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Discussion: Wind as Alternative Power Source in Iowa

posted on April 25, 2008 at 1:15 PM

Next to natural gas, wind energy has grown to be the largest source of new electrical capacity in the nation. A national report released this month by the American Wind Energy Association says total U.S. wind power capacity is now over 16,800 megawatts – enough to serve the equivalent of 4-point 5 million average households.

For its part in producing electricity from wind generation, Iowa ranks fourth nationally in the total wind power installed – with the potential to obtain more than 5 percent of its electricity from wind. That's a far cry from less than a decade ago.

Yeager: Bob Haug, who we just heard from, says there are only two such underground energy storage parks in the world: One in Alabama and one in Germany. So, tonight we'll ask if underground energy storage is such a good thing, why aren't there more than two? Can the state meet Governor Culver's mission to produce 25 percent of Iowa's energy needs from renewable sources like wind by the year 2025? And if we are capable of producing a lot more wind energy do we really need more coal plants in Iowa? These are some of the questions we'll ask our guests tonight. Tom Wind operates his own firm called Wind Utility Consulting in Jefferson. And Ed Woolsey is a renewable energy entrepreneur who owns his own business called Green Prairie Energy. Gentlemen, welcome to the program. First question -- let's talk a little bit about what we just saw in that feature discussing about the Dallas County project. Is this something that is going to happen? It's been a long time in process. If it seems like such a good idea how come we're not seeing more than just two and now three in discussion?

Wind: Well, that's a good question and I think we haven't needed to have a storage system like this for renewable energy. As you know it's just been in the last few years that we've had a tremendous growth in wind power in the state of Iowa, in other states. And our system can accommodate this growth right now. But we're going to get to a point in time when wind energy is still needed because it's clean but we're going to come to a point in time where there's just going to be so much wind energy on the system that our electric system is going to have trouble accommodating it. So, that's where storage comes into place.

Yeager: But this was a spot where you had to do a lot of testing to try and find the right spot. I can't imagine there's that many spots that can hold this technology. Is that what is holding it up a little bit?

Wind: I don't think so. It took us a little while to find this spot near Dallas Center but we believe there are other spots in Iowa that you can do this too. We're choosing this because I think it's the most economical spot to start with. But it's -- I think what's going to drive this is the need for clean energy. And wind generation is just simply the cleanest energy source we have today. But, you know, the downfall is that wind doesn't blow all of the time. So, if there's some way to store that so when we have a calm day that we can release that energy and keep the lights on that, I think, is where the stored energy project will really shine.

Yeager: And is that a project you were involved in consulting or what was your involvement in that?

Wind: Yeah, I've been a technical advisor to this project for about five years now. And so that's about how long we've been studying it.

Yeager: You talk about wind energy. Is that one of the ways that we're going to get to Governor Culver's 2025, 25%? Does that seem like the way it's going to go?

Woolsey: That will be a big part of it. I think wind is certainly moving faster and is establishing itself as a cheaper energy source right now. And I think we're working through some of the technical issues right now and some of the economic issues. But a lot of it is policy related also.

Yeager: So, technically let's talk about some of the hurdles there are there.

Woolsey: Technically we're pushing the balance of the physical sizes of these machines worldwide. And you have a shake out period when you're stressing equipment of this size. You have integration issues. You have different electrical frequencies that you're dealing with in different parts of the world. So, there are some issues that we're working on and we're learning, we're learning as we go.

Yeager: So, they have got to be maybe bigger or they're at capacity. What about the transmission? I know we've talked on this program before about transmission on some of these and the infrastructure. Is it set up enough to be able to move this wind energy if we don't have a storage facility?

Wind: Well, we can handle more wind generation now. For example, both MidAmerican and Alliant are adding wind farms but they're not putting it in the windiest spot in Iowa which would be clear up in the northwest by Sibley and up there but they're spreading it out where the transmission lines still have capacity. And so you'll see as we go along that wind farms will be built further and further south, especially down toward the Creston area and further east, for example, Story County now east of Ames is getting its first large wind farm. So, we're going to be doing that for a while but there will come a point where we'll have to start investing more in electric transmission to be able to accommodate more wind power. And we think probably building a transmission line toward the northwest part of the state where it's windiest would make the most sense.

Yeager: Is policy going to hold up trying to get some of these transmission lines -- is that always the politics that are involved is the policy?

