail within the state so they have trains that run from Chicago to St. Louis, eight trains that run to Milwaukee a day, Chicago to Quincy and Chicago to southern Illinois. They are looking at adding two more routes, Chicago to Dubuque and Chicago to Quad Cities. The Dubuque is being driven primarily by Rockford so it would be Chicago-Rockford to Dubuque and then Chicago to Quad Cities. A very logical extension of that Quad Cities one is Iowa City and Iowa DOT requested that study a year ago. That is in the final phases of completion looking at not only Chicago to Quad Cities but Chicago to Iowa City. And then, shortly after that Iowa DOT also asked for that on Des Moines. So, those numbers are being developed and they'll probably be out later this year about Des Moines.

Yeager: I've got about 90 seconds left and I've got one more question I want to ask you about the ICN. We have this in all these classrooms, Iowa Public Television has transmitters in various places. It seems like we have the status we could maybe offer free Wi-fi in a couple of spots, we could pipe the Internet to various places. Would that be something that the state could look at or are there challenges to that?

Hart: Well, certainly there are challenges and I'm not up to speed specifically on ICN. What I do know is the plans for broadband are increasing and the type of broadband every year. So, if you look at what the norm was two years ago and you said, well, in two years we'll have this kind of broadband everyone would have said, well that's phenomenal. But the needs are constantly upgrading and that is a challenge for all of Iowa to keep up with that and that is one of the things we'll be looking at in the next number of months.

Yeager: Because there are cities across the country who have offered that and they claim that's a good economic development tool, the younger generation has said I want it, I demand it and I think I should have it.

Hart: Right, and they expect it and we need to provide that ultimately.

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