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The Pitfalls and Drawbacks of Moving Wind Power From the Prairie to the Coastline

posted on May 30, 2014

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The EPA is poised to release new rules limiting carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants Monday. But wind energy advocates announced this week that their industry is already reducing greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.

A report published by the American Wind Energy Association revealed that the amount of wind energy produced in America last year reduced CO2 emissions by 126 million tons. That’s the equivalent of taking 20 million¬ cars off the road.

But energy PRODUCTION is only the first step in the long and winding road to your light switch. And wind power – like electricity produced by other technologies –relies heavily on infrastructure to move the energy from the generator to the consumer.

And in the Midwest, entrepreneurs are trying to build new transmission lines to move wind power from the prairie to the people. Paul Yeager explains.

The Midwest has long been recognized as an agricultural powerhouse. Fertile soils, favorable climate, and productive farmers have yielded unparalleled abundance.  High above the Grain Belt, however, there’s another resource that, so far, has largely been untapped: a massive tunnel of wind.

Tapping into the relatively unused resource is a significant challenge for the wind energy industry because the places best suited for wind turbines are located in some of the least-populated parts of the nation. A massive investment in infrastructure will be required to move that power from rural farms to lucrative urban markets hundreds of miles away. 

Promising to invest $2 billion over the next five-to-seven years in Iowa and Illinois, Clean Line Partners, a private company, has placed a major bet on wind power.  The company isn’t planning on harnessing the energy but rather moving it to major population centers with a project it calls the Rock Island Clean Line.

Beth Conley, Manager, Clean Line Partners: “In 2012, about 25 percent of the power that we used came from wind energy, so it's better than any other state in the nation. And what we also know is that we have an abundant resource. so whether it be wind or solar or hydro those resources don't exist. And so, therein lies the market that we can deliver this renewable power from Northwest Iowa into that market where we know they have a pretty strong demand for it.”

Fueled by Arctic air from the north, this seemingly limitless supply of wind stretches across the plains and Corn Belt down to the Deep South. At 260 feet above the ground, wind speeds in this Midwestern corridor average more than 20 miles per hour...more than twice their average pace elsewhere in America. 

And that’s why wind turbines are becoming as common as cornstalks in the Heartland and companies like Clean Line Partners want to invest in the electrical highways that will move the renewable resource.   Iowa and Illinois would require a 500-mile high-voltage line to connect to a substation near Chicago. From there, the energy would be distributed all the way to the eastern seaboard.

But the transmission lines -- like traditional farm-to-market roads -- require land to be leased or bought, and in some cases, even forcibly TAKEN from private landowners.

Carolyn Sheridan, Founder, The Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance:  “I am for responsible use of wind energy that does not include the use of eminent domain.”

Greenfield, Iowa farmer Carolyn Sheridan founded “The Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance,” an advocacy group whose members oppose high-voltage transmission towers in their backyards. The Alliance, a loose affiliation of landowners along the Clean Line route has enlisted some influential allies.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R- Wilton, Iowa:(speaking in a subcommittee meeting) “The monetary benefits of any company, any county, or any person should never trump private property rights.”

State Representative Bobby Kaufmann of Wilton, Iowa drafted a bill to protect property owners.  The measure was written to make it harder for Clean Line Partners to use eminent domain when land owners and the company can’t agree on a price.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R- Wilton, Iowa: (speaking in a subcommittee meeting) “The intent of this bill in this subcommittee is about those who do not want compensation package regardless of how great it is.”

"This bill that I'm crafting has nothing to do with being against wind energy. What my bill does it just gives a voice to landowners who are attempting to be steamrolled by, to be frank, a couple of billionaires down in Texas. But where the problem lies in, there are hundreds of landowners who do not want this. There are hundreds of landowners who don't want 150' tall stuck on their farms without their consent  regardless of how much money they're offered. And so the intent of my bill is to give a voice to land owners who do not want part of their property condemened. And my bill  then is forcing this company to choose a route where you've go most people that are agreeable."

Despite that assessment of landowners’ motivation to sell – or the lack thereof -- the measure Kaufman proposed in the Iowa legislature never made it to the House floor for a vote.

Many of the iconic turbines sprouting up across the Midwest and South are capable of generating between 1.5 and 3 megawatts of output annually. According to the American Wind Energy Association, a single one-megawatt wind turbine generates enough electricity to power 240 to 400 households.

Over the last three decades, wind energy has gone from making up less than 1 percent of the national electrical energy mix to 4 percent in 2013. The largest amount of growth occurred during the past 15 years when a 170 percent increase in annual capacity was spurred by the federal Wind Energy Tax Credit.

In addition to environmental concerns and energy security, the development of wind power in America is highly influenced by Uncle Sam. The federal government has subsidized development by offering a corporate tax credit of 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour generated, while state level policymakers have provided guaranteed markets through Renewable Energy Portfolios.

The first Renewable Energy Portfolio was enacted in Iowa in 1983 when Governor Terry Branstad signed the first renewable energy mandate. Branstad believed putting turbines in Iowa fields would help farmers earn some much-needed income. Since then, the idea of Renewable Energy Portfolios has been copied in other states across the country. And in 2006, President George W. Bush called for wind power to make up 20 percent of the nation’s renewable energy portfolio by 2030.

But it will take more than building turbines in the Midwest to make sure that energy will reach the nation’s cities and suburbs. The monumental task will require new transmission lines traversing fertile fields in Iowa and Illinois. And farmers will have to decide if they will accept the payments offered by Clean Line Partners or prepare to fight it out in court.

For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager. 

Tags: Beth Conley Bobby Kaufmann Carolyn Sheridan Clean Line Partners Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance Rock Island Clean Line wind energy wind turbines


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