Woolsey: We figure right now it takes about seven years from the planning stage, financing, finding the right-a-ways and building large scale transmission and we're able to build wind systems faster than that. So, if we start now with doing the planning for the large scale transmission as well as start putting in some distributed generation, smaller wind farms, ones, twos and threes the ways the Europeans have on the existing distribution line capacity, the smaller lines we can go in both those parallel paths I think very effectively and efficiently and we need all the generation we can right now.

Yeager: So, more isolated instead of a large farm you're saying, so there might just be one farmstead that has a generator for their setup. Is that what you mean when you say ones and twos?

Woolsey: Right, that's more of the European model.

Yeager: Is that similar to what they do in Minnesota or how is that project similar? I understand they have -- Iowa is fourth, Minnesota is ahead of Iowa in terms of wind production. What is their setup? And is that a model that Iowa could follow in the way they're going?

Wind: Yes, Minnesota has a fairly big commitment to the smaller scale wind generation. Governor Polenti up there has a goal of 800 megawatts of what they call community owned wind generation which would be wind turbines owned by local community members, colleges and schools and farmers and landowners. So, they see that as a value to the state, the economic benefits. But, again, they are building transmission lines in Minnesota specifically to carry wind power back toward the load center, like for example, Minneapolis, where the electricity is needed. So, the state of Minnesota has kind of advanced beyond what Iowa has done. The state of Minnesota has planned these transmission lines and very effectively have gotten some permitted and they're building them right now. But the state of Iowa has not yet done that.

Yeager: And you were involved in some lobbying about this issue. Do you want to tell me what your side was in this to lawmakers?

Woolsey: Well, we're interested in retaining more of the financial benefit from this industry here in the state. And when you've got a handful of the industries controlling and owning the current generation capacity these large corporations are able to very effectively invest in their legislation and their legislators and unfortunately we haven't been able to rally the general populous to the point where their voices are heard here in the Capitol with respect to being able to capitalize on the ownership of this industry.

Yeager: In discussions for this program I understand Lennox has a community generating system, just one in their community. Is that a direction that you think we'll see, maybe communities if it's not the big companies that Ed talks about that it's going to have to be communities saying we're going to buck the system and put one up in our town?

Wind: Well, yeah, that's a good story and it does kind of make sense to have wind generation scattered around where people use the power. That way you don't need the higher voltage transmission lines. Of course, it's a little more expensive just to put up one wind turbine than it is a whole field of 100 wind turbines. So, it costs more to do it that way but there are some advantages and disadvantages. The people in Lennox were really excited about that wind turbine and I was involved in that project from the beginning to the end and I just saw a transformation in the attitude of the community and in the pride they took in having that wind turbine. And I think you may notice those people going down I-80 going west you'll see there's another wind turbine at Stuart, Iowa, same deal. The town of Stuart invested in it as well as over by Adair there is a wind turbine there too.

Yeager: So, once a community gets going on this it sounds like they kind of copy the idea and try to make it work in their own area?

Wind: Yeah, they try to. It's difficult to buy turbines right now. If you want to buy just one wind turbine you don't have very many companies you can pick from.

Yeager: You can't just call an 800 number and order one of those things? Goodness.

Wind: Well, if you order 50 or 100 maybe you can get one, yes.

Yeager: What is going to be -- you talk about the direction of the state and you say the northwest is the busiest part with the wind but we don't have anything there. Do we think that we'll see these -- they're built in southeast Iowa -- do we think it will eventually get to where the plant is built or even in Newton where they're building them now? Is that something that we'll look at so there's not as much transportation issues involved with these? Will that help?

Wind: Well, not really. Once you get the wind turbine loaded on the semi-truck it doesn't make much difference if you travel 50 miles or 500 miles. So, that's not really the issue there. But we will see more wind turbines going to the east. I think some day we'll see some on I-80 going east toward Iowa City. The wind resources certainly aren't as good there but, again, we have transmission capacity in those areas and the lines can take some turbines. So, you wouldn't have to build new transmission lines if you put them in that area.

Yeager: And some of those were built on incentives, there's about four or five incentives available for companies. Do we think we need -- are we at a good amount of incentives or do we think we need to see more?

Woolsey: Well, one of the major incentives right now is the federal production tax credit. And that is scheduled to expire the end of '08, in December of '08 and there's a lot of effort underway, especially by our two senators, to extend that production tax credit. And that has been a driver nationwide in the entire wind industry. So, we certainly need that. We've also been successful here at the state in establishing some production tax credits for our distributor generation supply or community owned generation. So, that has been very valuable in kick starting that industry here in the state. And we've got some tax credits, additional tax credits, sales tax exemptions and such so those are key right now in terms of levelizing the cost and making the cost of wind energy competitive.

Yeager: Do we need more? With Texas, California, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington in the top five how does Iowa overtake a Minnesota, California or a Texas? Is it more incentive based? Or is it more land based? You've got a big smile.

Woolsey: It's a competition right now to see who is number one and I believe we're number one in per capita.

Wind: Yes, if you look at the amount of wind power we actually use as an Iowan we are the leader in the United States. We use about 5.5% of our electricity comes from wind and I'm projecting a tremendous increase in that and I think that we'll far exceed Governor Culver's goal of 2015 megawatts by 2025.

Yeager: Will we make the 25% just on wind? Do you think we can get there by 2025 just on wind alone?

Wind: I think so, yes. I predict that we'd get there a couple of years early. And we're going to have to build a few transmission lines ...

Yeager: How do we get there? It's transmission lines and what else?

Wind: Transmission lines I think are the key to get large amounts of wind power. But I think the need for clean power is so great in our nation and Iowa is blessed with reasonably good wind resources. There is no reason why we can't produce more than 25% of our power and export some of this clean, renewable energy to other states that aren't blessed with the good wind resources we have. I think this is really a golden opportunity for the state of Iowa to have a new export business. Do you know we used to export corn, send it down the Mississippi River all the time and then we found a use for corn in ethanol. We could also export electricity, clean electricity from our state. We have the wind resources to do it. I think it just takes a little bit of policy, it takes some new transmission lines to get it done but I think that is all within our grasp and we can easily do that.

Yeager: And there is a market, there is a power market out there so how much are we talking of our capacity? What do you think?

Wind: Well, we recently had a session at the first Iowa Wind Energy Association and that was the topic of the panel. How much wind generation can we have in Iowa? Well, I was one of the first or second speakers and I said about 11,000 megawatts is what I thought we could have. Now, our peak load in Iowa is about 8000 megawatts so actually have more wind generation than we have in the state. And then a speaker after me, from the Midwest Independent System, the system that runs all the transmission lines in the upper Midwest said that he thought we could have 18,000 megawatts in the state of Iowa if we built some transmission. And a lot of this generation would be, again, exported out of the state of Iowa to other surrounding states that could use the power.

Yeager: Ed, do you agree with this?

Woolsey: I do and I think -- you see the disparity in the numbers there -- I think that really shows that we're still thinking through the vision here. When you start talking about plug-in hybrid vehicles and moving electricity into the transportation sector the opportunities almost become unlimited. We have an almost insationable appetite for electricity, for energy in this country and providing clean electricity to this marketplace is an incredible opportunity and it's a technology that we need to establish here and then export worldwide as rapidly as we can.

Yeager: How much time during the legislative session did you spend on the Hill? And what was the amount that lawmakers wanted to hear about this issue? And were they giving you any pushback on any of these things? It sounds good on paper and it sounds good in conversation but what are they pushing back to you or telling you questions you need to answer?

Woolsey: I didn't spend all that much time this year because it was -- what we had was we had a kind of an aggregation of our utility companies around the coal issue and I couldn't get much traction, our groups couldn't get much traction on renewable energy this year up there and it was really unfortunate because we're running up against this federal production tax credit deadline. So, there was quite an opportunity here this year that we weren't able to capitalize on so it was a very disappointing year legislatively at the Capitol.

Yeager: Would you agree on that one, Tom?

Wind: I guess so. It's just sometimes you can get traction and this year was just not one of those.

Yeager: So, do we see this will be maybe more of a campaign issue then this year as we get into that campaign? Is that something that your groups will then maybe have interesting in talking to candidates?

Woolsey: If we can elevate the issue as a campaign issue I think from the grassroots level I think then we can get some traction. But, like I say, when you've got the largest corporations it's a $10 billion industry just in Iowa. So, these people invested money very wisely.

Yeager: It's getting better. Very good, I appreciate you coming in tonight.


Tags: alternative energy Iowa wind wind power